Thursday, February 22, 2007

Olivers -- here's my twist

Oliver James calls for an effort to "raise the status of the parental role" because presently "being a stay-at-home mother has a lower one than that of streetsweeper".

OJ is right in that stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs) have a very low status and possibly even lower self-esteem. And, following from previous post, this is part of the reason middle-class familes are disintegrating. His 'affluenza virus' theory applies most to this class of people, I think.

Middle-class families are falling apart because the desire for material goods means that couples often lock themselves into a financial bind which requires both of them to work full-time. A stay-at-home parent (even part-time) is no more an option.

Or couples believe that they are so well-trained and well-educated that it will be a real pity should either leave their profession or career (but less so 'job') to concentrate on child-rearing.

So childcare is farmed out as much as is possible. Children grow up to become strangers to their parents. Time outside school is carefully scheduled with tennis, swimming, piano, violin, ballet, gymnastics, etc, etc. so that children are exhausted by the time exhausted parents get home.

Weekends are again rounds of frenetic activities with football, birthday parties, sleepovers, tennis, swimming, piano, violin, ad nauseum.

In a study I conducted in Singapore a few years ago, funded by the august British Academy, no less, I found many graduate mothers deciding that 'enough is enough'. They decided to be completely counter-cultural, go against the tide, give up their careers to focus on their children.

For most, if not all of them, this means having to accept a lower standard of living, but they found this all very worthwhile. The hardest bit of being a SAHM was in preventing their brains from turning into mush.

But being the intelligent women that these mothers are in the first place, many have found ways and means of getting around this problem.

So there are families, like ours, that do without two or three foreign holidays a year, without that second car, or the live-in nanny/au pair, and new clothes every season. (With less disposable income, we also do with less junk food, curiously enough.)

Careers have been put on hold because we know full well that children will not remain children forever. They grow up, become more and more independent, and then they fly the nest. But we take advantage of these formative years to mould their character.

Instead of saying "What a waste that we are not using our university education?" we say "Surely we can give our own flesh-and-blood a better education than other (probably much less well qualified) childcare providers."

Instead of looking at our "years of fallow" at home as years of waste, we take these as years spent on "investing" in the social and moral development of our offspring.

There is a danger, however, that if we extrapolated the argument that a parent (usually the mother) should provide full-time care, sooner or later the reasoning will come to a point: why bother to educate women at all?

Why bother to educate women indeed when they are merely to be bearers and carers of babies? So JO's assertion is in danger of being hijacked by some backward thinking males (or even females) that will remove the privileges of education that women in many cultures have so long taken for granted.

The argument is instead -- in my view -- to make re-entering the workforce easier for women who have had to take a break for childcare reasons. A nurse friend of ours worked one day a week at some point, and increased the number of days as her child grew older.

One day a week? Most employers won't allow this as this is too much of a hassle to organize. But when the women concerned are skilled professionals who need to keep at practising their skills or risk losing their license, or who need to practise to keep abreast with protocol, then working a day a week while her child/ren go to a day nursery is a profitable compromise.

So, equally, it will be disingenuous to assume that all forms of childcare outside the home is bad. In my particular situation, I wished that I had exposed my son to a little bit more of such care when he was younger. This is because as an only child he is deprived of the kind of exposure to social skills that children in care and children with siblings soon develop.

Feminism has indeed gone wrong to lead us to believe that women can only be as good as men if they behave as "men in skirts" (as JO calls them).

I say this from the unusual and perhaps unfortunate position as being considered in my time at university as being "too feminist to be a Brethren" by my mates in the Varsity Christian Fellowship and "too Christian to be feminist" by my colleagues at the Sociology Department.

The truth is I believe in the right of all women in reaching their fullest potential through education and work opportunities. I always spoke up for the 'rights of women' in the Christian church. At the same time I believe that women should also have the option to choose what she has been made to do better than men: in the nurture of very young children.

Am I perpetuating the myth that women should stay at home?

On the contrary.

When graduate (and often non-graduate) mothers in Singapore work, they leave their children to a paid foreign servant girl. What their sons and daughters see therefore is a woman being paid lowly wages to do what they consider 'lowly work'. They hold little respect for such women.

When I stay at home and talk to my son about science, space, algebra, philosophy, religion, music, art, the position of women in God's creation, the need to be charitable to those less fortunate, his own responsiblity as a grown-up, his citizenship both here on earth and in heaven, he is seeing how clever (or not) I am and I am shaping his view of the world and and especially his view of women in the world.

Feminists have proposed the use of new language (eg 'person' instead 'man', 'manunkind' instead of 'mankind', 'her-story' instead of 'history') to 'right the balance' in our man-centric language. They have forgotten that children grow up to speak their 'mother tongue', but only if mother is around to speak with them.

When I, as an educated mother, take the time to explain my interpretation of this (man-centric) language to my child, I have a better chance of helping him to use it in an unbiased way than the lowly-paid servant girl, nanny or au pair who does not speak English all that well.

I have a better chance than any au pair in convincing my son that women can be just as clever and strong as men, but in different ways. They may be a full-time mother, but it does not make them less equal than man.

So, yes, for my strain of feminism progress, I need women like myself who are happy to take on the mothering role willingly.

Then families will once again be able to 'do family' seven days a week, and not on weekends only. If sacrifices have to be made, children will learn that what is advertised on TV is not the ultimate solution to their growing-up pangs.

If a child (and especially a son) belongs so completely to the mother as Steve Biddulph asserts, then these first six years are when mothers need to bond with their sons.

After this, sons want to be 'just like Dad'. Women then can think about returning to work without feeling guilty. It comes back to the (bigger? more important?) question of what employers can do to ease such women back into work.

Back to Organic-Ally.

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