A Guest Blog Post from Nicola Washington
“So, what do you do then?”
The question I have come to dread. There was a time that I would confidently reply, “Oh I’m a teacher”, and then get mildly annoyed because everyone has been to school, so everyone has an opinion.
Now however, I look back misty-eyed on those halcyon days of nodding, smiling, agreeing that “Yes the holidays are great”, while screaming behind exhausted eyes that “SO THEY SHOULD BE OR ALL TEACHERS WOULD BE DEAD”, because these days my reply is “I’m at home with the children.”
I’m uncomfortable with the phrase “stay-at-home-mum” because to me this has connotations of taking pleasure in cupcake baking, crafting and cooking rather than seeing all of these things as tiresome inconveniences that other more adult-y adults should be in charge of. But, putting aside my issues with the label, I suppose this is in fact what I am.
But this fact is one I find difficult to accept.
Even though I am eight months into my new status I still struggle not to say, “Oh I was a teacher until Easter this year…”, or add the qualifier “just” to the sentence, “I’m a mum”.
I am painfully aware that every time I respond to the question of “What do you do?” in these ways, I implicitly devalue what already has to be the most undervalued job in the world.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to start bleating on about how hard I have it being at home full-time with my children. Yes it has its drawbacks, but in many ways I think I’ve got it good.
So what is the problem? I am confident that I have made the right decision for my family – why not say “I’m at home with the children” with pride? Why not just ride out the inevitable silence that follows that statement while people wonder what to ask someone who’s horizons apparently stretch no further then the edge of the kitchen table?
Well, because the truth is that I don’t feel proud to be “at home with the children”. I wish I did. My own mother did it and I think she is amazing. But she was of the generation where a woman’s place in the home was never questioned. And while I would never wish to return to those limiting frustrating times, it must have made life simpler.
Nowadays, as the guinea pig generation, the first ones to attempt to turn gender equality from experimental theory into mainstream action, the truth is that I’m not sure that we’re so much better off. The frustration is different, but no smaller.
My generation of women have grown up being told we could do anything the boy-shaped were doing, and sometimes do it better. But the cruel reality is that once we’ve hoofed out a human or two, it’s just not that simple.
Working hours, finances, childcare costs, childcare logistics, inflexible working, and politics, are just a few of the reasons why women like me are being thrown into a time machine back to an era when women held the apron strings, while men held the purse strings.
The woman who danced to Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” as a girl in the late nineties, early noughties small-town dance floor, who broke out of the two-step to attempt an over-ambitious pelvic shimmy, believed that the lyrics those sexy self-sufficient women were singing were about her.
She believed she was going to be someone successful, independent, who would earn her own money and pay her own “bills bills bills”. She would have a man in her life because she wanted him, not because she needed him. And while she would have children, they would not be her whole life, they would form part of a rich existence in which she would also be respected professionally because she would most definitely not be “just a mum”.
She was told to value education, qualifications, the workplace, earning her own money and calling her own shots.
The arrival of the pill had heralded the sexual revolution and for the first time women were able to put the brakes on baby-making, and concentrate instead on glass-ceiling-breaking.
But amongst all of the drum-banging and sisterhood supporting, what everyone failed to mention was that at some point someone has to look after the children.
And that someone is me. I am having to come to terms with being “kept” like a pet cat. I’m painfully aware that the money I’m spending is not “mine” in the way I always planned. And if one more person calls me a yummy-mummy, I think I might eat myself.
There is no denying that in a world of forced marriage and FGM, my feminist concern about how difficult it is to return to work after getting in the family way seems somewhat facetious. But it’s all part of the same continuum. A continuum that has not yet reached its conclusion, not even here in the Western world where we imagine we have so many things “right”.
And the thing that hurts most about all of this is that I imagine teaching my daughter that she is the equal of any man, that she can pursue anything and do anything she wants. But how can I do this when I am the living, breathing, ranting, frothing at the impotent mouth poster-girl for exactly the opposite?
As far as we think we have come, the biggest barrier that now stands in the path of genuine gender equality is that we have been so distracted by proving the equality of women to men in the workplace, that we have neglected to reverse this dynamic in the home.
Essentially, while it is clear from the statistics, the reports, the news items and magazine articles, that employers undervalue the role of women with children in the workplace, the bigger problem in my eyes is the way society still undervalues the role men with children have in the home.
And it seems to me that until the latter changes, the former never can.
Nicola is 35 and lives in South London with her partner and two children, a little girl aged 3y 11m and a boy aged 20m. Nicola was a secondary school English teacher for 12 years until March this year. She loved it, it was hard, but brilliant. Nicola regretfully gave up her job because despite it offering some flexibility around the family and home, her partners’ job offered no flexibility meaning they couldn’t be the team they needed to be to keep all of the plates spinning. As a result Nicola is a stalwart campaigner for flexibility for ALL in the work place and is supporting Digital Mums to champion their #workthatworks movement . You can follow Nicola on Instagram or visit her own blog Too Much Mothering Information.