It’s not always about kids

I was interviewed for the radio a couple of days ago. It was a program about combining work with children, and I was contacted as an expert on the topic. It was a good interview; I got to say what I thought was important. However, I was a bit disappointed because it turned out they cut the most interesting part. Towards the end of the interview I was asked whether or not I think it’s fair that people who are single or don’t have kids have to pick up the slack when people with kids need to go home (after a full day’s work). Finally it was getting intriguing but for some reason they didn’t find it relevant or that it added value.

People without children are often expected to put in hours that people with children aren’t simply because anything other than children doesn’t seem to be a viable reason to go home when there is work to be done. Although let’s face it, there is always work to be done, it really never ends. Well, I guess we should be grateful that employers realize that kids do need taking care of and that in this day an age it´s generally frowned upon to keep parents from doing so. However, every once in a while I hear a childless person who has had to put in the extra hours complain that it is unfair, and rightfully so. It is unfair.

The thing is it isn’t only married people with children who have families. Most people have families, even people who are single. The so-called nuclear family is not the only type of family you can have. For some reason we assume that kids are the only ones in society who need care. However, other people may need care too, like ageing parents or ailing siblings and friends, and although this may come as a shock to some, childless people may also have care responsibilities.

But it isn’t only care responsibilities that should factor in when deciding whether or not a person should be asked to work long hours. Let’s not forget that there is more to a balanced life than work. And yes, people who are single also want and need balance in their lives.

When I was working on my PhD, I started interviewing women both with and without children, because I was convinced that children are not the main reason people opt out. Well, I soon realized that I needed to focus on women with children simply in order to add to that debate, but get this: the women with and without children all basically talked about the same thing. They had the same reasons for leaving and wanted the same types of things for the future. Although some of them didn’t have to juggle a career with children, their narratives were still strikingly similar.

Care responsibilities really shouldn’t be seen as a problem. And although those who have to pick up the slack tend to feel irritated and fed up, the issue really isn’t that people with children can’t work hard enough. The issue is that many employers don’t recognize that it is neither sustainable nor okay to monopolize someone’s life. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking anyone to work around the clock, whether or not they have care responsibilities.

 

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My kids are ok

Mothers sure don’t have it easy. They tend to be the most scrutinized people in society, and although mothers and fathers together create and raise children, we have incredibly high expectations. Good enough mothering, although a good and healthy concept, has been overshadowed by what researchers call the intensive or scientific mothering ideology – what I like to call ‘project motherhood’. Good enough mothering is definitely not good enough; we expect mothers to be childcare and child development experts, not to mention everything else they need to be – everything from child psychologists to nutritionists. Mothers are also considered mainly responsible for what kinds of adults their children grow up to become: if they become successful, the mother is considered to have done her job well; but if they for some reason don’t, mothers are looked to for blame.

No wonder women often feel insecure in their mothering roles. And the way this plays out is that it is mothers who are generally the most critical of other mothers instead of giving each other much-needed support. It’s understandable, although also very unfortunate. With all the pressure to be the perfect mother (and please note: there is no one perfect way to be a mother. Every mother, child, situation and family is unique and all we can and should do is the best we can. Yes, good enough should really be good enough.); with all the pressure it is natural to feel insecure and mothers look to each other to check that they themselves are ok.

I’ve been there. I have two kids and I have tried to be the perfect mother like everyone else. At times I have also been critical of other mothers to confirm that I was doing ok. This is not commendable and I don’t think I was even aware of it at the time. I wasn’t openly critical though, I have been taught well by my parents: if you can’t be kind and supportive, maybe it’s best to just not say anything at all.

But still I’ve been there, although it was many years ago. Now that I have a tween and a teen, the pressures of being a perfect mother don’t really get to me so much anymore. However a while back I found myself speaking to a person who is on maternity leave and probably agonizing about when the right time is to put her child in daycare and go back to work. We were talking and over ten years after the fact, my choices of how long I stayed at home with my kids were questioned. I’m from Finland and both my maternity leaves have been average for Finnish standards and quite long out of an international perspective. I was on leave slightly longer with my first child and slightly less with my second, as my family was dependent on my income at the time. Both my children have developed to become happy, well-balanced, delightful human beings, so I tend to not worry anymore about what I did or didn’t do when they were infants. Still, it felt like this person was judging me and questioning my choices after all these years when she sounded surprised that I didn’t keep my children at home longer.

It was a weird sensation. I hadn’t thought about it for years because it just feels completely irrelevant to my current situation even though it is obviously top of mind for her. As a mother, admittedly, I may still be a little sensitive when it comes to criticism, but still. We all have to make our own choices based on who we are, what our children need, and what our situation is. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge, none of us really have any idea where anyone else is coming from. We just do the best we can. And besides, why question my choices after all this time? My kids obviously turned out ok.

The ideal worker – a remnant of the past (or at least it should be)

As you may recall, I signed a contract with a publisher a few months ago to write a book on opting out. Well, the deadline to submit my manuscript is approaching and you will be pleased to know that I am currently working on my final chapter, the epilogue! In other words my manuscript is almost finished and ready to go!

Although I love writing (most of the time) and the thought of working on a book still feels like a dream, I will be so relieved when I have finally sent it all off to my editor. I’ve felt like this book project has been hanging over me, because I haven’t been able to work on the book as much as I would have liked to since I signed. The main reason being I was pretty bogged down with teaching during the winter without much headspace for anything else. But my employer has been gracious enough to allow me to concentrate almost solely on the book since the end of April, and all I can say is hooray for understanding employers!

One observation I have made about myself during this process is especially interesting. The thing is, writing is quite different from many other forms of work. I cannot put in a full eight hours, or however long your workday is, writing and producing new text. If I get up in the morning, go to my office, and just sit down at my computer with the intention of putting words down on paper – or rather in a Word document – it would never work. I wouldn’t know what to write, no ideas would come to me, and there would be no book. In order to have something to say, I need to think about what I have read, I need to think about my research, I need to think about what my take on things is… In short, I need time to reflect. And that is not something I can do at my computer. I cannot get up in the morning, go to the office, sit down at my desk and reflect in order to then write down my reflections and turn them into a book. That’s not how it happens.

I need unstructured time where I let my mind wander, where I allow myself space for unstructured and unplanned thinking. It may be in the shower, it may be when I’m jogging, or it may be when I’m vacuuming (Okay no. That never happens, I just don’t vacuum, my husband does. It was just an example). This unstructured time creates space for creativity and if I allow myself this time, ideas come to me and then I can sit down at my computer and just write it all down. And presto, in short creative burst like this a book is born.

However that was not the interesting or surprising observation I was referring to earlier. What has me completely confounded is that although I know this, and although giving myself time and space to reflect is really the most effective and efficient way for me to write a book, my work ethic and my sort of warped idea of what efficient work looks like, makes me feel kind of guilty about not working all the time. Let me run this by you again: I have been taught that the ideal worker goes to the office and works for whatever amount of hours is specified in the contract plus a few more in order to be considered a good and committed worker, regardless of the nature of the work the person is doing. So I of all people, who research working cultures, cultural conditioning, and new meanings of work; who has all these thoughts on how we need to change work in order to bring working culture into the 21st century; and who knows just how important this is for so many reasons not least of which is our wellbeing; I of all people have trouble with alternative forms of work because also I have been conditioned to believe that there is only one right way of working.

So if it is difficult for me, how difficult isn’t it going to be for people who haven’t been researching this for the past seven or so years?

That is a scary thought. But at least I guess I know what I’m up against. And now more than ever I clearly see just how much we need to redefine work as we know it. Times are a changing and our employers need to keep up!