Lat month I attended an all day festival at the Sydney Opera House entitled ‘All About Women‘. A number of speakers spoke about their various opinions about women’s role in the world today, and the day was supplemented by a number of ‘conversations’ – panel discussions which tackled some of the issues facing women in the workplace or around whether or not, for example, to have children, and so on: some deliberately provocative subjects. It was an interesting day and a pause for thought, in the presence of hundreds of other engaged and questioning women – the fact of their presence on a Sunday, of course, being proof enough that these issues are far from being resolved in our society.
During one of the talks, by Liza Mundy, the American journalist, who was talking about the ideas in her latest book, “The Richer Sex”, an incident occurred which caused me to reflect and which I have been thinking about ever since. Ms Mundy was describing how women now have an unprecedented opportunity to “out-earn” their husbands, for all sorts of reasons, and what this might mean for them. She looked back at the (very recent) history of women effectively having to surrender any money or income they had to their husbands, and described how this still played out in the world today, with suspicion and unease towards women who earn more than their husbands – often by and among the women themselves, who are nervous about pairing with a man who will earn less than them, as if, deep down, this is somehow against the natural order.
Ms Mundy went on, then, to talk about what it would mean for women who did earn more than their husbands and become the main breadwinners, and although she stressed the positive, she also said, almost in a throwaway line, that women with children who were in this position might need to grow used to becoming the more distant parent. At this point, a woman sitting a few seats away burst into tears and had to be consoled by her companions. I don’t think many people noticed – it is a big venue, after all, and we were sitting in the dark – but the impact of these words was clearly significant for this participant.
Of course, there could have been many reasons why she burst into tears, many of them unconnected with the words of the speaker; I certainly didn’t pry, and it would have been inappropriate afterwards to question her. She was clearly emotional, however, and the coincidence of her dissolving into tears at that precise moment in the speaker’s talk made it likely that there was some connection and some personal impact on her life. It made me reflect again on what it means to be a working mother, or a working parent.
As I did so, I grew increasingly cross. The truth is, of course, is that we have all been set up to fail in our expectations of parenthood. We will never feel good enough. As parents, we are biologically and emotionally attuned to want and need to be there for our children, but we also need to be realistic about what we need to do to support our children well. Moreover, bringing up children is hard. Advertising for baby products, meanwhile – to use only a small example of the pressures on women – emphasises the beautiful moments of mother-baby (less often, father-baby) interaction, played again and again on screen or in the pages of magazines for us as if there for eternity, and as if this is what having a baby is always all about. If we don’t experience this constantly, we are effectively told, we are failures as parents. Our logical brain may tell us that playing with a happy baby is only a part of the parenting experience and process, but our emotional brain cannot help but to be influenced by what it overwhelmingly sees and experiences around it â€“ and besides, it is easy to want to be influenced by this essential beauty.
In truth, there will always be separation by some parent at some point even from their baby, and for the baby to grow in experience, this will be essential at various stages. Most significantly, for parents to be able to afford to bring up their baby, one or other of them is going to have to work. This is not to suggest, however, that the status quo in our society is by any means good enough. It simply isn’t, and I came to the conclusion in my reflections that Liza Mundy was wrong in her too-causal assumption that the new, ‘richer’ working mother would simply replace what working fathers have had to endure for too long.
Instead, we need to rethink society’s relationship with parents. We don’t value parenthood enough. We don’t support our parents enough. We need to think through all our workplace structures to make sure that we can allow all parents to be fully engaged in bringing up their – our – children, while still contributing effectively to the work and activity of our world.
Richness comes from engaging fully in life, in all its imperfections, but also challenging what it wrong and making a difference. Our parents need our help to allow them to do exactly this.