Thursday, 28 June 2018

Do Clever Women Have a Responsibility to Work?

I graduated from the University of Oxford in 2012 with a degree in English Language and Literature, my third language. Three years later, I got married. My son was conceived that same week. I didn't mess up my period maths. There was no broken condom. I knew what I was doing. The following spring I gave birth to my son and left my job as an editor for a financial research firm in London's City. My second son was born the following year, four months after his brother's first birthday. I have been working in the home uninterruptedly for over two years. I have been a wife and mother, a housewife, for the past two years.

I was raised on benefits in a single parent household by a father who left school when he was still a child. Before applying to Oxford to read English, I had applied for philosophy at Cambridge and failed. I had been studying philosophy at UCL for a few weeks before I mustered the confidence to apply to study English, my true passion, but a language that I'd only learned in secondary school. I feared I would never be at native speaker level, and certainly not to study it at one of the most competitive courses in the country. UCL's English Faculty interviewed me and rejected me soon after. Oxford, not just one of the most competitive in the country - one of the most sought after courses globally - also gave me an interview and said no. A year passed, and I interrupted my philosophy degree and applied again for English. UCL said no without an interview this time. Oxford offered me a place.

I am not a quitter. And I have all the pieces of paper to certify that I am one of those people that some refer to as 'very clever'.

Writer Laura Wade is one of those people. According to Wade, 'your responsibility if you're a very clever person is to be part of the workforce.' She talks about when she sees 'the very clever alpha mums at the school gates who start to treat motherhood as a job because they're so gifted in so many areas. Sometimes these women can over manage,' she explains. 'You have parties that have been done by party planners for two-year-olds and all the rest of it, and you think, you should be in the workplace because you're brilliant and you're frustrated and you don't even know it.'

I could get angry. I could get uppity about Wade suggesting she knows What Women Want better than those women do themselves. About her suggesting that it's somehow smarter or more fulfilling to work outside the home. About saying that motherhood is treated as a job by misguided people - suggesting it does not in fact count as a job.

I don't think it would be particularly difficult to demonstrate that Wade is frightfully reductive with her point of view to the point of bordering on the offensive. That there exist mothers who choose to stay at home, or to seriously reduce their working hours, and they do so consciously and happily. That there's nothing inherently frustrating about homemaking, that not all housewives are morons and not all CEOs are brilliant.

But what I think is more interesting than complaining about a couple of un-pc comments, is to talk about why someone who is arguably neither demented nor idiotic - a well regarded and established playwright - has reached some rather dubious conclusions regarding motherhood, work, and that dreaded of all questions, 'can women have it all?'

The received wisdom seems to say:

1. Each woman should be free to choose what they want when it comes to balancing home and work.
2. Each woman is different.

Neither of these conclusions help us, and here's why.

1. The fact is, women are not free to choose. The majority of women have financial pressure forcing the choice, but even if they don't, they have to 'choose' while the baby is still 12 months or under. That's not a real choice because it means that no one can choose whether or not they want to raise their children having experienced it. Everyone has to anticipate what it might be like, and if there's one job where no year and no month is the same as the last, it's parenting.

Women have to make the choice based on the first, arguably most difficult, stressful and in some ways least rewarding, months of parenting. I've met women who returned to work after 3 months and said to me 'I don't know how you do it.' But the 'it' they're referring to is different from what I'm doing. I haven't spent the last two years of my life looking after a newborn. I wouldn't have lasted. It's thankless, gruelling work. Yes - all parenting has an element of that - but raising and educating your family is something that makes more and more sense the longer you do it, something that becomes easier, better and more rewarding the longer you do it (like almost any career). And yet women are being told they have a 'choice', based on the fact that we can take a few months to test out whether motherhood is for us. Realistically there is no way for us to make an informed choice - it's not like an office job where an internship is reflective of what you'll be doing: maternity leave is completely different from long-term mothering. Women have to take a complete gamble based on inadequate information and experience, or 'try it out' for a few year, seriously harming their chances of finding a similar job if they choose to return to work later.

2.  Yes, each woman - and each human - is different. But that doesn't mean that there aren't also similarities among us, as well as identifiable trends. It is not clear that women don't have a biological predisposition to look after their children that is more effective than it is in men. What is clear is that for many women this is either not possible or not desirable. Caregiving is an extremely low status position: who earns more, and who do you assume to be smarter, a nurse taking blood pressure or a scientist doing experiments in a lab? Our society does not value nor respect caregiving positions and motherhood is no exception. Wade's concept of the 'very clever alpha mums' is a product of this bias. She's wrong - but it's an easy assumption to make: that taking care of your family is mindless work. I know so many mothers who have said they look forward to going back to work and 'using their brain', I've heard this phrase so much I'd describe it as a trope of maternity leave, along with coffee mornings and the sleep training vs attachment parenting divide. And yet, for me, mothering has been more intellectually stimulating and demanding than my Oxford degree. Am I just weird?

Maybe. But maybe there's a different issue at play. That anything done in utter isolation, receiving little societal support or value, becomes mindless drudgery. Even discovering the cure for Cancer - if you do it in a grim abandoned lab with no colleagues to assist you, thus having to spend the bulk of your day washing test tubes and cleaning the lab floors instead of being able to focus on the science part, would lose its appeal in that context. Imagine that you did discover the cure for cancer in such a setting, and once you contact the press, nobody is interested in it. Nobody wants to cure cancer, they think it's better to accept your fate. And certainly nobody thinks it's impressive or worth talking about that you've spent years working on this cure for something that doesn't need to be cured. You start to feel as though you constantly have to justify the value of your work, which you have done in isolation. Does it still sound appealing?

And that's what's happened. With just 20% of mothers choosing to be Stay At Home Mums, those that do are unlikely to do so in community. Humans are herd creatures. The menopause is nature's way of ensuring grandmothers are able to help raise their children's offspring - most mammals are fertile until death but humans are not because we are raised in community. That's because infant humans are born prematurely: they need such constant and undivided attention that one person is not enough for them. The mother cannot be the only one with this task. Not even just the father and mother. A community is absolutely necessary and until recently, it was the unchanged way in which humans were raised.

The biology is clear: mothering is not something you are supposed to do by yourself. Mothering entirely by yourself quickly becomes a horrific ordeal. And then it's easy to see the appeal of the rhetoric of choice. We shouldn't have to be trapped at home, we start to say. And it becomes increasingly problematic to talk about what women want in anything other than extremely individualistic terms. The problem with individualism at that extreme degree is that it doesn't leave the possibility for an individual to want anything that doesn't purely relate to themselves. If all we focus on is enhancing individual agency, we don't acknowledge that collective identity is a necessary part of human fulfilment. It's good being able to eat an ice cream if you want to eat an ice cream but sometimes what we want is to throw an ice cream party, and for people to come, and for them to enjoy the ice cream too.

Maybe women want to want similar things to other women. And maybe that's not insecure or anxious or stupid. Maybe it's sensible. It might be that women want their choice justified by seeing that it's also what others do. Maybe that's why Wade believes that anyone who's clever is going to be happiest in the workforce. Because then she's made the right choice. That's not just down to random insecurity.  It's because parenting humans is impossible otherwise. 

You cannot be abandoned to make the choices of exactly how to raise your children entirely by yourself. Humans are social, they go by received wisdom. We don't just guess what to do with a baby, there's nothing blindly 'natural' about it either. We need instruction, guidance, support, tradition, discussion, care, love. That's the fabric of human life. And women are better at both seeking and giving it. Women are more anxious and insecure than men because it's sensible to seek validation and recognition if you're responsible for infant life. It's sensible to be hesitant and to seek validation from others. A parent who doesn't do that to some degree is raising the next Hitler.

Breastfeeding forms a great example. Breastfeeding is impossible for most women who don't actively receive support from at least one other woman. It can be a family member or a nurse or midwife or doctor, but you are very unlikely to just naturally know what to do and encounter absolutely zero problems along the way. The majority of pregnant women will attend a pre-natal breastfeeding course - the NHS funds these: it's clear that breastfeeding is something passed on and learned in community.

And just like breastfeeding, every single parenting decision holds a huge burden of responsibility on the individual. We want to read books. We want to hear from others. We want to see what others are doing. We compare. Not because we hate ourselves or because we're cripplingly insecure - although it becomes that when there's so much shame attached to not being assertively self-confident. It's because it makes sense to. It makes sense for women to want to err on the safe side and look around and not be too wacky when it comes to looking after their babies. So when society keeps telling us there's 'no right answer' and 'just do what's best for your family' it suggests that a good mother 'just knows' what's best and that you shouldn't doubt that innate knowledge. That's just not true. Everyone has moments of drowning in self-doubt, perhaps not every day and every hour, but only a sociopath brings a new life into the world and thinks I'm absolutely smashing it. 


  1. I Love this! So well put, Sofia!

  2. Thank you! The product of many text conversations between us 😉

  3. this is wonderful and insightful. the cancer metaphor is brilliant. and I also feel that this parenting job is waaay more intellectually stimulating and just more difficult than any other job I've had. but you're right, we are herd creatures, and doing it alone just sucks. and I've started to have to remind myself that this work is so important, we are raising our future world, but why do I have to remind myself? why is it not simply a thing..

    hey I would love to talk about all this sort of stuff in like a group setting. I was thinking of doing some mom meet-ups, or a circle discussion, maybe even without older kids, so we can really talk, and really support each other. help me brainstorm places I could rent out in genoa for an amazing support circle complete with herbal tea and snacks!