Career vs. Motherhood: Politics of Guilt

Blue delicates

Women as a whole are very good at judging other women and using guilt to tell each-other that we’re not doing woman-hood properly. I’ve seen it massively in feminism and wedding prep, and it is often in the church too, and it’s sad that it is likely this that is starting to give the basic feminist ideals a bad name.I was told that if I changed my name I wouldn’t be a feminist because I was agreeing with the patriarchy  I was told that by not taking my husband’s name I was not being the Godly woman of Christianity I am meant to live up to. I was told that if I fell in love with a man I wasn’t really a feminist. I got so annoyed at the judgements upon my wedding plans, marriage ideals, and feminazism that I started to feel guilty about every decision I could possibly make. This guilt-inducing judgement is the worst way of forwarding the equality women have been asking for, and it is very rarely men who get involved. If women can’t support each other in their diverse decisions, how can we expect the politics of the world to change.

I saw this again this morning when the BBC Breakfast show held a debate about the guilt felt by working mothers leaving their children. Stupidly this was brought about by a comment made by Tony Blair, neither a mother or a woman, saying that in hindsight he struggles with guilt at leaving his children and that his wife often guarded him from seeing/feeling it during his time in Downing Street.

How did a comment made my Tony Blair spark off a debate about working mums? I’m guessing because no-one would dare complain about a dad leaving to go to work each morning, but it is still very much seen as a woman’s job to stay home with the kids. Once you add in Cherie Blair and her condemnation of mother who do not go out to work, in her opinion not giving their kids the best example of woman in work. Both these attitudes anger me greatly, the generalisations are awful, and both viewpoints basically claim “if you are a woman and not doing it this way, you’re wrong, should be ashamed of yourself, and you are damaging your children”.

I’m going to throw my hat in the ring, but I want to make it very, very clear. I am not a mother, but I would love to be. I am trying to be a working woman, and hope to continue in academia and the art world for as long as I can. I am also a child of my mother, a GP who was the first female partner in her surgery, and did leave every morning. I’m going to try to be honest about everything and see what you think at the end.

Mother’s can make up their own mind. Leave them to it.

I know incredible example’s of mothers, working mother’s and just working women. They made their choices and it was their right to do so. Every mother considers what she will need to do to be a great mother, and whether that will include work or not. It was unbelievably arrogant and short-sighted of Mrs Blair to claim that she had the right way and that others were creating dependant children. She didn’t mention the fact that as a barrister she could be earning in the range of £225,000 – £750,000 (nevermind the £163k probably earned by Tony Blair, not including the millions he’s received since his resignation); she also had a nanny. I’d suggest that very few families are able to pay a full-time nanny to look after their four children, nor £225k between both parents, nevermind just the mother. To suggest that the way she has decided to be a mother and working-woman is possible for everyone is ridiculous. The average salary across the UK according to reed.com is around £30k. That’s not a bad wage bracket but when you’re supporting multiple children, adding in rising fuel costs, food costs, and taxes, it gets difficult. How dare anyone criticise another mother who is trying to do the best for her family.

My Dad was the “Housewife”. He did fine.

When I was growing up, my Dad was a medical photographer and a very good one. He also did art shots and had a huge amount of passion for biology and photography combined. He supported my mother in her career from the moment he met her and it was never a suggestion that she should give it up in order to settle down with kids. When I was young I was in the hospital nursery for a while but it soon became clear that my Dad’s wage barely covered the childcare costs. He took the hard decision to stop work and instead become a full-time father. He was judged for it, but he made the most of it: he became the life of the party that was the group of mums outside the schools as he picked up my siblings and I, he became involved in the school government and was passionate about education, particularly supporting assistant teachers and those involved in special needs education. He was involved in every school fayre, working hard to give everyone a good time, and on a number of occasions was even Santa (not that we were allowed to tell our friends this). He did the best he could, but it also took its toll on him. I do feel he lost a lot of confidence in his work abilities during that time as medical photography moved on without him. I do think that men have a hard job of keeping their self-worth intact when they are in this situation because for years work has been what they do, who they are, and it’s been their responsibility to provide for the family. My dad was a great dad, and carer to my Nanna when she was ill, but I think he found it difficult. I don’t ever think he’d blame us or my mum for this, he wouldn’t even think it, but I have a huge amount of respect for the sacrifices he made.

My mum was a wonderful mother, and a wonderful doctor. You only have to look at the regular gifts of fresh eggs, flowers, cards, chocolates, and much more, to see how much her patients appreciate her. She supports her colleagues as best she can and also trains new registrars. She is great at all of this and often doesn’t get the credit she deserves. On the other hand she was away from home a lot. I do remember having nightmares about her walking away, being blocked by crowds, and me running and screaming for her to come back. I knew from a very young age that she didn’t want to leave us. That wasn’t the point. She wasn’t trying to escape, and she loved us very much, but that didn’t stop the nightmares. Every morning I would run and hug her as I tried to stop her leaving. Every evening it was me, my siblings and the barks of the dog that greeted her in a flurry of questions, and hugs, and noise. That can’t have been easy. I don’t blame her, or resent her, for the choices she made. Every decision was considered, discussed and rooted in the best intentions. My brother, sister and myself turned out fine.

Honestly, I think this gave me a broad understanding of the debate. Mum deserved to be the best she could be and has become an incredible doctor. But I missed my mum. I had nightmares. My dad did a great job but I think took an emotional blow for us. Does this mean that I think mother’s should stay home? Or that men should all go out to work? No.

Generalisations do not help anyone.

There are two women who come to mind when I think of the two ideas about being a mother. I am going to avoid names because I don’t want to embarrass them and if I say something they don’t like I would hate to hurt them.

The first is a woman I have long admired for her ambition, her creativity, her ability to draw people together around a project, and her determination to see things through. She assists so many people in so many areas, she runs businesses and charities and she’s not much older than myself. I feel tiny in comparison to this incredible woman on innovation and energy. She is married and now has a young child. She has managed to keep both work and her family as her priorities in life, and takes each challenge as they come. If she is working, the likelihood is that her little one isn’t far away. She supports other mothers, and is a great mum. She adores her child and there is no doubt in my mind that this woman would do anything for them. She work hard, and her life is obviously crazy busy sometimes as she juggles parts of her life.

The second woman has two children, and is a stay at home mum, and she is incredible. She is warm and hospitable. She supports a number of people, leads a homegroup with her husband, is wonderfully wise, leads a children’s group for a range of ages and is loved by them all, entertains them, trains others to do the same, and has that motherly quality that means you would love to get a massive hug off her, but you know if you did something wrong she would use that voice and you’d obey instantly. There is no way she just didn’t want to work. She just knew her main priority was her kids and family. She does it incredibly well and so many people appreciate her for it, although she probably doesn’t know it and might not believe it even if we told her.

These two women decided for themselves, and made the best decision they could for themselves and their children. There is no way I could suggest which was better, I don’t think there is a “better”, there is only “trying their best”. Generalizing all women, in all economic situations, with all children, work, education, etc is a stupid idea. Could I say that my first example would be a better mother if she wasn’t working as well? No! Nor would I dare. Her child is one of the happiest I have seen. She is happy. She makes other people happy. Could I say that my second example would be better mother, a better example, if she went out to work? No! Nor would I dare. Her children are beautiful, intelligent examples of humanity and I can’t possibly suggest they could be any better if she had done it differently. Women have got to stop judging the decisions of other women trying to do their best. It doesn’t help anyone and it gives us all this guilt that we might not be doing a good enough job in comparison to someone else. How about building each other up for a change? Feminism suggests that women can choose a career, choose how to live their life, not be pulled down by stereotypical roles for us. Yet we seem to be giving each other more roles to avoid, more choices labelled “wrong”. It is these statements, the bitchiness, the condemnation, the arrogance, that pulls women down.

If the kids are happy, if the mum is doing her best to love them the best she can, if she is also happy with her decisions, what right does anyone else have to judge her life.

Leave her alone.

Embrace the individuality of your life choices.

Stop comparing lives, choices, and self-righteously claiming yourself as the perfect female example. God created us women. Women are full of diversity, potential, and strength, but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same or will all live the same lives. Instead, we have free will and freedom to choose whether we want a career, a family, a mixture of the two, a dog, a collection of cats, a backpack and a series of tickets. We have the freedom to choose and if someone else picks a different path, it doesn’t make yours any less. Embrace the individuality of your life. Do the work you love. Have the family you love. If you feel that you need to choose one or the other, that is your path.

Personally I hope to have a big family. I hope to continue to study and work hard to be the best in my field I can possibly be. Do I freak out over whether it’s even possible? Of course I do. I question it not because I shouldn’t but because I wonder if I am capable of it. I will find out I guess as life happens. Life may be hard but life often is.

I would love to hear your comments, your experiences, but I would ask that you be kind and graceful to all those who disagree with you. I realise this a difficult topic for a number of people and so am nervous about writing it. Please be kind.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Bec says:

    This is really well written! I met a lady who had recently returned to a high-powered City job after Maternity. She was incredible at her job. It made me sad to think she might be judged as ‘cold-hearted’ or unmaternal for not staying at home.

    My Mum says she really missed seeing my sister’s development when she was growing up; but having been home with me frequently felt bored stuck with just a baby for company.

    As in all cases with ‘gender-normalising’ I think we’ve got to recognise that women are individuals and that couples are also unique pairings. Decisions around employment and childcare should be based on the parents circumstances and not on what societal culture dictates. And lets give each other a break on the whole judgement thing…

    1. EKMCronin says:

      Completely agree! I think a lot of women (and men) feel kind of bored with their children at home all the time. But to be fair, it’s understandable. It doesn’t mean anything about how much they care, and I can imagine that post-partum depression is probably hidden far more due to the guilt felt that they are not a good enough mother.

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