The workplace has failed to adapt to mothers’ needs — and it’s taking a toll

Whether women stay at home or work in the labour market they "feel guilty either way"

“I don’t wanna work anymore,” the comedian Ali Wong exclaimed in front of her audience on her recent Netflix stand-up show — she was heavily pregnant at the time. “Well, I don’t wanna lean in, OK? I wanna lie down,” she added, referring to Lean In, the iconic career advice book for women. The crowd roared with laughter.

Wong’s wishes might be more than a famous person’s longing for a simpler life. A growing body of research, particularly in advanced economies, signals a phenomenon that the Economist dubbed “the return of the stay-at-home mother”. A 2017 International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey found about three in 10 women worldwide would prefer to work at paid jobs, and a similar percentage would rather stay home, while the final third would like to work flexibly or part time.

When women’s preferences on labour participation can be so diverse, catering to everyone’s needs and desires is tricky. Many experts agree that introducing greater flexibility in the workplace might relieve the burden on all women. However, a long-term and sustainable change would require an overhaul not only of workplace policies, but also of areas like transportation networks and urban design.

The dilemma of a “choice”

According to Dr. Sally Wilson, at the Institute for Employment Studies, an independent research centre, the key determinant for women’s well-being and life satisfaction is how much they actively chose their lifestyle. She emphasises that a “choice” might not always be an organic and straightforward process.

“It all depends whether the decision to work at home is a real choice or not”

“It all depends whether the decision to work at home is a real choice or not,” Wilson said. “What are the household finances like? Was the decision of opting out of the labour market a joint one? Did it come from an empowered place?”

Wilson believes that, given the option, many women, especially those with caregiving duties, would prefer a flexible working schedule rather than the binary choice of participating in the job market or not. “The gig economy can get exploitative, but it works very well for some people,” she said.

However, the job market is already notoriously harsher on women. Gender pay gaps, age and maternity discrimination, cases of sexual harassment, and the so-called glass ceiling are prominent workplace realities for women even in the world’s wealthiest countries.

But a study by Pew research centre found that only 5% of US stay-at-home mothers belonged to an “affluent” category, with a household income of $75,000 or more. The overwhelming majority of these affluent unpaid domestic labourers are white (69%) or Asian (19%).

“For years data has shown that year on year, more mothers are moving into [or] remaining in paid employment when they have children,” said Tracey Jensen, an author and sociologist at the University of Lancaster in the UK. “More recently, the data seems to show a slight reversal. I would be very cautious about explaining any of this as driven simply by women’s ‘choices’.”

Jensen pointed to the accelerating cost of childcare, which rose up to seven times faster than wages in the UK since 2008, and reached an all-time high in the US, costing more than college tuition in some cases.

Guilt: A modern woman’s constant companion

Cara Cosentino from New York, a stay-at-home mother, was laid off from her job in media two years ago, after giving birth to her son. “Being a working mum was really difficult for me,” Cosentino says: work conditions can be harsh for new parents, and she felt guilt for not seeing her son enough.

After losing her job, Cosentino fruitlessly kept applying for other positions, but eventually gave up the job search. She decided to enjoy her time with her son despite the financial challenges.

“I often feel guilty that I’m not an equally financially contributing partner to the household”

Yet, whether they are unpaid domestic labourers or in employment, there’s one feeling that many women like Cosentino cannot shake off: a debilitating guilt over their choices. Cosentino once felt guilty for working long hours, and she now feels guilty for not doing so: “I often feel guilty that I’m not an equally financially contributing partner to the household.”

“Women are supposed to feel guilt about absolutely everything,” wrote Jamie Kenney, another stay-at-home mother, on a parenting website. “You can never, ever, ever win.” And this can have serious health implications. Research shows that the “weight” of guilt can be felt physically. The chronic stress caused by guilt, has been linked to long-term health issues from diabetes to heart problems.

Jensen said that alleviating the burden on women like Cosentino would require policy reforms like nurseries and creches in every workplace, the right to stay at home with a child until they start compulsory education for anyone who wishes to make that choice, or taking concrete steps toward ending maternity discrimination.

“Women are supposed to feel guilt about absolutely everything”

In Sweden, generous parental leave periods and initiatives to get mothers back to work transformed attitudes towards work and gender. Similarly, in Germany, where parents can sue the government for failing to provide childcare, progressive childcare policies are known to have a positive impact on women’s future prospects.

According to Wilson, while these reforms are important, the route to improving women’s lives, whether they are employed or not, also runs through many less obvious areas like transportation and urban design.

“A reliable transportation network can add hours to the days of women or their partners,” she said, talking about the toll of a long commute and regular delays many people in the UK experience.

Feminist approaches to anything from urban design to infrastructure development are powerful drivers to alleviate the burden on working women.

However, the core of these issues, Jensen says, lies in the ideology surrounding motherhood and womanhood.

“Centuries of motherhood mythology have socialised women to see their reproductive work as the source of all happiness, and what should be their ultimate goal,” she states. “That culture of idealised motherhood remains with us today.”

Thus, this contributes to guilt, justifies maternity discrimination, and creates a gendered and divisive language between “working” and “stay-at-home” parents.

“All citizens will need and want to move in and out of different arrangements and combinations of paid work and unpaid care work”

“All citizens will need and want to move in and out of different arrangements and combinations of paid work and unpaid care work, not just when children are young but also when parents are elderly, when family and friends become ill or require support, and so on,” Jensen said.

While there is no doubt that unpaid domestic work is a far cry from “lying in” as Ali Wong jokes, this line of work is often trivialized.

Adds Jensen, “We simply do not prioritise the work of raising and caring for children. The failure to prioritise childcare both reflects and reproduces sexism.” — Didem Tali

(Picture credit: Rawpixel)


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