Our daughters are told they can become engineers and mechanics, our sons are told they can become ballerinas and nurses. They are taught that the sky is the limit and that they can be and do just about anything they want. They are supported when they make the hard decisions, like choosing careers that break stereotypical gender roles.
It is, after all, the advantage of living in the new millennium, where men and women are no longer bound by traditional gender roles. So women can study whatever they choose and men can stay at home with the kids if they want, can’t they?
While this is in some ways true, Letitia Smuts, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg with research interests in gender and sexuality studies, says that equality in gender is actually still a way off.
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“There has indeed been a shift with regards to opportunities for the genders. However, this shift does not necessarily translate into the general population’s views,” she explains.
“As a result, women and men are often still bound to traditional gender roles based on the conventional views the members in society hold. There is, in some cases, a disjuncture between what men and women can achieve today, and what society thinks is acceptable (or not) for the genders.”
Against better judgment
Has the bra burning, protesting and fighting by those who came before really brought about any change? Many may say that our attempts to teach our daughters that they can become anything they choose to, unknowingly taught them that being a mother is not enough.
Letitia says this may be the case, but this phenomenon could also possibly be viewed as a result of the exact change women fought for. “Early feminist debates argued that women should engage in paid labour in order to gain bargaining power in and around the home and, so doing, reduce their dependence on men.
Consequently, women in paid jobs are then considered as more valuable.” This then implies that those who have no or little bargaining power are less valuable to society.
During a discussion with a group of women who have chosen to be full time moms, the general consensus was that they had been made to feel that they had taken the easy way out by staying at home and they were just mothers, and nothing else.
Many of them felt like underachievers. Letitia says, “Ironically, now, it seems that women themselves need convincing that what they are performing as stay at home moms are both valuable and crucial.”
Whether it’s right or wrong, this kind of judgement against and between mothers happens so often that it’s been given a name. “Dr Aric Sigman uses a term called ‘motherism’ – a prejudice against mothers who choose to stay at home,” says Claire Maher, an educational psychologist.
The true value of a mother's role
Deciding to be a full-time parent is not an easy decision. It comes with great sacrifice and compromise from both partners. It ultimately means giving up a part of who you are for someone else. Meetings are traded for playdates, corporate suits for comfy pants, and 50-hour work weeks suddenly become 168-hour work weeks.
Ultimately, getting the baby to nap becomes just as important as signing a multimillion rand client. Life turns, rather dramatically into a world that has no job description, no financial reward and very little sleep. There is no performance appraisal to let you know you are on the right track.
“Stay at home mothers often feel more sadness, worry and frustration than the average working mother, suggesting in part that being a stay at home mother is more stressful than being a working mother, with little appreciation,” agrees Claire.
The merits of being a working mom versus being a stay at home mom have been debated and discussed ad nauseam. Neither is better or worse, except when those who have chosen one above the other are made to feel like they have failed. Staying at home full-time with your children is many things, but it is certainly not an underachievement.
First among equals
The fight for women’s rights didn’t happen so that all women could enter the corporate world or earn equal pay. It happened so that women could choose for themselves what they wanted to do with their lives. In our desperate attempts for equality, it seems we have started devaluing the traditional roles of women.
Why do full-time moms say, “I am just a stay at home mom,” or, “I don’t work, I stay home with the kids,” as if ashamed? One could argue that society no longer views being a full-time mother as a worthwhile occupation, but rather as something you do when your husband earns enough money.
“Being a full-time mom – engaging in childcare, nurturing, and partaking in household activities – is irreplaceable because it performs crucial services to keep a society going. Therefore, attempts should be made to change the perceptions that women have of themselves and of others who are stay at home moms,” says Letitia.
This change in perception begins with parents. We need to put our personal feelings aside and ensure that our children are taught that no matter what they decide to become one day, their role is valued and important. No one should ever feel they are “just a mother” or “just a secretary”. Everyone should feel like the cleaner at NASA who, when asked what his job was, as the tale goes, replied: “My job is to help to put a man on the moon.”
“Be it a paid or unpaid occupation, all women’s choices in life should be socially appreciated. Otherwise we diminish what the feminist struggle tried to achieve,” says Letitia.
While the fight for gender equality is far from over, we need to be careful not to tip the scale in the other direction and start closing doors on ourselves and each other because that will only take us backwards. No matter what path you choose for yourself as a mother, if it is done with conviction, passion and dedication then it can only ever be a great achievement.