Culture Editor Ilina Jha explores how society is adapting to the increase in working mothers, and how it is struggling to balance both work and parenting
How do we balance paid work and parenting? This age-old question may well be starting to loom for many of us as we enter the adult world and contemplate life after university. The pressure is certainly on for us students to build a career as soon as possible – in 2017, research found that 81% of current students felt ‘a fair amount’ or ‘a lot’ of pressure to find a job within six months of graduation. But what about the pressure to have children?
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that women are having children later in life – in 2022, half of women born in 1990 remained childfree by the age of the 30, and the average age of giving birth for women born in 1975 was 31, compared to the average age of 22 for women born in 1949. While this might seem to suggest that there is less pressure on young people now to have children, research from Relate reveals that millennials and Gen Z are actually experiencing greater pressure to achieve certain milestones – such as having children, buying a home with a partner, and getting married – than older generations. Having children, in fact, was found to be the number one milestone that the research participants were feeling the pressure to achieve.
Of course, pressure to combine having a career with having children is a problem that women have been struggling with for decades. It’s no secret that women still carry the burden of unpaid care, whether that be of children, elderly parents, or other relatives – the COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in the amount of unpaid work done by women, whether they were in paid employment or not. Tokyo-based Teni Wadia described a lockdown day spanning from 5am to 11pm engaged in paid work, childcare, and homeschooling. Although both she and her husband worked from home, she took on 80% of the unpaid domestic labour.
Now, besides the obvious gender inequality here – lads, it really shouldn’t be that difficult for you to do your fair share – it must be obvious to us all that a working and childrearing day spanning 5am to 11pm cannot be healthy. In response to Emma Brockes’s article in The Guardian about Helen Skelton giving up work for her children, Fiona Berry wrote to the paper to argue that ‘[i]t is impossible to do two full-time jobs and do both perfectly,’ stating that ‘[w]e have lost sight of one of the original aims of the suffragettes – to have all the work traditionally done by women recognised as of equal value to the work done by men and as useful to the family and the economy, in an effort to be regarded as the same as men. Work traditionally done by women has become less and less highly regarded by society – not more.’
Perhaps this is why there is an argument that we should be paying people for parenting. Indeed, some legal cases – for example, in China and Italy – have financially rewarded women for the unpaid work they did looking after their children while their ex-husbands worked. Certainly, there is much to be said for the state paying people of any gender for child rearing – by turning parenting into a paid job, perhaps this would solve the conundrum of people trying to balance parenting with more traditional paid employment. Plus, I would hope that financial compensation for parenting would enable and encourage fathers to take on more of the childcare, addressing the gender imbalance in parenting.
However, Yanitra Kumaraguru, a law lecturer from the University of Colombo, raises concerns that providing ‘wages for housework’ could actually lead to an entrenching of traditional domestic gender roles and the privileging of mothers over single women living alone, not to mention the question of how you would monitor good parenting.
For now, as Berry points out, it has become almost impossible for one partner in a relationship to give up work to become a full-time parent (and if this is impossible, it is clear what that means for single parents); therefore, the struggle to manage both paid work and parenting is set to continue. And unless serious changes are made, women will continue to bear the burden not only of both paid and unpaid labour, but also the societal pressures that insist on them being both mothers and workers.
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