Monday, 23 September 2013

Harriet Harman on Woman's Hour

Harriet Harman gave a lovely answer this morning when pressed on why she didn't run for leadership of the Labour Party:
I actually... still... wanted something else of my life outside the Party.
She had just been discussing the paucity of women in Parliament (even as Thatcher was Prime Minister); the fact that fewer than 1000 men have taken up maternity leave if women want to return to work within a year of giving birth; the notion of transferring unused leave to mothers and mothers-in-law (although these people are likely to be working to reduce the earnings deficit they themselves suffered through having a family); and finally she had slipped in the old chestnut that women are still tearing their hair out looking for affordable, flexible, reliable childcare.

Women.

Because apparently no one, however much they believe in equality, can ever bring themselves to imagine men "looking for childcare". That, apparently, is intrinsically, inherently, BIOLOGICALLY part of a mother's role and duty. What? Why? Since when? Why and how did I slip into that trap, just as everyone else I know did? From pregnancy to labour, to breastfeeding, to looking for childcare. If the mother isn't doing it, apparently it's her job to find a replacement for herself. What price the notion of the FAMILY?

But I digress. What I'd love to know is what Harman was referring to as 'something else'? Cleaning the toilets? Having massages? Doing an MA? Picking up dry cleaning? It's hard to understand.

A friend of mine has been approached to be a Chair of Governors at her local primary school, but has two children under 7. She feels very flattered but very torn. She would also like to ramp up her working life again, but really wants to be there for her children.

I took on chairing a governing body when my kids were 7 and 4. I was also working full time, and taking on lecturing and consulting work. I tried to cycle to work and would arrive sweating and furious from the traffic. I was exhausted all the time, and always angry. My situation at work suffered, and my situation at home was antagonistic. I lost sight of my daughter -- I don't remember anything about her year 3. I was never there to drop off our son, and as a consequence have never found my feet amongst the parents of his class. I missed the period when you learn names and have that frenzy of play dates.

To me this is another example of Motherload. Why did I feel I had to prove myself in this way? My friend would make a fantastic Chair. But instead of accepting that as a fact, and moving on, she feels under pressure both internally and externally to justify why she should NOT go for it. Her reason is her children, and her ambivalence comes from the extreme polarisation of views on the worth of looking after children as an activity. Should she take up public office, give back to the community, use her skills and gifts for the public good, secure some public standing for herself, fit in the childcare, it doesn't matter, children are resilient?

Yes, on one level, and of course, those are the reasons I gave myself. But I and those I loved suffered because of my need to justify myself to different communities. See! I can have it all! See? I CAN do it all! Chairing a governing body is unpaid but takes up about 1-2 days a week, depending on what issues arise in the school, and how active you want to be. 1-2 days done at night or in the early morning, on top of a day job.

But women in my friend's position are being asked to brush under the carpet the rather important fact that they are ALREADY in public life. They are raising children, another unpaid public role, for which they are held accountable by everyone from the bus driver to the prime minister. I WAS a chair of governors, and I DID enjoy the role. But it came at a price. The cost was time that I will never have again with my two children, and a bruised relationship with them which has needed time to heal.

We need to lighten our Motherloads by accepting and celebrating everything that we already do, rather than taking it for granted as everyone else does, and expecting ourselves just to take on more and more.

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