Society, not feminism, is letting stay at home parents down

I understand how you feel, but feminism is not your enemy

Photo by Rene Adamos, Creative Commons 2.0

Another day, another article about the unappreciated stay-at-home mother, this time from Samantha Johnson in Huffington Post Australia. Johnson claims that “when it it came to preparing for motherhood, feminism let me down”.

I agree with the vast majority of what Johnson said in her article. I’m not a mother myself — in fact, I’m childfree by choice, but I can absolutely see her points. I wholeheartedly agree that “we need to be validating the role of the mother and highlighting the work that goes into it, instead of perpetuating the myth that the work that takes place in the home is ‘less than’ — less meaningful, less valuable, less important”.

In confining this debate to motherhood, however, while blaming the failure of feminism, I think Johnson has missed an important point — it’s our (still fundamentally patriarchal) society that is letting her down.

As well as being a freelance writer, I also work part time in mental health and study counselling. This has given me a lot of insight into how society at large views and treats the work of caring for others, whether it’s done at home, in the workplace, in hospitals, in the community. Women outnumber men in the service I work in, which is also reflected in other caring professions like childcare, elderly and disability care, nursing, and jobs like mine that focus on emotional labour. These jobs are often poorly paid and insecure (zero hours contracts are especially common in elderly and disability care work) especially when you consider what a carer in these settings might have to go through on a daily basis. I hear stories of carers being assaulted on the job and not even receiving sick pay during their recuperation (hey, it’s zero hours, so you’re not entitled). Nurses and carers having to work regular overtime, even put in double shifts, just to make ends meet.

A nurse at work — photo by Victor Chapa, Creative Commons 2.0

Another point that Johnson’s article missed spectacularly is that even having the choice to be a stay at home parent requires a degree of privilege, i.e. having one partner in the relationship who earns enough to cover all the essentials of life. Being a stay at home mum isn’t even an option for many. Ironically, some mothers would love to be at home with their children, but they’re actually putting their own kids in daycare so they can go and get paid for looking after other people’s, because they need two incomes just to survive.

When you consider the wider picture of how caring is viewed, valued and remunerated in society as a whole, it’s obvious that this issue goes way beyond the failure of feminists to sufficiently value motherhood. As Johnson says, “we do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home” — I would change that sentence to “completely devaluing the contribution of carers in all areas of life”.

I attended a prestigious grammar school in the South West during my teens. Academic success was seen as the pinnacle of achievement. I absorbed the message, from parents and teachers, that “successful women” didn’t do caring work. My family discouraged me from following that path when I started doing support work with autistic adults part time as a student, which I loved, because caring work is poorly paid and undervalued. I thus received the message that I would not be valued or considered successful if I made a career in this area. Cue many years of doing jobs I was extremely unhappy in and that did not suit my personality.

There was also, I suspect, some inherent class snobbery in this as well — the idea that you would only choose a caring profession (including perhaps choosing parenthood as your profession) if you can’t do anything “better”. We have removed traditional “homemaking” skills from the curriculum completely, because of that fear that we might instil a lack of ambition, particularly in girls, but so many of these skills are actually life skills, not just “motherhood skills”. As Johnson says, “We need to teach young people the skills they need to succeed — not only in the workforce, but in the home as well. We need to teach them how to care for children, how to cook, how to clean and organise, how to manage household budgets and administration”. She quite rightly acknowledges that boys need this too. We need to normalise men utilising shared parental leave or choosing to parent full time if that works for them and their families, because currently the implicit gender bias that caring is “women’s work” makes it even harder for men to choose a caring profession or be a stay at home dad.

Photo by C Dempsey, Creative Commons 2.0

Most importantly, however, we need to value children and young people for being caring people, not just for the grades they get for their academic work. Even if they don’t ultimately choose to become parents or go into a caring profession, the kind of emotional intelligence that children develop when they are taught to be mindful of others’ feelings and needs is absolutely necessary in every workplace and every walk of life.

As long as society sees these things as “women’s work” parents and carers, whether at home or in the workplace, will never receive the recognition and rewards they deserve. Feminism has a hugely important part to play in this , of course — whether you’re a stay at home mum, a working mum, or a not-mum, we can all advocate for carers’ rights and a fundamental shift in the way we view the vital work of caring for our vulnerable members of society. Because let’s face it, the patriarchy isn’t going to do that for us.