Saturday, March 24, 2012

Motherhood and Career


Over Christmas, one of the books I read was ‘Reading Women: how the great books of feminism changed my life’ by Stephanie Staal. Staal grew up taking it for granted that women could have professional careers. She went to college, worked and then did a Masters degree in journalism before working as a reporter and writing a book. The she got married and had a baby. She took a pragmatic decision to switch to freelance work, taking into account her working hours as a journalist and the costs of childcare. Eventually as she struggled to find the time and the energy to work she started to feel that she was losing her identity as a professional with a career. Then one day she was in a book shop and picked-up Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, which was published in 1963 and helped spark the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. She found that she now understood what Friedan was writing about in a way that she did not when she read the book an undergraduate. Eventually she decided to repeat ‘Feminist Texts’, an introductory survey of the major feminist works, at her alma mater, Barnard College, in New York, in order to see whether  they would help her find a way forward.

The book interweaves her thoughts as she reads through and discusses the texts with her own experiences and, if nothing else, provides a quick introduction to feminist thought over the centuries.

A passage that particularly caught my attention was in a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf famously proposed that in order to engage in creative activities like writing a woman needs a room of her own and a personal income of £500 a year. Staal writes:

Crowded into an urban apartment, working to regain my professional footing, keeping watch of a young child, I thought about Virginia Woolf’s conditions for female creativity. If I had the money – five hundred pounds converted into U.S. currency and adjusted for inflation, of course – and a room of my own, which I sort of had here by the kitchen, was that really all it would take? My daughter pounded on the door of my home office. “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” I stopped typing. The words of the sentence I had been writing scattered, the muse frightened away. I swung open the door in a motion of irritation. And there stood my daughter, holding out to me a piece of paper with a poem she had written, her expression serious and proud.“Mommy,” she said, “I wrote this for you.”

That seemed to me to sum up the dilemma that women face one we have children. Yes, we want to use our intelligence and education but we also want to have time to spend with our children. I do not believe that there is a universal right answer. It depends on your health, the health of your children, the support available from family or networks of friends, cultural and religious background, how much you earn, how much your partner earns, whether childcare is available and many other things. But, if organisations seriously want to retain women then they need to support whatever works for individual women, whether it is working full time (depends on access to childcare, school holiday programmes, after-school programmes), working part time (without prejudice to career prospects) or taking a career break (depends on support for returners). This should not be seen as a luxury but as essential for retaining the best people.

I also think we who have experience of combining career and children also need to be more willing to talk about what it is really like. Not just the constantly feeling that whatever it is you are doing you ought to be doing something else but the feeling that an identity that has been important to you as a professional is becoming submerged.

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