Time to help parents prioritize life over work
Working mothers constantly feel the need to be superwomen because, socially and professionally, they’re put under a microscope — but a healthy balance would be achievable if the system allowed it.
MY son was born at 31 weeks, weighing a mere 1.7 kilograms and in need of intensive care. At almost five months, I left my son and went back to work. I was lucky to have the best support system, a very hands-on partner, and an incredible work environment. Yet I felt I was constantly failing. What was I doing wrong?
Struggling to find a sense of balance, I started scrolling through blogs, written by everyone from experts to sleepdeprived mothers, to try and understand how I could manage. The blogs included pictures of happy, successful-looking mothers holding their children, exhibiting the utmost level of confidence. Under the infuriating pictures is what pretends to be the holy grail for balancing work and family life — a shopping list of “to-dos.”
Apparently, to balance a full-time job with family life, you should, firstly, optimize your calendar. OK, noted. Secondly, stay connected with your children. Of course I will. Thirdly, limit your distractions. You don’t say — I barely have the time to eat. And, finally, create time for yourself. OK, now you’re just being ridiculous.
The point I am trying to make is that most of these parenting blogs provide quick wins which, if done correctly, will make you flourish in both your personal and professional lives. The reality is, they won’t.
The reason why most mothers feel they are continuously failing is because they don’t realize that, despite their best efforts, it is not them but the system that is at odds with itself. Here is why. They expect you to raise your children with the right Islamic and Arabic values, while at the same time working as an indispensable agent on the economic and social development of your country. They expect you to ensure your household is managed efficiently, all whilst managing unrealistic deadlines and workloads. They pressure you to constantly prove yourself and stay late at work, while simultaneously making sure your child is not constantly with the nanny.
Be an achiever, aim high. But wait, why does your child speak English instead of his native Arabic language? Do have more children — after all, the fertility rate is declining — but not too often, because it may affect our planned projects. Do have more children, but naturally your annual appraisal will suffer, because technically you did not perform for as many months as your colleagues.
Make sure you breastfeed your child for at least a year for its numerous health benefits but, our apologies, we cannot provide you with a dignified place to pump or a close-by nursery. Of course, no woman wants to discuss her anatomy with her employer, so you discreetly use the bathroom or prayer room.
We expect fathers to be more involved in raising their children and in supporting their wives, to understand the miraculous journey of birth and care giving. And yet we only grant them a few days off, time barely sufficient to produce the legal documents.
Another reason we feel we’re constantly failing is because we live in a society that continues to propagate a culture that expects super womanhood or nothing. We glorify perfectionism and applaud those who race back to work within two weeks of giving birth. We socially brag about our suffering and sacrifice, when maybe we need not suffer.
The system is failing us because of its inflexible working environment and restrictive human resource laws that don’t support the plurality of a working woman’s life. We constantly feel exhausted because women still bear most of the child and household responsibility. We feel the need to be superwomen because, socially and professionally, we’re put under a microscope.
And so, for the lack of a better quote, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
A healthy work-life balance is achievable. For example, most families flourish in Scandinavian countries because: One, the focus is not only on how to make life easier for mothers, but for the family unit; and secondly there is no dichotomy between what is communicated and what is practised. Scandinavian countries generally have shorter working hours; communities are designed to be family friendly; and governments provide families with the basic benefits, including medical, child care, day care, education and leisure, regardless of the family’s income.
In Denmark — which was ranked first in the World Happiness Report in 2016 — the all-encompassing support system includes flexible working conditions and social support networks. It provides parents a generous 52 weeks of paid leave. More importantly, Danes spend around two-thirds of their day (16 hours) eating, sleeping and indulging in leisurely pursuits. They prioritize life over work, and when they are at work they enjoy a high degree of flexibility. They can often choose when to start their working day and have the option of working from home.
There will be no equality until we realize this is no longer a women’s issue. You cannot create a system without reflecting today’s realities. Economic opportunities for women have changed so we can no longer be caught up in the breadwinner argument. Ease the pressure, help fathers get more involved, provide early childhood daycare centers and pumping rooms. Allow for flexible working hours and really support parents who prioritize life.
Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik