Friday, 24 September 2010

Can We Ditch The Term "Working Mother", Please?


This post was written for the Working Mother's Carnival, hosted by Holly over at It's a Mummy's Life. Once the carnival is closed, I'll post the final link where you can also visit other entries. If you want to participate, post your contribution and then e-mail Holly the link by 15th October.

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I am a working mother. No secret there. If I think about it logically, it describes what I spend most of my life doing. For 35 hours a week, I am contracted to serve my employer. Sometimes I even do a little more than that (what can I say, I'm dedicated). The rest of the week I spend with my children. You could even argue that being a mother is not a job, but a status, a fact - I am a mother 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of whether or not I am at work.

This post is not about the rights and wrongs, the pros and cons, the tos and fros of working vs not working when you are a mother. It is, however, about the terminology "working mother". Despite the fact that factually it describes me very well, the phrase itself riles me - for three main reaons. (I am disregarding the fact that it does not encompass all the other things I am/do on a regular basis. I don't even have a problem with labels per se; I acknowledge that they can be a useful shorthand.)

The first thing that bothers me is the inference that by labelling myself a working mother, I am somehow saying that women who are mothers but are not employed in the labour market do not "work". Do Stay At Home Mums (SAHMs) sit around in their pyjamas drinking coffee and watching daytime telly all day? Of course not! I would be the first to argue that being a SAHM can be much harder work than spending time in an office. So why is it automatically assumed that only paid employment is work?

Secondly, according to the latest statistics I could find (dating back to 2008), there is only a gap of 5 percentage points in terms of women with dependent children who work (68%) and women without children that work (73%). Working mothers are therefore a lot more common that the media would sometimes have us believe. Women have worked for centuries - it is not even a new phenomenon. Of course, I appreciate that this statistic does not adequately reflect the different types or hours of work done by different women. It does not, for example, show how many women are in full-time work, vs part-time work etc (the page linked does go into this, if you are interested). However, it does make me wonder; if the majority of mothers are working mothers, why do we therefore even need to specifically pinpoint this group? Does lumping everyone together in a group like this really help anyone?

Finally - how many men do you know that would immediately and without thinking class themselves as "working fathers"? Most men I know would not even consider it, even if they reconise that the label is factually correct. I think they would be more inclined to define themselves more purely by their paid professions. If I were to ask my husband what he was, for example, he would probably just class himself as an "engineer" or "project manager" first and foremost. This does not mean that he does not take his responsibilities to his children any less seriously than I do - it is simply how his DNA has been conditioned to think. Maybe if there was more talk of working fathers I would be happier with the term working mother. One thing that will be interesting to see is if this will change going forwards as more men stay at home to look after the children.

(As a very slight aside, I was intrigued to find that if I Google both the term "working mothers" and "working fathers" there were actually more results (18.6m) for working fathers vs those for working mothers (9.7m), which goes against my argument above. However, the nature of the results was subtly different- if you look at the results, very few of those on the first page for working fathers actually use the term working as an adjective, but more as a verb - e.g. "working with fathers".)

I know I have a tendency to over-analyse things. Maybe that is what I am doing here. When all is said and done, maybe being a working mother is what best defines me - after all, I haven't been able to come up with a viable alternative yet!

Whether you are you a working mum, or a SAHM - does the label bother you, or do you just accept the fact that it is a necessary shorthand?

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