Divided Heart artist Sarah Tomasetti once told me that when she became pregnant for the first time, one friend’s response was: “Congratulations! From here on in, everything you do will be wrong!”
We all know that motherhood and guilt may as well be interchangeable terms, but this seems to be doubly true when it comes to the issue of work.
A while ago I was chatting to Charlotte Young, co-editor of Barefoot Magazine, who admitted to me that she used to be pretty hard-line on the issue of whether or not women with young children should work. She wouldn’t be alone, among the educated middle-class women I know, in feeling that babies and toddlers should be at home with their parents and not in childcare. More than that, I would say there’s a largely unspoken but palpable disapproval of preschool-aged kids being in full-time care at all.
Like breastfeeding, the modern ethic says that thinking, conscientious parents will stay home with their babies — and with good cause. I too have felt the terrible pang when seeing tiny babies at childcare centres and the sense that it is just not right. But I also understand that it’s highly likely they are there because their parents feel they have no choice.
This absence of choice, though, is something I think we tend to reserve for the battling working class.
What of the woman who is on a strong career trajectory and feels she can't drop the ball? Or one who simply finds she's climbing the walls at home with small children? In my experience, this is often treated not only as short-sighted and un-evolved, but a definite moral failing.
When talking to Charlotte, she seemed a bit surprised by the fact that I, as a middle-class woman, might not have a choice about whether or not to work. Which got me thinking about whether I would still work, given the choice.
I held off going back to work for as long as my family could afford it (basically, until my kids were in turn at least two), and then have worked part time. But, within my immediate circles, I have found myself to be in a minority of women whose families actually rely on their income (in my case, it would be that or sell the house).
Since my son has started school, I have become increasingly conscious of the gap between those mothers who are in the paid workforce and those who are at home full-time. (And believe me, I know that caring for children and running a household is a huge workload in itself — one which unfortunately doesn’t go away whether you are also in the paid workforce or not.)
Something I have noticed myself doing, when talking to mums in the playground, is to play down the fact that I actually enjoy my work — as if this is some terrible admission that I don’t value mothering enough, or that I have taken a selfish path. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the (generally positive) push to reassert the value of mothering as the very important thing that it is, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that work is also meaningful in women's lives — and that that’s ok.
We still seem to be on a bit of a pendulum swing away from the (equally important) feminist push for women’s right to work, which had the unfortunate fallout of leaving some women feeling ignored or shamed for wanting to stay home. I don’t know that we’ve got the balance right yet.
Surely it’s a great thing that most women now feel they can make a genuine and active choice about whether or not to work when their kids are very small. And that those women who need or want to work have access to meaningful jobs.
So why are we still in this place where women feel so guilty, no matter what they do? Who do they perceive to be judging them — their partners, friends, children, society as a whole?
Women are beset with such an avalanche of mixed messages — from the media, politicians, our mothers, our workmates and friends — that it can be almost impossible to dig our way back to our own intuition on things, or to feel solidly confident in our decisions.
A shame, when there’s so much to celebrate — like the fact that I can sit here musing on this subject while my washing machine chugs away, a pot of soup is bubbling away on the stove, my daughter will soon return from a playgroup which is today being hosted by a dad, and my son is down the road at the great local school where his teachers last year got a big fat pay rise in recognition that what they do is not “just women’s work”.