I felt a post coming on today when I caught myself sounding just like my mother. The subject was women who choose to rely on their male partner’s earnings instead of going out to work themselves.
Although my mother did work periodically – on a part time basis, usually to “help” when money was tight, as long as it didn’t interfere with looking after the children – her main role was always to keep house and to be our mother.
Once or twice, she tried to kid me that it wasn’t so bad, being a mother and housewife. I didn’t believe her. It wasn’t the life I wanted and (apart from a brief wobble when as the mother of a young baby I suddenly wanted to be exactly that and never have to go back to work again) I’ve felt the same way my entire adult life. Maternity leave is the only time I have ever been out of work or off work, and it drove me crazy. It would be disingenuous to suggest that being off work was the only thing that made me crazy. But it didn’t help, and I am certain that it was getting back to work that saved me. Work isn’t a bowl of cherries but it is independence – and, of course, a break from domestic drudgery. In my case, Arbeit really does macht frei.
My mother, despite having been to work only now and again and only on a part time basis, is very quick to criticise women who do not work. She recounts, for example, the stories of her various friends’ offspring who have marriages that break up and is scandalised that ex-wives seek maintenance payments from their ex-husbands instead of going out to earn their own crust. I argue sometimes, and suggest that there might be lots of good reasons why a wife, especially a mother, could reasonably expect her ex-husband to help support her – not least because so many women give up their own careers and torpedo their own earning potential in order to look after their husband and children, to be that mother and housewife, to further the husband’s career and enhance his earning power at the expense of their own. As it happens, my mother is one of those women – she could have had a great career herself if things had turned out differently. She says that if she had been left to cope alone, she would have done, and would have gone out to work and done it all, and claimed not a penny from anyone. I believe her. But wouldn’t it have been unfair?
There is something in me that reacts quite violently, reflexive and unthinking, on this subject. So often it is hinted or implied or outright said that a working mother is an aberration: the suggestion that my own “choice” to work (as if I even had one) is not valid. So often I am told, directly or indirectly, that a woman’s place – and especially a mother’s place – is in the home looking after her family. Which is a lie. And when a woman reinforces that lie by actively choosing to take up that place, it pisses me off.
I am quite defensive on this, and not always wholly rational. If I manage to switch on my brain for long enough, I am not likely to hold it against the woman personally, because she is not the patriarchy. In particular, older women who married in the 1970s or 1980s or so – the generation of our mothers – get a pass on this. Serious job or career opportunities for women were so thin on the ground, and the training for motherhood and house-wifery was so intensive, that for most there was no realistic choice anyway.
But on the other hand, for my own generation, surely things are different? There is a glass ceiling, of course, and three-year-old girls still get Barbies from old men pretending to be Father Christmas – but we are a world away from the world in which our mothers grew up. These days, a woman who is perfectly capable of working but who chooses to rely on a man instead is (on the whole) making a genuine choice. Why? If there are no realistic job opportunities, I can understand it. If you have children and have made a pragmatic decision to take the risk of dependence on someone else in order to have the opportunity to be a full-time parent, fair enough. But there are women who just feel like it is the man’s role to provide, and it is her role to care for a man (and his children). It isn’t necessarily laziness, but it is the voluntary and unnecessary assumption of the passive role of female dependence. And that pisses me off.
It’s like not voting.
It’s like one in the eye for all the women who fought to free their sisters from household drudgery and servitude.
And – the longer we collectively assume responsibility for housework and childcare, the longer it will be before we kick away the idea that this is Woman’s natural place – and that men who “help” are somehow special. And that will keep the glass ceiling firmly in place, because practical equality in public life can never happen while there is practical inequality in private.
And that – as I think I may have mentioned – pisses me off.