My daughter was only three weeks old when the question came: “Are you managing to get any work done?” I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me this over the first months of new motherhood.
When they say ‘work’ they don’t mean getting up at 6am to do the job of running a household and caring for family. Things like laundry, planning meals, cooking, cleaning, welcoming friends and relatives, remembering to write thank you cards and letters, or to drop in on so-and-so who’s just out of hospital; things which seem to take all day when fitted around the needs of a newborn. Of this kind of work, I’m managing to do loads – it never seems to end, and it’s exhausting, but it keeps the world going round.
No, when they say ‘work’, what they mean is that there is only one kind of work that matters: paid work. The kind of work I congratulate myself on getting done around a newborn – the laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning – is invisible. The expectation is that as a new mother I’ll be wanting to get away from it and back to being a productive economic unit as soon as possible. Or, if I don’t want to, that I should want to.
What I’m rapidly discovering is that there is no space in this society to simply be a mum. The end of maternity leave looms threateningly. I hear over and over again from other new mummies about how they’d like more time at home to run an efficient household and be fully present to their children, but they can’t afford not to go back to work.
It feels like the aims of my mother’s baby boomer generation – to make more space for women in the workplace – have backfired. Wasn’t one of the aims of feminism to give women more choice? Go out to work if you wanted to, stay at home if you wanted to? Perversely, it’s created a culture in which women must work to have any value whatsoever. Staying at home is no longer a choice women of my generation can afford. In fact, it’s frowned upon. Pressure comes from all sides, not least from within the home.
Men no longer want a mumsy type of woman, into home baking and crafting; they look for a partner to reflect their own status, someone who would create a ‘power couple’. Think Amal Alamuddin-Clooney rather than Kirstie Allsop. Men of my generation would run a mile from any prospective partner who admitted she wanted to stay home and raise children. No, she’s got to ‘pay her way’, look great in a frock, be professionally impressive, and manage domestic affairs from a distance.
This Mother’s Day is my first as a mother, and what I’m thinking to myself is not ‘Ah, now I can relax and really enjoy being a mum’ but a running ticker of all the things I need to do this weekend: get to the supermarket, buy flowers for Mum, fit in a workout (got to bounce back to shape to look great in those frocks!), prepare Sunday lunch, mop the floors, pick up a card for a friend who’s just had a baby, ring my grandmother, ad infinitum. And all the while at the back of my mind, that question, “Are you managing to get any work done?”
Mother’s Day? Welcome to the madhouse.