Taking Motherhood Into The Public Sphere

Published on 26 Apr 2016 . 5 min read

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Motherhood might be a biological norm, but in both the physical and emotional reality of giving birth and nursing an infant it is in fact an abrupt, and sometimes violent, upending of the normal. Labour, sleep deprivation, post-partum depression, chewed nipples and an invasion of mental space with guilt about parenting choices combine to make for a decisive break from the past.

Yet there is more discussion in the public sphere about black holes, and certainly the price of onions, than there is about motherhood. I am not referring to the idealized, quasi-religious veneration of the mother figure that is common in our culture, but to the potentially painful and usually unexpected loss of self-hood that motherhood entails.  

The idea, I suppose, is that if anything needs to be learnt, it will be transmitted down from mother-to mother within the private sphere of the extended family.

I’m not sure that this has ever been particularly true, but it is glaringly insufficient in twenty first century India. Increasing numbers of women do not live with constant access to their mothers.  Moreover, modern medical science often contradicts traditional parenting methods, adding to the confusion that young mothers experience. There is most of all a societal reluctance to correlate anything that might be interpreted as negative with motherhood- probably a response to the biological imperative of procreation.

I wanted to write this book, Babies and Bylines, in part to break the interiority of birth and parenting. Keeping “women’s” concerns safely shuttered within the four walls of the home has served patriarchy well. But, if we are at all interested in gender justice then “motherhood” needs to be dragged out of the home and into the public eye, so that it is seen, acknowledged and responded to by governments, employers and the wider public.

If the public and private spheres are recognized as parts of an interconnected continuum, the necessity to develop social and economic practices that allow for ‘work’ from home and care from work will become more obvious.

Before becoming a mother I had a strongly held belief that motherhood did not, and should not, be perceived as affecting a woman’s professionalism.  It took me years, and two children to figure out that in fact motherhood should affect a woman’s approach to work, as a man’s. Becoming parents changes us, and this transformation is healthy and needs to be anticipated rather than brushed under the carpet under the guise of “professionalism.”

Change does not have to be deleterious. Parents will inevitably alter the manner in which they tackle their professional lives. They now have important competing priorities that require large investments of time. Their jobs cannot be their only focus, even if they can, and usually do, remain a substantial focus.

Before they have children the opportunity cost for most ambitious people in embracing workaholism entails less time to tweeze their nose hair or walk their dogs. For parents working round the clock is to fail their children. This is an opportunity cost of a different magnitude.

The change in attitude towards “work” that many parents develop involves a healthier perspective on professional life. Small crises are more easily set within a broader context. Parents are usually more efficient when it comes to utilizing their time. They are also per force excellent multi-taskers. Yet, attempting any kind of genuine work-life balance is often seen as unprofessional, and can be damaging to both career and peace of mind.

Consequently, in most professions men who become fathers continue to act like they have not been changed by parenthood. And women who acknowledge this change, are punished for it. They are usually compelled to either give up their professional lives (at least any hope of serious ambition), or to neglect their children.

The construction and perpetuation of the false dichotomy between the personal and professional, between parents and professionals, is amongst the worst sins of contemporary work culture.

Solutions that require systemic changes are always complicated and long-term. Longer parental leave (including paternity leave), programmes to assist women and men back into the workforce after extended periods of time off, better daycare and sick care facilities for children, are all part of the solution. But the first step is for women and men to ask that employers recognize their needs as parents. This is not tantamount to demanding “special” favours. Expecting to be able to live an existence where you can work and parent/care without fatally compromising one or the other is normal. It is the workplace’s current practices that are pathological.

Pallavi Aiyar
Award-winning journalist Pallavi Aiyar has spent several years reporting from, and parenting in, China, Europe and Indonesia. She is the author of Smoke and Mirrors, Chinese Whiskers and Punjabi Parmesan. Pallavi is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a former Reuters Fellow at Oxford University. Her new book Babies and Bylines is a parenting memoir of a working mother of two young boys in three different parts of the world – Beijing, Brussels and Jakarta. Witty, irreverent and honest, it highlights the battles a mother must fight with herself, and the world, as she struggles with issues that seem to stubbornly remain the same, generation after generation work-life balance, negotiating marital equality and taming toddlers.

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