Do men want to be involved in the day-to-day care of their kids or are they secretly relieved when they can’t?

In my last blog post, I wrote about how corporate cultures and ideals can override national legislation. Employees may have legal rights to certain things but are sometimes still dissuaded or simply not permitted by their employers to act on these legal rights. One example I gave was paternity leave. 

After I published my post, I was asked by one of my readers if I have, in my research, asked any of the men who have been prohibited to take paternity leave if they were secretly relieved that they couldn’t. 

Well first of all, no, I haven’t. I’ve researched men who have opted out of high-powered careers, not men who have opted out of other things to stay in these high-power positions. Also, I have conducted in-depth interviews so I simply don’t have the numbers to make any generalizations. That’s why I rely on research conducted by other people for statistics and trends and to understand issues on a broader front. 

But even so, I have to honestly say, the question is kind of missing the point. Let me tell you why.

First of all, I know that there are men who, for whatever reason, feel relieved over not having to take time off to care for children. Heck, there’s a whole book written about it. In Men Can Do It! The Real Reason Dads Don’t Do Child Care and What Men and Women Should Do About It, Gideon Burrows, a man who has taken time to stay home with his children while his wife worked, argues that men are just as capable to take care of their children as women are, and the reason they don’t is that it is tedious and they simply don’t have to. 

What Burrows says is true. Research has shown again and again that men are just as capable to care for children as women are. The idea that women have a biological advantage and intuitively know what to do isn’t true. Mothers may be very attuned to their children’s needs, but it is an acquired knowledge that comes from hours and hours of taking care of their children. Hours that most fathers don’t get since they don’t generally spend as much time alone with their children, being the main caregiver. (You can read more about this in my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In (Chapter 5))

What he says about childcare being tedious is also true. Those of us who have stayed at home to take care of infants and found ourselves up to our elbows in breast milk, baby food, diapers, baby pee and poo, or spent hours on end on the edge of a sandbox making row after row of sand cakes, knows that it can feel pretty tedious. But we also know that it can be hugely rewarding. The rewarding part is the connection and the bond between parent and child. It’s good for both the parent and the child and has a huge (positive) impact on both. This is something that fathers (and mothers for that matter) who haven’t participated in the care of their children in this way probably don’t even know that they are missing. 

But even that isn’t the point here. 

The point is, what would you say if a woman decided she didn’t want to care for her child because it is tedious? 

Society would be shocked and call her a bad mother. 

But when a man does it, it’s okay?

So, no, I’m not really interested in how many men are relieved that they aren’t able to take paternity leave. Those of us who bring children into the world need to take care of them, whether or not it is tedious.

Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

Quality time is unstructured

My daughter and I got back from a long weekend in Paris a few days ago. This was a trip that we had been talking about taking together for years, and I’m pleased to say it turned out to be everything we hoped it would. My daughter is the best company and the spring weather was absolutely gorgeous. But the best thing was – and we agreed on this – that we had nothing scheduled other than our flight back home. We did what we felt like doing at the pace we felt like doing it with no pressure to move on to the next thing until we wanted to. We ate whatever we were in the mood for whenever we felt hungry. If we felt tired we went back to the hotel, but it didn’t matter if it took forever getting there. No one was expecting us to be anywhere at anytime. And I tell you, this sounds simple enough, but it was the most liberating feeling.

This is something I often hear people who opt out or want to opt out say. They wish they didn’t have to be in such a hurry all the time. And we are very much in a hurry all the time in our day-to-day lives. I at least feel like I am. I sometimes wish I could clone myself because I need to be in so many different places at the same time. And it’s not only us; it’s also our children. Their time is very structured with school and hobbies and whatnot and we raise them to fit in to this hectic world, which seems to be spinning faster and faster.

I went to a seminar the other day and heard Professor Anna Rotkirch talk about family time management. According to her, and I’m so glad because I’ve been saying this for years, when it comes to time with your children quality is quantity. Just spending time with your children – and this goes for both mothers and fathers – is so important. This time does not need to be structured, it does not need to involve actively engaging your children in activities; it just means being there. Research has shown that this has such a great impact on children and their development throughout their lives, and the positive effects even ripple down to the next generation.

One of the things Professor Rotkirch recommended was something known as the 15 minute technique. This technique has been developed for parents to use with their children, but really it works with anyone. It involves being with your child (or whoever else) for 15 minutes without an agenda, without any structured activity, and without telling or teaching in any way. Just being there.

It is hard at first. When we’re constantly on the go, constantly having to get things done, doing just nothing tends to make us antsy. But apparently, if you work through that nervousness, just being together works wonders. If we do this, the person we are with might open up to us and talk about what he or she is thinking and feeling. And how wonderful for the person on the receiving end of this 15 minute technique to be able to do that, to talk about what they want to talk about. And this is something we might never experience if we’re always on a schedule or have an agenda.

I’m not going to ask you to fit one more thing into your busy schedule, because whenever I see recommendations and lists of things to do, it just tends to overwhelm me. I am a true believe in doing what works for you. But I will say this: unstructured time really is the best thing.



It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.


Living in the moment

Everything seems to be about metrics these days. In the name of prosperity, we are encouraged and pushed to continuously time, weigh, and assess ourselves and our accomplishments. And I have to say while I find it quite fascinating, I frankly also find it a bit off-putting.

It first struck me many years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. I was constantly being weighed and measured during my prenatal check-ups, which I of course understand. We want our children to be born healthy and the prenatal care in Finland is among the best in the world, and Finland also boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates globally. However, I found it slightly irritating at the time because it was always followed by a discussion that invariably made me feel inadequate. If the baby had a growth spurt since my last check-up I would get a talk about how I shouldn’t eat too much and how soft drinks just make the baby fat, and if the baby hadn’t put on a lot of weight I would get a talk about needing to eat properly. It seems to me that nothing in this world naturally develops in a neat linear progression, babies certainly don’t; and as for my pregnancy, I felt good, I didn’t gain too much weight (I never drank soft drinks because I just didn’t want to), and at the end of the pregnancy I gave birth to a healthy baby. But I felt frustrated to be so scrutinized by health officials, even though everything was fine. And for my baby, it seems little has changed. In school her height and weight is constantly followed up (as it is for all students) and is accompanied with a discussion of her eating habits. Public health care in Finland is of high quality and this is of course an admirable and important attempt to capture bad habits and possible eating disorders, of which my child by the way has neither, but it just strikes me that in this case these discussions make an issue of something that is not.

However it isn’t only about health care. In today’s society we are so obsessed with the concept of efficiency and growth that we measure everything ad absurdum. We do it at work and we do it in our free time. We measure the minutes of the day and the week and how often or how much time we spend doing or consuming different things. We measure how far we go and how fast we move. We count our friends and connections and how many likes we get. It goes on and on and every additional little thing we are told to measure adds a bit to my stress levels because it is just one more thing to follow up.

But it’s interesting, because while we are obsessed with becoming faster, better, and more efficient, research tells us that this constant streamlining actually defeats its purpose. According to scientific studies, it turns out that efficiency comes from slowing down, reflecting, and being in the moment. For example, the other day I read research conducted by scholars from Princeton and the University of California that shows that taking notes by hand is, contrary to popular belief, much more efficient than typing them electronically. The reason is that when we type on a computer, we are so fast that we often copy things down word for word, and when we do that we don’t really think about what we are writing. When we take notes by hand, on the other hand, the going is so slow that we need to listen, understand, think about, and formulate our own interpretation and summary of what the speaker is saying. When having to reflect over what is said, our understanding is greater and we also remember it better. In other words, in this case, slower is better.

I also recently read about Emma Seppälä’s research on happiness and success. Seppälä, a Stanford researcher, argues that by slowing down and being in the moment we can be more productive than if we are constantly focusing on the future and striving to become bigger and better. Apparently we are more creative if we aren’t under constant pressure to be top performers, and as a bonus, staying in the moment and being present is also found to increase feelings of happiness. You can read about this in her book The Happiness Track, although ironically the book’s selling point is that if you read the book and apply the science of happiness you can be more successful. See what I’m saying; we live in a culture of constant striving and streamlining.

So no, I’m not personally very interested in measuring my work efforts or my free time – although I do have plans and dreams, don’t get me wrong. But I try to live in the moment simply because if I don’t, I feel like time just slips through my fingers. If I don’t pause and reflect over where I am and what that feels like, it’s almost as if I lose chunks of time that I barely remember experiencing.

On that note, what a beautiful day it is; I think I’m going to enjoy this moment and go for a jog. I don’t really care how far exactly I will run nor how fast; I’m not training for anything specific. I just need to get up and move after sitting glued to the computer screen and I want to be outside in the crisp autumn air. Just that, and knowing that I will break a sweat and be somewhat out of breath when I get back, is good enough for me.

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?

Guilt, care, and time with loved ones

I was in Glasgow last week at the BSA (British Sociological Association) conference and as a result my head is spinning with plans and ideas for my research. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of interesting people and have had some really good conversations. But as I sit here and reflect over the conference there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, and that is the word ‘guilt’.

It’s not that I or anyone else was feeling especially guilty at the time, although who knows, that is at least not what we were talking about. No, it came up as a recurring theme when talking about women, work, careers, and mothering.

Now I admit that I have a somewhat unhealthy guilt complex. I sometimes joke that if there is anything that I could possibly feel guilty about, I do, and if there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, I do anyway. I know this is completely irrational and I have gotten better at not feeling so guilty all the time.

One thing that seems to connect women, whether or not they have a career, whether or not they have children, is that they, or rather we, feel way too guilty about too many things. I know I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will so that you know you’re not alone. Here are a few things that you possibly and probably often feel guilty about:

Not being with your kids enough; not being at work enough; not spending enough time with parents/friends/family/loved ones; not getting enough done; not being a good enough mother/daughter/wife/friend; not being attentive enough to others’ needs; not being ambitious enough; not exercising enough; not giving the kids food that is nutritious enough; not monitoring their screen time enough; and not getting enough done although we’re doing all of the above to the best of our ability (yes, really, to the best of our ability, stop beating yourself up) and feeling guilty about it too, which also takes a lot of energy.

I could go on, but there really is no point. The point I wanted to make when listing all these things, is that if you recognize any of these you will know that you are not alone, because unfortunately, this is something I have found in my research: women tend to think it’s just them. That every one else is doing fine, and many women ask themselves, why can’t I handle it when everyone else seems to be able to? The thing is, we’re just really great at keeping it together and putting on a brave face.

So why is this, you ask, why do we feel so guilty? Well, it’s complicated, but the main reasons are cultural and structural. With cultural I mean the way women are brought up and the gendered ideals prevalent in society. And with structural I mean the way we organize society, they way we define work, and the way we continue to put most of the care responsibilities on women. These two are very closely linked.

While women are taught to have it all – a family, a career, and to participate in public debate and policy making – we are also making it difficult for women to do this because of the contradictory messages we send them about femininity and what it means to be a good worker, citizen, woman, and mother. Simply put, women get extremely mixed and contradictory messages regarding what it is that they need to live up to.

Despite gender equality initiatives, which include encouraging men to take paternity leave and participate more in childcare, the change has been and is extremely slow, and women continue to be mainly responsible for care in society. Childcare is also actually only a small part of all the care done in society. Although we mostly think and talk about stressed and sleep deprived mothers of small children when we talk about care, we have other care responsibilities too. Not only are women mainly responsible for childcare, they are also mainly responsible for other care, like caring for elderly parents, spouses, or other ailing relatives and friends. And even though care is often outsourced, someone still needs to manage and coordinate it, and either way it can be draining and emotionally very difficult. Talking to a good friend and colleague at the conference, it really started to dawn on me how much women organize their lives and their work around care. This is also true for the women who opt out. A big part of their narratives, whether or not they have children, is about the people in their lives and the relationships they want to nurture, which the career they opted out of left very little room for. It may seem obvious, that we want to and should be there for the people who are important to us and need us, but this is just not the way work is organized. Very little room is left for care, which is one of the main reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed.

Now I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t care for loved ones, but we can be aware of how unequal the distribution of care in society is and work on that. And we can think about that maybe we need a society and a working culture that accommodates and makes more room for care and relationships, for both men and women. Either way, women have some pretty unrealistic expectations to live up to, and we need to realize this and we really need to not feel so guilty all the time. It is such a waste of energy.

The five main myths of opting out

Myth #1: Only women with small children opt out

There are a lot of misconceptions of what opting out is, the main one being that it is only women with small children who opt out. However, research has shown that women who opt out, don’t necessarily do it when their kids are small. Most plan to continue working after having children. Having small children is hard; mothers with young children are often tired and slightly overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and crazy schedules, getting kids to daycare with the right gear, picking them up on time or on short notice when they’re sick, and nursing them back to health while also working at the same time, birthday parties, activities, gifts for teachers… I could go on. However, women with very young children often stick it out, grit their teeth, and just do it – often in a haze – but they do. It isn’t until their kids are a bit bigger that many actually have a moment to consider that maybe this just isn’t the way they want to live their lives. And often that is when they start to reconsider. Not necessarily when their kids are very little, although that obviously happens too.

I’ve met women who opted out when their children were grown. And some women I know who’ve opted out, don’t have children at all. Opting out isn’t only about women with young children; it isn’t only about women with children. I’ve interviewed women both with and without children, and their experiences, their reasons for leaving, their hopes and dreams, were all remarkably similar. Mothers often use their children as a reason for leaving. After all, it’s easier to say that you want to spend more time with your kids than to say things like ‘this working culture just isn’t working for me’ or ‘I’m being discriminated and I just don’t have the energy to take the fight’ or ‘you are not very nice to work with’. If you say you want to be with your children, people are generally not going to argue with that. Also, women are usually applauded for wanting to be there more for their kids. And the reality is, that these women are often so exhausted by the time they do leave, that they tend to choose the road that minimizes confrontation.

Myth #2: Women opt out to become stay-at-home moms

Most of the research done on opting out – and this also goes for the debate in the media – has been on women who leave their high-powered careers to be stay-at-home moms. In reality, however, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that shows that women are opting out in any great numbers to become stay-at-home moms. On the contrary, research has shown that the women who want to spend more time raising their children, generally also want to do something else, something outside the home that doesn’t involve their children. Like work; work that they can better combine with being a mother. Besides, like I stated above, opting out doesn’t have to involve children at all. Not all women who opt out even have children.

No, opting out is about opting in to a different mindset, alternative lifestyles, and working and/or living on one’s own terms. It can be anything really: downshifting, retraining and finding a completely new type of job, or staying at the same company but with a completely new mindset. It can also mean staying home full time, but it certainly doesn’t have to.

Myth #3: Only women with rich husbands who can support them opt out

Among my interviewees I have had single women without children, single moms, and women who did have a husband but who were the main breadwinners in their families. I have also interviewed women with husbands who could have supported them, but despite that, these women continued to generate their own income anyway after having opted out. Opting out does not have to entail giving up an income. It is rather about finding a way to have an income but on one’s own terms. Yes, the income was often smaller than it had been because a high-powered career is after all a high-powered career, and in that case they adjusted their lifestyles accordingly.

Myth #4: Women who opt out aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes

This is just completely wrong. The women I interviewed were all highly ambitious. They never even planned to opt out. They just realized they didn’t want to go on the way they had. Often they re-evaluated what was important to them, and some realized that they just didn’t share the values of the companies they worked for anymore. All of them had plans and dreams and wanted to continue working. And the ones that did opt out to stay home with their kids, knew from the start that it was only going to be temporary, that they would eventually start working again, but on their own terms.

Myth #5: Opting out is a women’s issue

I started out studying women because when working on a PhD you have to limit your study, otherwise you’ll end up writing an encyclopedia and not a PhD and you will never finish. I chose to study women, and quickly realized I had to also limit it to women with children, because I wanted to add to the current debate on opting out and offer an alternative view. But opting out is not only about women. It isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a societal and a contemporary issue. People – both men and women – are, for different reasons, increasingly looking to define the parameters of their lives themselves, and create ways of working that specifically meet their individual wants and needs. They don’t want to work in a specific way just because that is what’s expected of them, or because that is the way it has been done for as long as anyone can remember.

In fact, my plan is to study men next – that is men who opt out. Although different than the norms women deal with, men are also expected to live up to certain social standards. However, these social norms and traditions don’t necessarily reflect the multitude of ways that men want to live their lives. And like for women, mainstream career models don’t necessarily reflect the way many men want to work.

So, this is what I plan to do. No, I take that back, this is what I will do. Just like when I opted out in order to opt in to working on my PhD, I know that it is something I have to do. It’s important research and I feel passionate about it. If none of my funding applications come through, I’ll just have to figure out some other way to organize it.

Mothers under scrutiny

On the way to work yesterday, I was listening to the radio and there was a commercial for a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ (translated from Finnish). I’m sure this a Finnish version of some international hit reality show, but since I’m not a great fan of reality shows, I had never heard of it before. Now there are a lot of things that can be said about reality shows; the publicly private nature of them say a lot about the ideals and obsessions we have in contemporary society, but that is not what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about mothers. I find it really sad that someone has come up with the “brilliant” idea to dedicate a whole show to mothers criticizing each other.

Mothers are already so scrutinized as it is. It is mothers who are considered responsible for the kind of individuals their children grow up to become. If a child develops into a successful adult, we think the mother has done a good job. And if the child on the other hand has problems or should God forbid become a criminal, we look to the mother for blame. We have such high expectations of mothers, and a mother who doesn’t prioritize her children over everything else is not only considered a bad mother; she is also considered a bad woman. Men just aren’t judged as harshly for their priorities (although men do have other social expectations to deal with).

But mothers aren’t only scrutinized by society; they also get a lot of criticism from each other. I don’t think mothers mean to be unsupportive of each other. I think many just feel so overwhelmed by everything they are expected to do and be, that in order not to feel like a failure – in order to feel like they’re doing okay – they compare themselves to other mothers, looking for any sign that they at least are doing better than that. And that is actually as awful as it sounds. We have enough stress as it is, we don’t need to also be waiting for each other to slip up just so that we can feel better about ourselves (see What is it about mothers today? for more thoughts on what it is like to be a mother in contemporary society).

I think one reason mothers may be so critical of each other is that they feel alone in their situations. I remember a woman I interviewed once, who had opted out of her career. She was juggling small children, a very inflexible job, and caring for her husband who was ill. And she was of course the sole provider, as her husband couldn’t work due to his illness. This was a lot to handle to say the least and eventually she realized she just couldn’t do it anymore. Of course she felt relieved after she opted out, but she also felt like a failure. I remember her saying how so many other women seemed to be handling it just fine, what was it about her? Why couldn’t she handle it?

Well that’s the thing. Women are expected to have and do it all. And they are also expected to look their best, be feminine, well-groomed, and pleasant while they are busy doing that – having it all that is. We don’t talk very much about how we aren’t handling it, and we’re generally pretty good at keeping it together, at least on the outside, even though we may feel like we’re going crazy on the inside. Yesterday my colleagues and I talked about women executives who need to take a break for a few minutes in their work day to have a good cry in the bathroom, after which they quickly retouch their makeup to hide any evidence that they might possibly not be keeping it together, and then go back out to continue working.

And no, I’m not saying we should all cry openly at work. It’s just unfortunate that so many women experience similar feelings, but feel they have to go to great lengths to hide it from each other. And as a result we are alone, or even worse we are comforted by others’ difficulties and failures. To tell you the truth, just the thought of a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ makes me feel sick.

What is it about mothers today?

I remember being at a dinner party a few months ago and I was sitting with a group of women who were my mother’s age. We were talking about motherhood, work-life balance etc., when one woman wondered out loud why it is that women with young children complain so much now-a-days, why do they think their children are such a nuisance? She was wondering whether people who have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s aren’t used to working hard, if they just don’t love their children as much, or simply don’t like being parents as much anymore.

This is definitely not the case. It is not that mothers or parents don’t love their children as much as they used to, or that they aren’t prepared to work hard.  There is actually research that shows that parents today spend much more time than previous generations playing with their children. There is also research that shows that professional life is much tougher than it used to be and that people work longer days. It may be true that mothers today complain more than before. One reason may be that it is no longer taboo to talk about how hard being a mother really is, and that is a good thing. But there is more to it.

Women today, especially if they are juggling both a career and children, are drawn between the individualistic world of work on the one hand, and the self-sacrificing world of motherhood on the other. The irony here is that both worlds crave 100% dedication and devotion. At work, you are expected to be completely dedicated and available 24/7, and as a mother you are expected to be completely devoted. Simple math will tell you that two times 100% simply doesn’t work no matter how you look at it. But not only that, the past decades have witnessed a professionalization of motherhood where simply being a mother is no longer enough. In addition to being a mother, you’re supposed to also be your child’s nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, tutor, teacher, child psychologist…you name it. You’re supposed to be well read and if you don’t live up to it all (like making everything from scratch in order to protect your children from sugars and additives etc. while also holding down a fulltime job), all the recommendations and hype going around in the media and on the internet will certainly make you feel guilty, not to mention the pressure we get from each other.  (Have you ever thought about how you present yourself and your life on Facebook for example? There is material in that for a whole new blog post…)

However, women are not only pressured to be perfect mothers, we are also supposed to be perfect women and have perfect homes. I at least tend to get stressed by the lists of things you need to do that circulate. What you need to eat, and how much of it you need to eat every day; how much water and other fluids you need to drink everyday; what kind of exercise you should be doing and how, and how often you need to do that. And while you’re busy remembering all this, you need to take care of your body, make sure to wax and use the right cosmetics, not to mention your hair and nails. Is there enough time in the day to do all this? On top of all that, there needs to be time to work and to be a mother, not to mention a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And somehow I get the feeling that if we eat and drink everything we’re supposed to, and in the recommended amounts, we would end up over eating.

There is also a greater sense of risk in society today. Through media we can take part of all the catastrophes that take place in all the corners of the Earth and people perceive life as much more dangerous, especially for children, than it was say 30 years ago. We need to constantly protect our children from these dangers, which sometimes can be very stressful, not to mention tricky – like protecting children from seeing horrible things on the internet, or internet bullying.

And on top of that there is of course this whole hectic culture in which we live. The job market is insecure.  With all the restructuring and downsizing no one is safe. What you have accomplished does not really count anymore; you’re only as good as your next thing.

So maybe it’s no surprise that mothers have a lot to complain about. Being a mother in today’s society can really be quite overwhelming.

If you’re interested in reading more about the contradictions of motherhood, see:

Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy (Harvard University Press)

The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (Yale University Press)