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OPINION: 'I want to be able to choose to be "mother," and only that. But society says no.'

Opportunity for women is a beautiful, wonderful thing.

I want my daughter to have the freedom to put her mind to whatever she likes. But opportunity has come at a cost in the form of some very complex, fundamental social complications.

We don’t seem ready to admit that taking a mum away from her kids and putting her in an office will have ramifications. Without touching a single research paper, I feel like biology is screaming this at us in the form of boobs, vaginas, hormones, mother guilt and a childhood anxiety epidemic.

The momentum on equality for women seemed to pause once we all got jobs.

It was like all the men of the world leaned back in their office chairs, breathed a collective, exasperated sigh of relief and said ‘Happy now?’ No, John, I’m not happy. I’m mad we didn’t push for more. You see, I would like to have some more progressive options when it comes to having a family other than ‘give your kids to someone else while you go to work’.

Surely we can come up with something a little more sophisticated than just outsourcing child raising duties or swapping the mum for the dad or freezing our eggs. Why can’t we freeze our careers?

Is extended maternity leave good for parents and employers? Post continues below.

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I want to be able to choose to be mother, and only that, and not feel the oppressive weight of expectation to have a career at the same time.

I want my daughter to be able choose to take a decade out of the workforce, be valued by society for her choice, and then be supported and equipped to re-establish her career, rather than feeling the whole time that the workplace has moved on and that she has lost all that she has worked so hard for.

I want her to live in a society that values full time mothering as much as it values a pay cheque or a job title.

Support for women who choose to step back from their profession and physically raise their own kids until they go to school is severely lacking in this country. It’s lacking in government policy, in the workplace and in society in general.

I feel compelled to stay tangled up in this weird, unsatisfying mess of trying to have a career and raise young kids at the same time. I am an undeniable product of a society that tells girls they can and should be able to have it all.

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So you might be thinking, but I actually want to work and I like it. Me too. I like what I do. I like to work because society raised me to value my career and as a result I get lots of positive emotions like self validation through my work.

But society failed to instill in me something else of great importance – a value of mothering.

Why do I prefer working? Is it because a day in the office is simply more stimulating than a pretty mundane day wiping bums and soothing a three-year-old who is crying over the way their sandwich is cut up?

Personally I’m sick of the ‘I need to use my brain’ argument and I think it’s a cop out – I have personally found nothing more challenging or thought provoking as parenting.

I think I prefer ‘work’ because in an office my work is seen and valued by peers. I get pats on the back and someone gives me money afterwards. Kids are rewarding, but in a very gradual, very long term kind of way and the hard work that goes into them largely goes unnoticed and unseen.

 

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I, for one, will identify as a restless soul constantly seeking short term gratification, with the long term game playing second fiddle. Parenting is about as long term as it gets.

If you’re going back to work out of financial necessity, that’s different. I get that there are a lot of women who have to work to put food on the table.

Regardless of our situation, we can all benefit from progress. So what is progressive? Let’s start with the government.

There are a myriad of policies that incentivise mums to go back to work three months after pumping out a baby, but not much policy that supports women who may wish to take a much longer, continuous stint out of the workforce.

For a start, we should be talking about re-skilling, up-skilling, compensation for lost super and tax incentives. Isn’t really short term maternity leave support and a policy framework that encourages women to return to work ASAP just a back handed way of saying, “you’re more useful to society in the office, just put your kids in day care.”

Where are the policies that recognise and incentivise the critical role mothers are playing in raising the next generation? Where are the figures on our contributions to the economy by raising our own kids, just simply through the unpaid labour? Where is the data on how raising your own kids contributes to social cohesion in the broader community and healthy social and emotional development?

 

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We don’t have any of these measurements because they’re intangibles and practically impossible to measure in a meaningful way, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to develop policy frameworks that value positive social outcomes. The alternative is that we continue to judge the success of our society based on dollars and doctorates.

And then we have workplaces like accounting firm KMPG, which is currently lobbying to get mums back to work so we can generate an additional 30,000 workdays per week and make them some more moolah.

At KMPG mums are seen as ‘secondary earners’ that could generate an ‘extra $678 million in economic activity per year’.

Sorry, but I already am doing something kind of important for the economy and that is raising well adjusted, resilient children who will grow into adults who can hold down a job and form healthy relationships and have a nice life.

I don’t like your slogans about ‘unleashing potential’ when I have a lot of potential to unleash outside the workforce.

I know we can work this out, but not while we continue to ignore the truth – that the system is actually still failing us.

Until we accept the discomfort that comes with this truth, that perhaps we aren’t doing the best thing by ourselves or by our children, then we cannot make improvements for those who come behind us.

As much as we all now scoff at the term ‘home making’ – it’s actually really flipping hard to function in society without a well functioning home. And if neither parent is at home it can pose some very basic difficulties in how that home functions.

Adding a career sadly often means we can’t take care of our own very basic needs, let alone the needs of our kids. The National Working Families Report, an annual survey that interviewed more than 6,000 parents and carers in Australia, found two-thirds were struggling to look after their own physical and mental health.

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So as someone who has repeatedly tried and failed to step back from a profession in order to physically raise my kids, I am writing this to try and start a conversation that may carve out a few more options for women.

A bit more freedom.

"I am writing this to try and start a conversation that may carve out a few more options for women." Image: Instagram

I felt most empowered after the birth of my second child, when I had this brief moment of pure sass and said to myself “You know what? The world can wait. I have another job to do at the moment, and I feel biologically compelled to do it and it’s more important than anything else I could dream up."

I’ll probably live till I’m 80, so I have a long time left to blow the roof off any career I choose. Even if the government and the rest of the community is busy failing to see all the ways in which full time mothers are contributing to society, I will not prescribe to this view a second longer. I know better.”

This conviction comes and goes, and then I gradually slip back into society and get the guilts about not being in the workforce and not contributing and not taking advantages of the opportunities I have been so graciously given.

This is a societal issue that it's extremely difficult to disentangle from. But we can all help fix it.

We can change the way we speak and act and actually just demonstrate to our daughters that we are choosing to be a mother, despite all the opportunities laid out at our feet. Isn’t that ultimate empowerment?

Virginia lives in regional NSW with her husband and two kids. After finishing up as a journalist with the ABC she turned her hand to freelance writing and mummy blogging. She’s also an Instagram enthusiast.

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