Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Trust me, all mothers work – not just those with jobs

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan

Working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers: that's a line of debate frequently aired in the public realm.

There will always be different opinions and some arguments about which is better and which might be better facilitated by the state, or society.

In an ideal world, there should simply be choice and whatever choice is made, it should be respected. Possibly, there should be choice for both parents, though there is a whole heap of research which indicates that fathers are better dads if they do have a job.

But whatever choices are made by a woman with children – or whatever choices are available to her – can we make one positive change in this discourse? Can we stop using the term 'working mother' to mean mothers with jobs?

Trust me, all mothers work. I see young mothers caring for their families at home – either because they have chosen to be with their babies, or because there isn't a job available that suits them – and, by heaven, they work their socks off. So could we please acknowledge that all mothers work?

Some mothers also have paid jobs and that is the difference: these are mothers with jobs – not working mothers.

In their classic study of Ireland in 1938, the Harvard anthropologists Arensberg and Kimball noted just how valuable a woman's work was within agricultural life; and in recognition of her material contribution certain aspects of farm revenue were hers as of right – the egg money, for example, was regarded as the woman's income and some funds from dairying, too.

Paradoxically, Arensberg and Kimball found that agricultural life already contained a certain recognition of equality between husband and wife, because both spouses could appreciate and recognise the labour of the other and how that labour contributed to the value of the enterprise.

It is often reckoned that the most visible divide between married partners at work came with industrialisation and then suburbanisation.

It's no coincidence that the book that really launched the second wave of feminism was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, just 50 years ago, in 1963.

Betty described suburban man trotting off to some glamorous office – something like the set of Mad Men – while their wives were stuck in the home, in boring suburbia, where machines did most of the real work and they had little to engage their brains but banalities about cake recipes issued by women's magazines.

This suburban model displayed a major cleavage between the working lives of husbands and wives. It had to be challenged – and it was.

Well, it's all changed once again: we are not in the agricultural era of the 1930s, nor the suburban societies of the 1960s and 1970s with jobs defined as nine-to-five.

A working life has become altogether more blurry, with the era of the computer and the internet, and now, most especially, the downturn in the global economy, which has so affected the prospects for young workers, male or female.

The situation today is that anyone who has a job is lucky, but many people who do not have actual jobs still work.

A retired carpenter recently did a few odd jobs for me around the house and refused to take any payment, because, he said, his pension was sufficient and he liked to help out. It wasn't a paid task, then, but it still entailed a level of skilled work.

So, please, may we stop talking about working mothers as though individuals with jobs were the only ones working? It ain't like that anymore. Catch up.

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