I left my job last week after being in continuous employment since I left University in 1999. Aside from a couple of stints on maternity leave, the grinding routine of the working week has been a constant feature of my life for the last 15 years. Although I would consider myself to have a pretty good work ethic, I have always put myself firmly in the cosier camp of those that work to live rather than vice versa. I am continually shocked by humanity’s seeming willingness to enslave itself, and bemoan the way that advancing technology seems to bind us ever more tightly to the capitalist matrix rather than giving us more leisure time in which to pursue our own interests. I believe in freedom and laziness and doing what you want rather than what you have to – I even did a little dance on my way out of the health centre in which I used to work, and yet, and yet….well, there’s just something nagging at the edge of my consciousness, a little rain cloud in my bright blue sky, and it basically boils down to this: What do I say when people ask me what I do?
For the past 10 years I have been able to answer “I’m a women’s drug worker” when faced with the inevitable small talk starter for ten. This seems to elicit one of two responses – an immediate personal disclosure about so and so’s boyfriend/daughter/husband/nephew who is a heroin addict leading swiftly on to the soliciting of advice, or it serves as a complete and utter conversation stopper, depending on the kind of party or occasion. Conversation starter or stopper though, it has been my stock response for many years and I am used to waxing lyrical about all the things that I love and hate about my job and whether I find it rewarding or not etc etc. However much I rail against the capitalist system and bemoan my status as a wage slave, my job is entwined with my identity and has come to define me.
Perhaps I am thinking about this because I overheard a vicar ask this question of a young woman I attended at a wedding recently. I had spent the sermon repressing my feminist fury as he made casual sexist jokes about women vicars and pretended he wasn’t going to let said young woman out of the pulpit after she finished her reading because she was “better looking than most of the women who end up in there”. He asked her what she did after he was apparently impressed by her ability to read aloud, which meant of course that she must be a teacher. I overheard her simple answer “I’m a Mum” and given my impending unemployment, it caught my attention. To give her credit, she managed not to say “I’m just a Mum” but I’m sure we’ve all heard women respond in such a manner. The vicar clearly didn’t expect her answer and did a good job of saying “Ah yes, well that’s the most important job in the world” before moving swiftly on to talk to someone else. Conversation stopper.
I looked at her and wondered whether I would be able to say that when people asked the inevitable question and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. The thing is, being a Mum just isn’t valued in the same way. It is a conversation stopper and confers no status in the patriarchal capitalist society in which we live. Sure, it should be seen as the “most important job in the world”, but if that were true then single Mothers would be able to look down on us from the lofty heights of their revered social status rather than being the perpetual target of the Daily Mail. In reality, the importance of being a Mum is hardly recognised. The coalition government’s war on the welfare state has included an ideological onslaught on lone parents who are now shoved onto Job Seekers once their children reach the age of 5 (under Labour it was 12).The government is sending a clear message: parenting, but in particular, Mothering, is seen as less important than getting a job.
Despite this, my plan is to spend the next year at home until my daughter starts full time school. Until recently however I was used to having a very equal set up and felt privileged to be able to live in line with my feminist principles. I don’t consider myself to be the primary carer for our kids as my partner has done more than his fair share of night shifts, nappy changes and snotty nose wiping. I am worried that now I am at home full time, things might change. It was immensely important to me that we modelled how a good feminist family can work – men and women can play an equal role in working, childcare and housework and I was proud of us for doing it so well. Now I fear that I will inevitably take on more responsibility for housework (which does seem only fair) and that we will fall into traditional gender roles out of economic necessity. I am worried that my daughter will start to think that women stay at home while men go out to work, even though it could well have worked out differently if circumstances had been different. Research shows that women routinely carry the burden of domestic work on top of their day jobs but what will happen when I have no day job? Will I have to spend all my time cleaning? Because that’s what I’m really scared of, that the reply that “I’m just a Mum” means exactly that, I’m the one that stays at home and skivvies while my partner plays the more important role of breadwinner.
My feminism has never been so important to me as it is now. It wasn’t until I had children that I began to become fully aware of how patriarchy really does screw women over. Previously I had felt completely equal to men and although I have always been a feminist, I hadn’t really been that affected by inequality. It is only now that I can see how important it is that I keep on fighting. Women should not have to worry about becoming “Just a Mum”, and neither should they be racked with guilt if they decide to work. Women’s choices should be seen as equally valid and I shouldn’t be penalised by my decision to take some time out to be with my kids. Earlier today I finally decided what I am going to say when someone asks me what I do, I’m going to look them in the eye and say “I’m a feminist”. I’ll let you know whether it’s a conversation starter or stopper.