Time to help par­ents pri­or­i­tize life over work

Arab News - - OPINION - AsmA I. Ab­dul­mA­lIk | spe­cIAl to ArAb News

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

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