Why We Need To Change Outdated Perceptions of Motherhood and Feminine Nurturing – Now

The words raise my ire straight away as I start making a claim for the new child care subsidy: ‘Activity test’. Implying my current occupation is in-active. That I’m somehow cooling my heels, being lazy for as long as I can. It’s no big deal. It’s fair enough; we’ve all heard about those ‘career mums’ who wrought the system. A matter of ticking a few boxes to show I’m participating in activities which will help make me employable. You know, when I start working again.

Except I am not unemployed. I’m a mother.

Prior to my third pregnancy, I applied for several public service positions, as well as applying to re-join the Air Force. In all of the job applications, the ‘HR questions’ asked me a lot of things about myself.

They asked if I spoke English as a second language and whether I needed an interpreter. They asked if I identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. There were identified positions for Indigenous people I, a white Australian couldn’t apply for; fair enough. They wanted to know my age and sex. I was asked if I had a disability and advised I could apply under the RecruitAbility program if this was the case. Some applications asked which gender I identified as: male, female, or gender X. None of them were compulsory questions, but I answered them because the Australian Public Service has its own boxes which need ticking. Fair enough.

Next, I answered questions about my work experience in the last 5 – 10 years. There were no pre-filled boxes for motherhood. In fact, the only other box which didn’t describe recent work in the private or public sector was…you guessed it: ‘Unemployed’. There was one other box appropriately called ‘Other: please specify’. When you’re a mother trying to return to work, this is very much how the workforce sees you – an Other who needs to be specified. Pressing the keys harder than those in charge of the recruiting process could have known, my eyes flashing, I ticked ‘Other’. To specify my Otherness, I defiantly wrote ‘Motherhood’.

This Man’s Girl

I’ve been freelancing as a copywriter for about the past year. The mother of three young children, one not yet 2 at time of writing, when it comes to hours worked, physical, mental and emotional labour, sheer energy and focus, motherhood is the job of work which is still my primary occupation. It’s temporary. That’s what others tell me, and what I sometimes tell myself. Yet I know the longer a woman stays ‘out of the workforce’, the harder it is for her to get back in. I know many women retire with half as much super as their partners. The thought of becoming one of them scares me, particularly thinking it’s the disquieting result of inherent gender-bias in the hands of men in power, or worse: a preemptive strike. Our tax system is not “gender neutral.

Jane Caro, addressing former PM John Howard:

You indulged in a little social engineering via our tax system. Through Family Tax Benefits you created a real disincentive for women to give up their caring roles and return to the workforce leaving them even more vulnerable to poverty in old age.

The Big Smoke Australia, September 9 2016

For me, being a mother was a choice consciously made before each pregnancy. This fact was used to silence my unhappiness as I mourned my identity in those early days. But it was also my husband’s choice. And while my super has taken a significant hit, his has been growing these past 9 years. His working life has barely changed. It hasn’t had to.

The Australian Defence Force gives a mere 2 week ‘s paternal leave entitlement to its’ male members. It says a lot about the personal investment the male worker is expected to have in his family;  in his children and his role as a father. The inverse of this is the all-encompassing weight resting squarely on the woman as a mother: this is what women are for, what else is expected? My husband’s work removes him further and further from his role as a father, foisting more and more caring responsibilities onto me.

Women are the nurturers. The carers. We do it for the love, and are expected to love it: every repetitive, isolating, inane, and often thankless task. This matters because the way we view caring jobs like motherhood directly informs the social perceptions of the value of ‘women’s jobs’, and limits women in all walks of life. 

I heard about an Air Force colleague of my husband’s who was asking for an extra year in location. His wife was working in a well-paying role she loved and needed to fulfil the last year of her contract. The personnel manager (they were called ‘manners  – as in, in charge of manning – when I was in) said they needed to choose who was ‘the breadwinner’. Air Force gave no quarter. I’m not sure which choice they made.


A Woman’s Worth

Thanks to a recent interest in women’s histories in popular culture, the code-breaking work of the Bletchley Circle, who are credited with cracking the Enigma code during World War II, is starting to be recognised. The secretive nature of their work covered their efforts for decades, but the secret most shrouded was the fact that most of them, including code-breakers in the top of their field, were female.

Repetitive, tedious detail-oriented jobs like programming and coding being male-dominated, well-paying jobs is a recent phenomenon, starting in the 1980s. Prior to that these were ‘women’s jobs’; underpaid, and where their contributions and talents weren’t unrecognised, they were at best vastly under-recognised.

Even to the woman who doesn’t want and will never have children, this matters.  Her work will still be under-valued and underpaid because of it. Women who negotiate their salary or set their own rates are still paid less than men.  Creative freelancers charge 47% less than men in the same role.

Professions which have been ‘feminised’, like teaching suffer a lack of respect which translates into less pay than they deserve.  There’s been a recent cry for more male teachers to be role models to boys, who typically achieve less than girls. (Naturally, women are getting the blame for this; boys can’t relate to them, and vice versa.) As Jane Caro says in Accidental Feminists, girls achieving more than boys in school has been happening for over 100 years. It’s because women are now competing against men for high-paying jobs that it’s become an urgent problem to solve. I have another slant on the teaching profession’s appeal for more male teachers. This ‘woman’s job’ needs a large measure of masculinity to return respect (and proper pay and conditions),  to the job of teaching.

Leaning in harder isn’t enough to close the gender pay gap because of society’s expectations on what women should do for how much money, and how much love, and woe betide! – how much ambition we’re allowed – are heavily gendered. I believe it all goes back to the under-valued role of mothers and mothering – or primary caring.

Women work to afford a decent lifestyle for ourselves and our children, or we don’t, and are steadily and systematically frozen out of the workforce, having to jump over legislative barriers designed to get in our way.  I was one of the women Caro mentions. Faced with losing most of my (then) Tax A and B upon returning to full-time work, I judged it wasn’t worth the paltry amount left in my hand each month. I stayed home. I’ve been navigating the often sunny, sometimes strange and deceitful waters of full-time motherhood since then.

I know – men do it too – but women are overwhelmingly in the majority here. There are drawbacks for men who take on the primary caring role with their children, or other families, and that usually comes from the misunderstanding of other ‘working’ men. The same kind who place the primary caring role on par with unemployment.

On the other hand, men who are seen doing anything nice at all with their kids, from dropping them at school, or braving the shopping malls with them (like my husband – he never takes all 3), the social reaction is quite different. Instead of not noticing, or maybe wondering why a mother’s children aren’t better behaved, men receive warm, effusive congratulations from passers-by. As is our society’s habit, when a job is done by a man he’s given more praise and more respect.

In Denying the Struggle, We Deny Our Own Strength

It’s my choice to be a mother, yes. But it was also my husband’s choice to be a father, and the road we’ve walked together is not the same. From where I sit, the biggest sacrifices have been, and are made by me. I believe the more we break through the flawed, outdated perceptions of motherhood which devalue women in work and in society, the more we demystify the truth of motherhood as an experience. How can we acknowledge our strength if we deny the struggle? The more we – women – give mothering the nod of respect it deserves by seeing, feeling and speaking freely about its flaws, darkness, incredible boredom and bone-slaying tiredness, the more motherhood – and women’s work will come to be redefined. This will achieve the flow-on effect of men’s roles being weighed and re-evaluated. Only then can we be paid the price – socially and financially – we deserve.

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