The Dilemma of Mothering

A Facebook group I belong to has been dredging up old photos of my mother’s side of the family. It has been a real delight to see them. As I sit here on Mother’s Day, appropriately, I have been reminiscing over photos of my mother and maternal grandmother, two fine women who were very influential in my life. They both (and particularly my grandmother) led much more difficult lives and endured more arduous times then the fortunate circumstances I have been blessed with. Both however were, resilient and determined and placed family above all else.

We often view motherhood with an understandable sentimentality, but despite all that we often still undervalue mothers.

[Now I should preface what is to follow with a clear statement (despite what one of my regular correspondents has implied in responses to previous blogs) that I support giving women the options and opportunities to do whatever they want in their lives. But I maintain that even when those opportunities are there, women will often choose differently to men. And the real yardstick to measure male/female equality is not equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity.]

During this election campaign Labor has announced an initiative that would have the government contribute to the salaries of childcare workers because they believe that the market determined rates are too low and need to be augmented. And of course childcare is a profession dominated by women.

Underlying this initiative is the desire to have more women in the workforce which is a laudable enough aspiration. But one can’t help but surmise that the major beneficiaries will be the childcare centres, and likely as not this initiative will translate into higher childcare fees (as well as higher taxes) which will itself mitigate the ability of other women to afford childcare which will in turn be an impediment to their entering or remaining in the workforce! And no doubt a Labor government will contrive to ensure that these higher salaries are only available to workers in enterprise agreements thus providing a convenient lever to further unionise this workforce. (You can bet that if you look closely at any Labor-led changes in the workplace legislation, the main beneficiary will be unions.)

But if we are going to be fair dinkum about ensuring opportunities for women, there is a significant class of women who seem to me to be always left out, and that is stay-at-home mums. A mother who cares sufficiently for her children to choose to devote a significant part of her life to their nurture and development is providing a no-less valuable contribution to society than those in the paid workforce.

Angela Shanahan in a recent opinion piece in The Australian wrote:

Professional feminists can blame themselves for this (demeaning) portrayal of motherhood because, being obsessed with the need to work and the ideological war against the traditional family, they used ridiculous terms such as “home-based care” as a substitute for mothering.

Shanahan points out that because parenting in the early years inevitably contributes to the child’s early education the education fraternity argue it is more appropriately carried out by early education specialists. In this way many of the natural functions of parenting (and particularly mothering) are being usurped by the education profession. (But of course once children get to school the education profession then complains that their efforts are thwarted by the bad behaviour of children which they then attribute to the lack of proper parenting!)

I think we should be careful contemplating outsourcing aspects of parenting. It should be up to parents to inculcate in a child values, morals and manners. The most dysfunctional Australian communities are most likely our remote indigenous communities. The predominant reason for that dysfunction (which I have elaborated on in previous essays) is the lack of appropriate parenting.

If we can afford to subsidise the wages of childcare workers, surely we could do more for those mothers that choose to stay at home to raise their young children. Currently all the incentives are aimed at getting women into paid work and paying others to do the work of caring for their children.

A mother who stays at home to care for her children makes a great contribution to our society and relieves the government of some costs by doing so.

In the coda to his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson in a segment he titled To stand behind my daughter wrote:

That’s to encourage her in everything she wants courageously to do, but to include in that genuine appreciation the fact of her femininity: to recognise the importance of having a family and children and to forgo the temptation to denigrate or devalue that in comparison to accomplishment of personal ambition or career.

And this is the dilemma that many women face. Most have a biological need to bear and nurture children and many have an ambition to construct a career or a profession in the broader economy. Surely it is not beyond us to facilitate both these paths. But at present our efforts are predominantly focussed on the latter. It is time we provided a little more support to those women who wish to be stay-at-home mums. Most of the government’s (and even more so the opposition’s) initiatives or proposed initiatives seem designed to force the mothers of infants back into the workforce.

Of course stay-at-home mums are often denigrated with the question “Don’t you have a job?” But nobody asks the childcare workers who step in to do similar work if they have a job!

And you wouldn’t have dared ask my mother or grandmother did they have a job! In the days before the ready availability of contraceptives families tended to be considerably larger. And in the days before modern appliances were readily available, housework entailed a lot more drudgery. In my childhood we had no reticulated hot water, no refrigerator, no vacuum cleaner, no washing machine and so on. My mother, it seemed to me, laboured just as hard as my father.

Now some of you will think I am just an old reactionary and when I look back in fondness at my mother and grandmother’s achievements in nurturing their families, want somehow to return to such an era. Nothing could be farther from the truth! It is wonderful women have been liberated from such drudgery. It is wonderful that women can choose to be part of the paid workforce and pursue professional careers. But in the spirit of wanting women to have as many opportunities as possible, it concerns me that they don’t receive the same encouragement to stay at home and nurture their young ones if they so desire as they do to be in paid employment.

Australia’s aging population is putting some strains on both our society and our economy. Many of our older workers are leaving the workforce resulting in a diminished tax base and a higher demand for health and welfare services. One of the strategies that both sides of politics is employing is to offer more inducements to have mothers re-enter the workforce. But this creates some stress for many women. They are conflicted between their needs to provide financial security for their families and the satisfaction of pursuing a fulfilling career, and their biological drive to nurture their children.

In my career as an executive coach I dealt with many professional women who had to confront this dilemma. Young mothers who aspired to professional achievement were torn by their natural desire to also care for their children. The state seems determined to ensure that they return to the workforce and provides incentives to do so. We need to find ways to assist those who make the reasonable choice to stay at home and care for their children.

In the spirit of facilitating real choice for women, we need to find ways of helping women (and indeed men also) confronting such a dilemma.