Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
There was a time, before I had kids of my own, when I harboured a secret. I knew it was politically correct to believe that every woman should have the right to choose what was best for her, yet deep down I felt that a woman who chose to spend her days planning “healthy snacks” for toddlers was wasting her education. Limiting oneself to the domestic, giving up opportunities to make an impact in the public sphere, seemed to me, a regressive kind of choice to make. One that perpetuated patriarchy and did no one, including one’s children, any favours.
I was taken aback, therefore, when a cousin of mine, a brilliant lawyer with multiple degrees from some of the world’s best universities told me that she was planning on quitting law to become a stay-at-home mom.
My cousin explained that she had in fact returned to work when her baby was around six months old and had immediately found herself in an impossible position. The hours she’d had to put in at her firm were brutal. At home she’d been unable to find reliable childcare. She felt there was no point in having had a child if she never got to spend time with her. And there was also no joy in having a job, if she spent most of her time worrying about her baby and resenting her work.
My immediate response was to suggest that she just dial it down. Go part-time for a while, until her child was older. The enjoyment that she would get from her work had a value over and beyond a pay cheque or promotion, I argued. But it turned out that my cousin didn’t love her job for her job’s sake. She enjoyed it for the financial compensation and the professional prestige. But she did not feel this was the kind of job where it was worthwhile, or enjoyable, to just stand still.
The more we talked, the more I began to understand her choice. I was also thankful for her, and me, that we had choices to make. But as a society we need to interrogate the idea of “choice” beyond paying it lip service.
Our choices depend on a bouquet of variables: our personalities, the temperament of our babies, the flexibility of our employers and the parameters according to which success happens to be measured in our profession. They also depend on our financial status and the attitudes of our spouses.
Any choice is the outcome of a delicate web of circumstances, a fact that should in theory militate against judgmental attitudes. So why are the “mommy wars”, in which stay-at-home moms square off against working mothers, so infamously vitriolic?
Perhaps because the decision to work outside the home, or to raise kids full-time, speaks loudly on behalf of the decision maker, regarding her (and occasionally his) assumptions about gender, finance, and marriage. This “choice” is such an intimate and often tortured (for there are inevitably painful trade-offs involved) statement of one’s identity that it makes it difficult for someone who chooses one way to empathize with someone who has arrived at a different decision. Sometimes there is an underlying fear that the other choice is in fact the better one. Sometimes there is anger at having been forced to make a choice at all.
Talking with my cousin helped me appreciate her decision. But it also left me with the conviction that no parent can be expected to bring up a child satisfactorily if their work environment is willfully blind to the fact of their parenthood.
This is why although “choice” is an important part of empowerment, “choice feminism”, or the idea that any choice a woman makes is a feminist one simply because it is chosen, is quite absurd. In an especially memorable episode of the TV series Sex and the City, the character of Charlotte justified her decision to stop working by repeatedly shouting down the phone, ‘I choose my choice.’But feminism is not just about choice. It is about change. If choice is the main yardstick by which to determine gender justice, deep structural change becomes a casualty. An emphasis on choice responds to available options – work or quit – rather than highlighting the need to widen those options. Equal pay, paternity leave, political representation, workplace flexibility – these are not choices that exist for most people. But they should. Let’s begin the conversation at least with employers, partners, and older children. Let’s choose change!