by Jen Murphy
Who does the cooking in your home? Who irons? Who cuts the grass? Before tiny o burst on to our scene, these tasks were partly fluid between myself and Big O sandwiched into our chocker lives. He tended to cook, I cleaned, he was our resident handyman, I upcycled (or committed furniture massacres). We both managed our own budgets with no joint account. An egalitarian eutopia or so I thought…
Eleven months following the birth of our little cherub, I returned to work, negotiating with my inner-chatter of excitement, guilt and worry about my performance both as a professional and as a mother. All of this compounded by the burden of a new role I created for myself on maternity leave – a housewife.
Becoming a mat leave housewife wasn’t a conscious choice I made myself or with Big O. It just happened. I cleaned our home preventing whatever culinary delight tiny o shoved up his nose or on to the floor, to fester. I learned to baby-led wean bringing its cook for the family ethos to life. I brought tiny o to his check-ups. I gyrated around like a five-foot elf on steroids at Jo Jingles each week.
I was hardly Hyacinth Bucket but happy enough to assume this role despite my niggling feminist conscience. Some days, I felt like I was going cracked at home but still, Big O was envious of our set-up. For him, equal opportunity to spend these early months with his son was a pipe dream as Irish daddy’s rights to decent paternity leave are still in nappies. He had to work.
Then I had to work too and it quickly became apparent Mrs Bucket needed to retire. STAT. I returned to my job striving to be the best employee and the best non stay-at-home mother. In hindsight, an effort to prove that I was entitled to be/have both that I didn’t have to choose. I exhausted myself and when I came to, realised I needed solutions. Here’s what I learned:
Much of my mat leave was spent in the traditional female sphere of home-making and child-rearing. Yet, with the exception of breastfeeding, this label as ‘female’ or ‘women’s work’ is not natural. It’s man-made. Rules created and passed through generations with such effect that from the moment we’re born as little girls, we perceive them as part of everyday life – as natural.
Having a babóg disrupted myself and Big O from our generally balanced gender roles into more traditional ‘female’ and ‘male’ roles. We had to struggle to get our balance back. We found this Practical Guide for Working Parents to Divide Household Responsibilities from Fast Company trés helpful. It includes a downloadable ‘household responsibilities worksheet’. A smidgen OTT for us but modifying it worked.
Still, there’s hope on the horizon… Our government has pledged to introduce Shared Parental Leave in its lifetime. This would give Irish mothers and fathers the right to share up to 52 weeks of leave to care for their newborn. Could this be a step to a more gender equal society? How might this change our perceptions of ‘women’s work’ in the home?
Imagine your child tried to learn a new skill but made a hames of it. What would you do? You would praise and encourage them to keep trying until they succeed. Yet, we don’t always show this same compassion to our partners as we embark on the STEEP child-rearing learning curve. We pressure ourselves to get childcare tasks ‘right’ first time like we innately understand how to be a parent on first sight of our beetroot-faced bambino. In reality, most of us don’t have the foggiest what to do, I certainly didn’t.
I’ve witnessed dads berated for falling short of childcare perfection. I’ve been the berater (not a word, I know). This serves no one well. It knocks confidence and reinforces gender roles, as mother knows best. Mothers get more time on maternity leave to trial and to learn what’s best. This can diffuse responsibility from fathers who need practice too – and they won’t if they feel like an ejit. Without equal parental leave policies, couples must work hard in the early days to create equal child-rearing partnerships, together.
As Sheryl Sandberg says take the help and, “Let him put the diaper on the baby any way he wants as long as he’s doing it himself.” This sounds patronising, I know! (I was the one who’d never changed a nappy in our house). But, where it’s needed, it can work.
A local TD may seem as relevant to your life as Ziggy Stardust while you’re busy cleaning snot off your pride and joy. But, they’re in power to serve us, the people of Ireland. We elect politicians to make good decisions on our behalf. There’s an onus on us to make them aware of the issues that are important to us as working mammies. As a nation, we’re increasingly politically astute using creative avenues to influence genuine social change. It’s an exciting time. Especially for women.
It might be low down your priority list but every now and then check-in and ask yourself: what social change could make a difference to me as a Working Mammy? For example, I recently emailed a number of TD’s about the government’s plans for Shared Parental Leave. I believe this can improve gender equality and reduce our chronic 14% gender pay gap to prevent women from being penalised in their careers and salary progression for taking valuable time to care for their children. Here’s a sample of the email I sent. If this raises one or both of your eyebrows, check-out this excellent article from SpunOut on how to get in contact with your TD.
You can also write a blog for the Working Mammy community about an issue that’s a priority for you. We all have unique family set-ups regardless of whether we’re in ‘traditional’ partnerships, same-sex relationships, are single mothers, whatever the case may be, but often we face similar challenges as working mammies. Mine is just one lived experience, this site should represent many – that’s what it’s for so get in touch.
So I started this blog talking about washing the dishes and now I’m burning my bra on the streets. But this is my point. Returning to work after maternity leave is tough. We can get so caught-up surviving the day that we trudge on and don’t reflect on why things are the way they are and what we can do to change them. We can change. From an honest discussion with our partner to manage our household as working parents; to showing kindness and encouraging one another to be our best selves; to lobbying our government to improve Ireland for working mammies and indeed, working dads, period.
All of this is within our grasp. This is why I’m so passionate about building the Working Mammy community. We need a cohesive voice for working mothers in Ireland. If you believe this too, reach out!
If you’re struggling with mammy guilt as you return to work, this article might help: A Simple Tool to Ease Working Mammy Guilt