I’m not going to beat around the bush with this one, I’m just going to tell it as I see it. Other mammies reading this, please don’t take offense. I’m talking about me and only me here…
When I went back to work after maternity leave – 16 long months ago now – I thought I was going to fuck up my kid.
I was going back full time and he was going to creche. He was 11 months old and very, very attached to me.
Everything worthwhile that I had read about parenting said that children under two were better off in the full time care of their mothers or a primary care giver. They also said that a shared childcare option with children of the same age was the least desirable. That made me feel pretty crappy. But theory is all well and good when reality is beating your door down with a ball wrecker. Anecdotally, I noticed that daughters of friends seemed to adjust better to childcare than their sons. The little boys found it much harder to settle. As did we.
I wondered if my working full time was going to affect his development and our relationship. I wondered if I was interfering with the person he was meant to be by not meeting his needs on a full time basis. We had bouts of separation anxiety where I couldn’t be out of his sight for a minute or he’d want to be up in my arms all the time. And the little voice said “this wouldn’t be happening if you were at home full time…”
Then during the summer the three of us had three weeks off together and I remember wondering – stupidly – “is it a good idea to take such a long holiday? Will it make it harder for him to settle back into creche?”. A fleeting thought and a stupid, stupid, stupid one. This is what the constant gnawing of mammy guilt does to you. Essentially, my eejit brain was suggesting that I spend less time with my son so that when I’m not around anyway he won’t feel so bad. WTF? That sounds like some kind of Gina Ford shit to me.
Instead, two whole new revelations were uncovered. The three weeks off together as a family was just brilliant but even though Pip had access to me literally 24/7, he still wanted me all of the time. Only I could carry him around. I had a companion for every trip to the loo. Many suggestions from Daddy were answered with “no, mammy do it”. So in many ways, this was a relief because it was obvious to me that even if I was at home full time, he would be just as demanding of my time, my attention and my touch as he is anyway.
That helped to alleviate the mammy guilt. I have no issue at all with my son wanting to be with me all the time, in fact I cherish it. It gives me comfort to know now that it’s not specifically because I work and he goes to creche. It is just the type of person that he is.
The second revelation was that my concerns about our “too long holiday” were completely unfounded. He toddled into creche the following Monday we were back with a cheerful wave and a spring in his step. Nobody saw that coming, let me tell you!
To come full circle, a couple of weeks ago Mr Mind the Baby was away for work over a weekend and it was just myself and Pip together. We had a really great weekend. There was nothing particularly special about it but it just felt like a lovely old time. Monday rolled around, and he was like a sticking plaster come creche drop off. Ah hello mammy guilt, I wondered where you’d been hiding.
I think there is no win to this feeling of guilt for me. There is no “right” solution, just different decisions. I can’t guarantee that if I was at home full time with the full concentration of a toddler down on top of me that I wouldn’t be resentful, no matter how much I think some days I’d love to be a stay at home mother. I do know without a doubt that I’d need a “something” just for myself, for a couple of hours at least everyday.
I think I’ll probably struggle with the greener grass of motherhood on some level for the rest of my life.
Sinead Gleeson has a lovely article in today’s Irish Times about the history of women and reading. It has a great title too: Women gaining power, page by page. It’s a wonderfully strong and positive statement.
She makes an excellent point about the power of the written word and the historical patriarchial fear of women acculumating knowledge and therefore independent thought, something that was seen to be discouraged and indeed stamped out. This sentiment still pervades in many cultures.
One thing in particular that stuck out for me in the article was Sinead’s reference to reading being an alternative to domestic responsibilities or delivering babies “on the kitchen floor”. In the cultural and historical context of the 19th century that she was comparing them to, of course education was seen as incompatible with the chiefly female responsibilities of housekeeping and rearing families and in this case her point is well made. But culturally I think we need stop separating academia and intellectualism from having children and managing the household. One read of Sinead’s statement could be that if women were allowed to pursue as much reading and education as they wished, then why would they possibly choose domesticity and natural, unmedicated childbirth? In fact, forgive me Sinead if I’ve misunderstood, but I think that’s what the underlying implication might be.
Empowering women with the same educational, societal, cultural and political opportunities as men and pursuing a feminist ideology for society, thereby ensuring equality and choice for everyone, is not to perceive childbirth and domestic duties as a “lack of” something or a repression. Yes, for centuries women were forced into essentially a life of servitude which involved keeping house and multiple pregnancies, wanted or not, and it is to be celebrated how times have changed for the better. But we cannot undermine or disrespect the beauty, spirituality and community of childbirth and raising children. They always have been and always will be something miraculous and magical, and in many ways bigger and beyond our control, regardless of what else is going on in the world. Pregnancy, birth and motherhood transcends social class and time.
Access to education and birth control have had a massive impact on independence and equality for women but bearing children and staying at home are as legitimate choices as any others. It is possible and extremely common – as we all know of course – to be highly educated, well read, intellectual, excellent at managing your household and have multiple children. So why do we perpetuate this myth of having a lot of children, particularly naturally and at home, and doing the housework as a debasement?
Rather than a dichotomy between reading and natural childbirth, I see them as being fundamentally linked. It is only through reading and learning that women can educate themselves about how birth should be rather than what we’re told it should be. Most women form their ideas of childbirth from the mainstream media where hysteria and negativity prevail. Digging deeper, more reading, more watching of real births (not made for television documentaries like One Born Every Minute), more education on birth options, pain management options, the implications of all of the available options, possible interventions, likely scenarios and outcomes would probably see more women choosing to have delivering their babies “on the kitchen floor”, methaphorically or literally.
The Internet has been fundamental in faciliating access to less mainstream information. Think of how you use it yourself. I can only imagine the things I wouldn’t have known about pregnancy, labour, birth and being a mother if I was relying solely on books I could buy in my local bookshop. As an example, there’s a large bookshop in my local village which is well stocked with pregnancy and parenting material. On separate occasions I’ve gone in there looking for Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, What Mothers Do, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and The Better Birth Book and they’ve had none of them. They kindly offered to order them all for me but my point is I knew to ask. How would others know? They’d most likely choose from whatever was available on the shelves and why wouldn’t you? I only discovered these books through researching online and speaking to women who were interested in having or have had a similar birth and child rearing experience as me. One of the first books I bought before I got pregnant was The Irish Pregnancy Book: A Guide for Expectant Mothers. I would be fairly confident that if this had been my only reference book throughout my pregnancy, I likely would have had a number of stressful unwanted and unnecessary interventions and a negative birth experience because I took the book at face value and would have done everything it told me to do. It’s written by a consultant from the biggest materntiy hospital in Ireland. What could possibly be more authoritive than that?
So I’m making a call for a redrawing of “woman”. Rather than making her two characters: the educated, well-read, independent, and free spirit unburden by offspring versus the uneducated, ignorant, cleaning, baby factory let’s combine the two and call her Everywoman: educated, well-read, independent, free to do whatever she likes at home or not, and free to choose not to have children or have as many children as she wants any way that she wants. Lots of women have this choice, many women do not but let’s do our best to make Everywoman someone every woman could be, if she wanted to. Let’s not cheat ourselves by accepting the stereotypes. Like the title of Sinead’s article, women are gaining power, page by page and when it comes to giving birth, women should be regaining power, page by page.
Although always bubbling away in the background, the topic of working mothers and maternity leave has come to the fore again recently, mostly stimulated by the appointment of pregnant 37 year old Marissa Mayer to the position of CEO in Yahoo (Go Marissa! What an achievement) and her subsequent comments on combining work and maternity leave. Or her non-existent maternity leave, if we’re to call a spade a spade. Mayer has said she’ll take two weeks off after the birth of her baby boy but will continue to work from home during that time.
Of course consternation ensued and admittedly I reacted badly myself until I read Annie from PhD in Parenting’s post where she poses the question “does it matter if Marissa Mayer takes maternity leave?”. The answer, when I got down off my high horse, is obviously “only to Marissa, her partner and her child”. But Annie raises bigger questions about Marissa’s greater responsibilityin her new role to affect change in American corporate culture so that women who are getting on with working, and are not high flying CEOs with unlimited support options, have access and workplace acceptance of quality maternity and family leave arrangements.
This is all playing out in the States where there is a chasm between maternity leave rights compared to European standards. Women are expected to return to work six weeks after giving birth, something totally unheard of – and indeed frowned upon – in Ireland. Given their extraordinarily high rate of Caesarean sections, I would be interested to know from any US readers what happens in that situation, especially when the estimated recovery time is up to six weeks. Do they still just go back to work? Are they not utterly exhausted, both physically and emotionally? Are they even insured to drive their cars? In Ireland it’s in and around six weeks before your car insurance covers you for accidents depending on your insurer.
US commentary on Melissa’s maternity leave announcement is grounded on this acceptance that six weeks is a perfectly adequate length of time for a working women to spend at home with their newborn and that they are fit for the workplace and rearing to go. Look it, it’s not. No matter what way you spin it.
When the marriage ban was lifted in Ireland in the 1970s and maternity leave was introduced for working mothers – fought tooth and nail by employers at the time, it must be said – it was for a period of twelve weeks. Looking back now, it sounds barbaric to pressure new mothers to hand over their tiny infant to child care and return to work. I know my own mother found it particularly difficult when she had to return to work eight weeks after the birth of her second child because he was nearly four weeks overdue and his late arrival ate into her precious time off with him. No wonder the breastfeeding rates from that era are minuscule.
Now women working in Ireland are entitled to 26 weeks maternity leave and may receive State financial benefits and perhaps salary payments from their employer depending on their circumstances. They’re also entitled to an additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave which they can avail of directly after their 26 week entitlement. During their time off women still accumulate all of their annual leave and bank holiday leave that they would have been entitled to if they had been working. All in all, depending on your financial situation, you could find yourself in a position to stay at home with your baby for a year. I was lucky enough to be in this position. Although the Irish system is already comparatively generous, I think all women should be entitled to take a year off to be with their babies.
I’m throwing that hot potato out there!
Now, before you throw it back at me, I’ve chosen my wording carefully. I think all women should be entitled to take a year off. I’m not saying they should whether they want to or not, I’m saying they should have the choice, without discrimination or loss of employment rights or indeed stigma.
I should probably say something politically correct here like “or, a year’s leave should be divided between both parents to share as they see fit”. This would be great, but it would also be extra great if mothers got a year off and then Dads got their leave too. This policy would be particularly effective, I think, in encouraging the take up and continuance of breastfeeding. Returning to work after six months puts pressure on breastfeeding mothers to wean their babies to formula and solids so that their children are “child care ready” before they go back to work. I have to say I would have found it very hard to go back to work when my baby was six months and let my husband stay at home. Not that I would have a problem with him being at home but I would want to be there myself with my baby. I wouldn’t change a thing about my maternity leave.
For some women, the idea of being off for a year fills them with horror. For others, they thought that they’d definitely, definitely use all of their leave entitlements but then they got to a stage where they realised that actually they’d prefer to go back to work earlier than they planned. A choice to stay at home, a choice to go back when you’re ready. That’s how it should be.
Ultimately, every woman should be in a position to do what’s right for her but I think this should be done holistically, taking in your own personal well being, the needs of your child and honouring the birth process as something profound and life changing. It’s not a box to be checked.
I know one woman, who owns her own business (and in my opinion, culturally this is the only time that this is acceptable here) and returned to work two days after her first child was born. She ran a public relations company and arrived at a client’s photocall with her newborn. I know another woman – who heads up a human resources department incidentally – who never really took her maternity leave but instead worked one day a week for a few weeks after the birth of her three babies and then came back part time for the rest of her maternity leave. This upset her female colleagues greatly especially given her position and her employers insisted that absolutely no one put her under pressure to do this. But they didn’t stop her either.
These women made these personal choices for them. Laying my cards on the table, I personally don’t think this is right. Having a baby isn’t like other big ticket items in your life that have a long build up period, followed by a milestone event and then perhaps an anti-climax back to normality such as doing your Leaving Cert, getting married or buying a house. Having a baby changes everything forever. It’s a huge physiological event which ends with the addition of another human (or humans). You can’t just get back to normal as quickly as possible. You have to learn to adapt and accommodate this new life that it utterly helpless and dependent on you. You also have to physically recover. Regardless of what the celebrity-obsessed media tell us, that doesn’t happen in a few short weeks. I also think that you reap what you sow.
Short maternity leave of a few weeks create difficulties for successful breastfeeding. Short maternity leave puts societal pressure on women to believe they must get back to their old lives as if nothing has happened and makes them feel guilty and like failures if they don’t.
46.5% of the Irish workforce is female. That’s a lot of child-bearing women. Why is it so hard for us to accept that women can have a career and a family life? I’m not talking about having that exhausted ideal of “having it all” but taking the long view that it’s likely that women of our generation and beyond are probably going to work into our mid seventies. You’re looking at a working life spanning approximately 55 years. That’s nearly three generations. What’s wrong with taking a few short years to have and raise your family? It’s a drop in the ocean comparatively. Why do we think that having children will derail women’s career prospects? Because at the moment it does and we need to take action to change that.
I’m not saying that all mothers should be working. I believe we should have choices. Choices that are best for us, best for our families and best for society as a whole. Taking the long view again, if we all concentrate on our careers and refrain from having the babies, who do we think it going to pay for our pensions and her nursing homes in decades time?
Women have to have babies. Women work. Let’s marry those two facts for the betterment of everyone.
As a parting note, my mother worked all of our lives. For her the right choice was to pursue her career rather than make sacrifices that would stall it in favour of staying at home with her family. I honestly believe it affected our relationship probably more than she is aware. However, I know my mother very well and I can guarantee you that if she had chosen to stay at home with her children, then this would also have affected our relationship and not in a positive way! She made the right choice for her and her family. We both share a value on this topic – it’s about making your decisions, whatever they might be, and being happy (or even just prepared) to live with the consequences. There’s no connotation attached to “consequences” here, they’re both positive and negative. I said it earlier but I think it’s relevant here again: you reap what you sow.
This topic is MASSIVE and volumes have been written and fought over it. I’ve barely scraped the surface here. What are your thoughts?
PS On related topics, I thought you might be interested in this great articles I came across this week. The first, from the Irish news site www.journal.ie, talks about how a baby’s relationship with its mother in the first twelve months of its life affects all its future relationships. The second is an incredible article by Ann Marie Slaughter called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. If you’re interested in the struggle to balance motherhood and pursuing your career goals, Slaughter’s article is a must-read. She covers literally every aspect of the debate. It’s one of the best opinion pieces I’ve ever read. Pop the kettle on though, it’s a long one. Let me know what you think!