When I flick through various newspaper supplements, lifestyle magazines (ugh whatever the hell lifestyle is), or scroll down the latest quasi-guru infested websites, there seems to be no shortage of articles and commentary on the challenges of motherhood. On the face of it, this might appear a progressive trend only the most churlish would curl a lip at, but look closer and they read as postcards from a few select parenting resorts. Common though they may be among many.
When we talk about motherhood and work in these various spaces, it is often to the absence of voices of working class women being included. Despite hopes that this would change with the advent of cheaper access to the net, and a broader understanding of ‘balance’ and responsibility newsmakers surely have for contributing towards an equilibrium of comment with all the attendant tensions that would bring, it hasn’t. If anything, it has gotten worse.
There are too many trend stories about middle and upper middle class women and their dilemmas in the workforce/home dominating the waves. The validity of their experiences, and the right to unpick them both individually and collectively, is a given. But to many, and across much of the media, it cements a disturbingly singular narrative and the face of modern parenting in the Irish workplace. And this is worrying for everyone.
I don’t believe ordinary middle class and upper middle class women intentionally seek to exclude the experiences of working class women, or single mothers, or mothers from minority communities; but the narrow parameters around pat concepts we accuse the media of lazily drumming up, clearly do.
We’re all familiar with the routine by now. The mainstream “mommy wars” pits two homogeneous groups of women from broadly similar backgrounds against each other. The complexities of balancing workplace struggles, retaining personal identity, sanity, and a sense self-worth against childcare options, are reduced to notions of ‘choice’. Combined with boiled down statistics from a proliferation of (often dubious) studies conducted exclusively with a cohort of women from ‘professional’ sectors, all nuance is lost. Respecting personal choice as a response is all the rage. Add in negative equity and crippling childcare costs, and the cheap argument is rounded out into one that is null and void, where we all essentially just get along and support one another.
Buried below all of this, are the experiences of swathes of mothers who are unemployed for other reasons, or who work in the retail, caring, and catering sectors struggling to put together a living wage. The challenges they face in securing and paying for proper childcare are immense. It’s up there with securing sustainable work. And making the subsistence pay stretch. Low-income leads to poor physical health, poor mental health, inadequate diet, risky consumer choices, lack of opportunities to broaden progression routes within the training and work-force, and all the other by-products of poverty that don’t need spelling out here. The mainstream Mommy Wars excludes this narrative. The Mommy Wars exclude the need for everyone to push together, not just on the need for mutual respect, but for economic justice for other mothers. For fair wages. What might appear as a media-manufactured instrument of a fictional war, creates another barrier for those further down the line to battle against. Limiting responses to the Mommy Wars with proof of camaraderie among middle class women inadvertently drowns out those voices who are not.
In the main, mothers from every background are contending with busy lives and juggling a multitude of tasks to keep themselves and their family on the straight and narrow. They have enough to do. But it is unfortunate, that in on-line discussions concerning child and family nutrition, and other parental “choices”, the frequency with which choices of others are ridiculed, and certain women shamed, is becoming ever more apparent. Even from those who in another breath lament the existence of the phoney mommy wars while calling for respect and understanding.
The sugar industry preys on the paltry wages of poor mothers and works in an insidious way. And while breastfeeding might currently be the preserve of “educated” women, the self-satisfaction often accompanying the reporting of one’s commitment to it, while politely wagging fingers at those who do not, is at best futile. More than that, these discussions characterise the Mommy Wars of a particularly ugly kind. One in which those whose actions being challenged don’t have recourse to comment. Not in on-line fora, not on parental website articles, and certainly not in the national press.
Education brings with it a number of responsibilities as well as advantages. Continuing to educate ourselves on the experiences of everyone is surely one that comes with learned territory. We’re sophisticated enough to engage with the issues of all women.