Motherhood blew up my feminism 1: the shadows of equality

I hope to write a few pieces on this theme. I’m not an academic feminist, or even an academic. But I’ve always considered myself strongly in favour of women’s rights, and have found myself rethinking a great deal of what I thought that meant since becoming a mother.¬†

Before I had a baby, I was a pretty standard second-wave feminist, with some third-wave gender woo thrown in. People couldn’t really change sex but their identification mattered more; equal representation in business and public life was the key thing for women.

Having a baby blew a lot of that out of the water for me. I never really understood the permanent sense of being spread too thin that is so weakly implied by the hackneyed phrase ‘balancing work and family life’. I’d always imagined I’d go briskly back to work and childcare would be an easy solution. Then, when my daughter did arrive, it turned out that there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do so much out in the world that it overrode the visceral desire to stay close to her and prioritise caring for her. I was working freelance when I got pregnant so was never really on the ‘return to work’ conveyor belt and just haven’t felt at all inspired to claw my way back onto it. So, nearly 20 months later, I’m still not back at work. For the most part I’m happy with that choice, and I’m fortunate that my husband earns enough for me to have had the choice to care for our daughter beyond the initial 12 months maternity leave permitted in UK law, without needing to return to work part- or full-time.

Two aspects of this have blown up much of what I took as axiomatic in feminism prior to this. One, that women simply and unambiguously have more choices now than they did 50 years ago, and two, that the earnings gap between men and women was certainly down to prejudice.

On the matter of choice and motherhood, then. I’ve found myself saying often to people in recent months: ‘I’m lucky to have the choice to stay home with my daughter’. Thinking on this, it struck me that within the phrase ‘balancing work and family life’ is a whole story about the shadow side of second-wave feminism, specifically of women’s push into the workplace on equal terms to men. Very understandably, educated women burned to free themselves from the stifling expectation that they would be wives and mothers, and no more. My mother’s generation were still expected to quit work when they got married. But as that changed, and more women stayed in work, negotiated maternity pay etc, over the second half of the twentieth century the arrival of women in the workplace contributed along with de-industrialisation, the rise of the knowledge economy and a host of other things to a gradual adjustment of the economy via inflation, salary levels, housing costs and the like. And the consequence of this adjustment is that where it was once possible for even modest earners to keep a family on one salary, now – because women work as well – it takes both incomes to keep body and soul together.

That’s all very well for families where both parents have careers that are as rewarding as raising one’s children, but for parents (and yes, especially for mothers) who have jobs rather than careers it forces many back into work whether they might well prefer to stay home with children. After all, in most cases people actually like spending time with their children. It’s not all snot and shitwork. So while it’s certainly true that on paper I have a lot more choice than my mother did, partly that’s because my husband earns more than average. I’m not sure how much the feminist revolution really has increased choice for working- and lower-middle-class women at all, as much as it has widened the scope of life for women in the cognitive elite.

Though I don’t have the figures to prove it, my hunch as well is that assortative mating – the tendency of people of similar social and economic status to marry and reproduce with one another – has created a multiplier on the gap between richer and poorer families. Put more simply, lawyers, doctors and bankers tend to marry one another and combine their six-figure salaries, which in turn means that aggregate family incomes are far more widely distributed than would be the case in a society where most families had a single parent earning income. Thus top-end house prices skyrocket; independent school fees rise; and people who would have had a traditionally middle-class lifestyle 30 years ago such as journalists and academics find themselves priced out of their native cultural territory.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you are overly concerned about income disparities. (Though the people most concerned about possible increases in the gap between rich and poor are usually also strongly supportive of the right of both men and women to work on equal terms, so it is maybe unsurprising that this unintended consequence is not often discussed.) I note it because I like to follow thoughts where logic dictates they must go; not because I think things should go back to the way they were in 1965. But I’ve found myself concluding that the entry of women to the workplace has probably contributed to the gradual widening of the gap between rich and poor; and that it has forced substantial numbers of mothers – who do not particularly love their jobs – to spend more time working and less time with their children than they would otherwise choose.

Of course it wasn’t that long ago that most women had very little choice about¬†not going out to work, whether they wanted to stay home with children or not. And now it seems to me the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is limiting women’s choices in the opposite way.

So in summary I’m no longer sure that the sex pay gap is unambiguously the result of a downward pressure exerted by reactionary forces of chauvinism on an otherwise driven and capable female workforce. And nor am I convinced that women precisely have more choice than before, say, the 1960s. Those choices have changed, but so have the social and economic pressures and I’m not convinced that has been wholly for the better. To be clear, this isn’t to say that feminism is redundant. Quite the opposite, But I do think we could do with looking a little more clear-sightedly at where we are, at what that looks like for women who have jobs rather than careers, and what exactly we think the work of motherhood is worth today.