Take one: I was playing ‘handbag’ to my husband at a business cocktail party. As the food was passed my way, I politely declined, mentioning that I had already eaten. The man in a suit standing next to me said, “you are obviously a mother.” He then turned away and spoke to somebody else, no doubt assuming that I would have nothing interesting or worthwhile to contribute.
Take two: A business lunch, this time related to my own work. People introduced themselves around the table then chat turned to the inevitable, “and what do you do?” Responses were diverse: Doctor, lawyer, accountant, publicist, actor… until, across the table a vivacious woman said, “I am a happy housewife.” Because this woman had dared to call it like it was (and describing herself as ‘happy’), with no embellishment (“domestic engineer”) or apology (“I am just a mum”), she commanded as much respect as any of the ‘high fliers’ at the table.
Sadly, being a mother, especially a full-time mother, often doesn’t convey much acknowledgement, let alone respect, but I often wonder if this is our own fault to some extent – will others have more respect for our mothering role if we command this with confidence, like the woman at lunch?
I believe respect starts with self respect and valuing our own role as mothers but this can take a while to come to grips with, especially the first time round. Many women are used to defining themselves by what they do, so being ‘just a mother’ can add another layer of the inevitable identity crisis as you adjust to the ‘real change of life’ that having a baby entails.
Second time mum, Tania is another woman who happily defines herself as a stay at home mum, but it took a while for her to do this with the pride she now manages. She says, “at first I used to say, “I am a medical scientist but I’m in maternity leave.” Then, when I was considering returning to work part time, the costs involved (childcare and tax changes) meant that we would hardly be any better off financially so we made a conscious choice to downshift.” Tania admits that the transition hasn’t always been easy: “it took a while to adjust to feeling ‘less important’ because people used to be very interested in what I did (before I was a mother) and I do get a bit of flack at times. The other day I was bagged by another mother who is working fulltime about my car being old, but it doesn’t bother me because I feel really privileged that I am that I am able to enjoy my babies.”
Although a career can define our identity, there is also pressure on mothers that if they aren’t in the (paid) workforce they are either failing to contribute (to the family budget or to society at large) or that they are wasting their education. Yet the skills acquired from being a mother (and required to be a mother)– from extreme patience under stress and dealing with difficult people, to multi- tasking – can be valuable attributes to society at large as well as any future career path. Mothering involves amazing creativity and is probably the most intense personal development course available. It also requires initiative that can lead on to new opportunities in business or personal life and it is entirely compatible with further study if this suits you.
If you are feeling confused about taking ‘time out’ please remind yourself that the world will wait while you do the wonderful, worthwhile work of raising happy little human beings and hold your head up high: if you understand the significance of your nurturing role to your child and to your own identity, you will be open to the delights of being a mother, however you choose to work this out.