With more mothers in the workplace than ever before you’d think we’d be raising more self-sufficient children and that dads would share the parenting. But, as studies show and any mother will tell you, that’s far from the case. Sarah Catherall reports.
Take a look around any workplace today and you’ll find swarms of women who, when the day is done, will essentially go home to a second fulltime job. According to our 2018 census, more mothers work in New Zealand now than ever before: two-thirds of mothers have paid employment, including 45 per cent who hold down fulltime jobs.
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You’d expect, then, that mothers would be doing less at home, with partners and paid caregivers picking up the load. But this is not the case: experts say motherhood is busier, more intense and more brutally judged than ever before – think of the images of the perfect mothers feeding their children organic, homegrown vegetables dangled on social media.
An American sociologist, Sharon Hays, has coined the term “intensive mothering’’ to describe the new mother-child relationship: mothering that is “child-centred, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive’’.
According to Kate Prickett, director of Victoria University’s Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and Children, motherhood in 2021 is no longer just about caring for, feeding and spending time with children. Particularly among women in high-socio economic groups who are also holding down white-collar jobs, motherhood has expanded. Along with often taking care of the lion’s share of household duties, there’s an expectation that a good mother will find, organise and run the kids around to a growing array of extracurricular activities and that she will be heavily involved in her children’s social and educational lives.
While fathers have begun spending more time with their kids over the past decade, Prickett says her research and data from overseas shows that the “new father’’ is still seldom as involved in his children’s lives as his female co-parent (of course, these observations apply only to heterosexual couples). . Yes, says Prickett, this generation of fathers spends more time with their children, but typically around the fun stuff.
“Dads need to step up,’’ she says. “[They should] take on some of the monotonous, often thankless and not as enjoyable tasks that are just as, if not more so, important for children’s development, like making the lunches in the morning, taking over the night-time routine, organising activities and children’s schedules, keeping track of school events and signing permission slips.’’
Working mothers often find themselves in a martyr role within a family, putting their own needs last. One study by AUT lecturer in occupational therapy Kim Frenchman found that women’s self-care came last : working mothers had less sleep and less leisure time than the fathers of their children.
Frenchman writes that there has been a 50 per cent increase in female participation in the labour market since 1986, and yet women continue to spend twice as much time on domestic duties and childcare than men do. The portrayal of working motherhood as a “personal choice” places sole responsibility on women as they try to balance work and family.
Frenchman was told by many of the working mothers she interviewed that they never felt good enough, as if they were failing at both work and home and were constantly exhausted.
They prioritised the needs of their children, and then those of their workplace.
The ideal of what was required to be “a good parent’’ affected their mental health. “Occupational imbalance is a real and increasing threat to working mothers’ wellbeing. Overall societal expectations of working mothers can be unrealistic, unfair, unsupportive and push working mothers to create lives that are occupationally unbalanced by perpetuating messages like being a good mother is about prioritising children’s needs above all else and that women should give their best at home and at work,’’ she says.
Dee Costa relates. A single mother of three children – aged 7, 8 and 15 – the 39-year-old runs her own florist, Sunday’s Child, in Inglewood, Taranaki. At least today she has some control over her working week. It was worse when she worked in a florist shop, when she struggled to get to work at 8.30am because she couldn’t drop the kids to school any earlier. But asked to describe her life, she puts it bluntly: “I feel like Kramer from Seinfeld. I run around with frizzy hair bursting in and out of everything and running late.
“I feel like I’m always letting someone down. I feel guilty about everything.
“I feel guilty that I don’t have as much time with the school as I should and that I can’t keep up with the notices of what is going on.’’
Although she is a single mother without a partner for support (the children haven’t seen their father for two years), Costa thinks her life wouldn’t be so hard if there wasn’t a societal pressure to be a perfect, hands-on mother. The idea is dangled that she should have quality time with her children, keep them off screens, feed them nutritious organic food she has ideally grown in her own garden, enrol them in as many activities as possible, and when they’re home together, engage or play with them.
Costa’s mother raised five children on her own, working sometimes four jobs. “I ask her about her pressures and the only things she felt she had to provide were the basics like food and safety. She never felt she had to play with us or spend quality time with us…
“Mum thinks things are so much harder for women today. There are now so many rules about how parents ‘have to be’.’’
Blaming the media, particularly the relatively new pressures of social media, Costa says: “I think things need to change and we need to be more supportive of one another and our differences. We need a greater sense of community.’’
Elizabeth Peterson agrees. In 2017, the Auckland University associate professor in development and educational psychology co-authored a study of the experiences of 2388 working mothers of infants, which found that many were plagued by constant guilt that they weren’t doing anything right. Says Peterson: “There’s an idea that a successful woman is someone who works and that completely competes with the discourse which says a good mother will do the nurturing. Something has to give, whether it’s a mother’s sleep or her mental health.’’
Peterson says the pressure to be the perfect mother starts during pregnancy, when women are expected to attach with their baby at birth, or even before they’re born. Then it’s a constant bombardment of expectations: Is your baby sleeping enough, eating well, enrolled in baby music classes etc. As baby grows up, the worries turn to safety – walking to school, playgrounds, bullying – and over the past decade, is your child having too much screen time? This anxiety and competition around getting it right falls mostly on mothers, she says. While fathers feel some pressure too, the idea that the child should be “well regulated” is thought to be the mother’s role.
“If you look at some of the cross-cultural work, some cultures will put a child in a playpen and let it learn to self-regulate, whereas Western parents seem to dangle things in front of their faces. Society creates norms around what parents should be doing.’’
She would like to see “normal’’ expanded so women, particularly working mothers, don’t feel such pressure.
Suzie*, a Wellington mother of three, agrees. The part-time teacher with three sons is always rushing. Life is too intense, driving her sons to sport, back and forth to school, and making sure the household runs fluidly.
“But it really is my own expectations of myself that I should be perfect. I’m the last to check in on my own wellbeing. I’m always checking everyone else is OK.
“I talk a lot with my girlfriends about how sometimes I feel like I’m failing at my job and at home. I get home and I feel quite exhausted.
“I think social media is partly to blame. There’s also the pressure to have XYZ. There almost needs to be a government initiative celebrating ‘What does success look like?’’’
However, not all working mothers feel this pressure. In Christchurch, Marianne Delaney-Hoshek has a busy, fulltime job as head coach for the mainland netball team, Tactix. Husband and father, Mike, a partner at Deloitte, is out the door at 7am and not home before 6.30pm.
After finishing her day job, Delaney-Hoshek spends time after school and in the early evenings driving her two sons, Zac, 11 and Sam, 9, to their various sports games. Both boys train every night and their weekends are also consumed by sport.
Delaney-Hoshek returned to coaching when Sam was 7 months old. “I used to feel guilty at times. But I now follow the mantra of being 100 per cent wherever I am. I try to be present as a mum and be present in my job when I’m at work. I try to be kinder to myself.’’
Another reason it works is that Delaney-Hoshek’s parents live nearby, so they can help when she is away for a tournament or coaching in the evenings.
Her job often takes her out of town, so she has to organise everything before she leaves and do the family’s washing and tidying when she is back. She doesn’t begrudge this, though. “I think you naturally get into the role of doing the home stuff when you have children and you’re at home with them in the day and that just continues when you go back to work. I’m the lead on that in our family. I sort out who goes where and when.’’
Mike – who also regularly travels for work – is very involved in the boys’ weekend sports, coaching their teams and taking them to games.
While Delaney-Hoshek books herself a monthly massage, she doesn’t see friends in the evenings or have as much couple time as she would like. “If I’ve been away for work for a weekend, I can’t then go away on a girls’ trip.’’
Elizabeth Peterson is able to work a 9-5 day at Auckland University because her husband is self-employed so can be more flexible and work around their children. What irks her, though, is when he is openly congratulated by other parents – usually mothers – for picking up their children from school so she can work fulltime. “We still live in a society where a father’s involvement is commented on. We don’t congratulate mothers like that.’’
Kate Prickett has a vision that fathers will one day be encouraged to take paid parental leave and that flexible work arrangements will be promoted to men too. Sweeping changes are needed at a structural level, she says. “It’s not good enough to just have flexible work arrangement policies in place – it’s about actively promoting them to men and getting senior male managers to role-model healthy work/family balance by going to pick up their kids from school, so other men also can do so without being discriminated against.’’
Shannon Williams remembers feeling like a “white rhino’’ when he was a stay-at-home dad with his daughter, Francie, now 13. While partner Tess Hansen-Kane went to her fulltime job, he stayed at home until their son, Louie, 9, went to school. A former band member of The Black Seeds, he then retrained as an early childhood teacher and now works fulltime at a Wellington kindergarten.
He says: “The types of dads I surround myself with are just like me. But I can see that a lot of men don’t do that much. My granddad used to come home from work and my grandmother had another big baby in the house she was expected to look after. My pop almost starved once when Nana went into hospital.’’
While Williams also now works fulltime, he picks up his son from school each day, makes the kids’ lunch boxes and does all the family’s cooking. He also puts the kids to bed every night. Some of their acquaintances are incredulous that he is so hands-on. But he’s happy that his partner doesn’t feel the same pressure as many other working mothers and he relishes his connection with his kids. With enough money to pay the bills, they’re a chilled-out household.
Williams reckons he became a feminist and decided to be a hands-on father because he was raised by a solo mother.
“My birth father ran off as soon as my mother got pregnant so I decided when I had my own children I didn’t want to be a drongo and do nothing. Right from day one, I’ve thought that parenting should be shared.’’