8 August 2012, by Tan Yi Lin
The Straits Times ran two features on the Work-vs-Total Motherhood debate last week.
Finally, FINALLY, there are women out there who make sense.
On Sat 5 Aug, “Motherhood, jobs and the different kinds of wrong” by Lucy Kellaway (which first ran in the Financial Times), summed up the debate: “There’s no best way to combine work and caring for a child; it’s an individual game of survival”.
Key word therein: individual
Personal situations call for personal choices to be made and personal balances to be found. It is every mother’s internal debate and yet, all the conflicting viewpoints being aired in news reports, print forums, online discussion boards, etc. inevitably make me weigh myself up against other woman and wonder whether I’m doing this motherhood thing right.
Well, the world is a cruel place: damned if you do; damned if you don’t. “In fact, there is no such thing as right: There are just lots of varieties of wrong.” The writer shares that her friend who quit work to raise four children was just told by her eldest that “she was a pathetic cipher who has wasted her life” by being a SAHM. Ouch. Yet, the writer’s own kids accuse her of spending too much time on work. Ouch again.
Ms Kellaway cites the example of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new and very pregnant CEO. She reports that more than 4,000 newspaper articles were written, variously judging the latter: “heroine”, “bad mother”, “great role model”, “no role model” were some of the titles bestowed on Ms Mayer for publicly announcing her decision to take only a month of maternity leave before heading back to run the company.
To me, as long as she feels strongly for what she’s decided to do, and she has a caregiver system in place to support her and her new baby, then by all means, go back to work. After all, that is what our mothers did in the 1970s and 1980s with their 30-day maternity leave entitlement. No need for critics to call her a bad mother or slam her for not being a role model. Who’s asking her to be their mum or their idol? Why should they care?
Plus, this is a CEO of a global giant whom we’re talking about, yo? I went back to work after three months from delivering because I wanted to. And I’m not even anywhere near to being the CEO. On a related note, my previous CEO was a married woman with two teenagers. She was an inspiration in terms of her vision and foresight, the meaningful work she did, her leadership role in the organisation and on top of all that, for managing family demands too. I once asked her how she found the time and energy to run an organisation and look after her growing children simultaneously. She replied that it’s just something that you have to do – and that it can be done, with passion – and lots of help and support from both family members and fellow colleagues. In my eyes, she truly is deserving of The Woman of The Year award that was conferred to her not long ago. I am very proud of my mum for doing the same – working full time while steering the family ship. I remember telling my classmates how my mum did this and did that at work. Today, I’m still telling my friends that she’s a stellar grandmother who travels frequently for work while looking after her family and helping to care for her granddaughter. I hope to be able to similarly inspire Coco and that she will be equally proud of me too.
I agree with Ms Kellaway that “in a way, it is boring and pointless to be having these discussions all over again.” But debate is inevitable because women today aren’t any closer to finding answers than they were decades ago. “There is no best length of maternity leave” (hear, hear, NTUC! We’ll get to that later…) “There is no best way of combining motherhood and jobs. Above all, there is no balance. Instead, it’s a continuous fluid game of survival, the rules of which are unclear, shifting and different for everyone.”
I am grateful that the organisation that I work for has recognised the last point in Ms Kellaway’s argument. Our Human Resource department recently announced the commencement of staggered reporting times. Staff can choose to turn up for work anytime between 7.30am and 9.30am, and leave accordingly after fulfilling their minimal 8.5 hours at work. This is on top of the telecommuting policy announced earlier this year.
But the debate continues – because women inevitably and compulsively compare, a habit that Ms Kellaway calls “soul-destroying”. We even compare ourselves to strangers on Internet chatrooms “who can’t even use capital letters”. Well, I don’t even visit chatrooms – because I cannot stand the lazy spelling and lack of punctuation on Internet forums. Words (can you even call them words?!) like “boi”, “bb”, “gal”, “dat”, “dotter” burn my eyes. What’s the difference between typing “boy” and “boi”? The latter isn’t even shorter than the correctly-spelled word! *deep breath*
In other news, NTUC recently submitted a proposal to legalise six months of maternity leave to boost Singapore’s birth rates.
Oh please. If women aren’t taken in by the four-month leave carrot, do you seriously think that dangling two more months of leave in front of them is going to change their minds? Six months of leave, measured against a lifetime of responsibility to care for a child (or more), is paltry.
I’m not saying that we should ask for more. There will be no upper limit. Four months. Six months. Eight months. A year. There will always be women crying out for more leave.
Not me. When NTUC crafted their proposal, did they talk to mothers like me who actually want to work? It’s not about the money. It’s not about working for the sake of earning. Nor, to employers, is it about the Government footing the bill to let their staff go on leave. Like Jane Ng wrote in “What works for working mums” in the Sunday Times on 5 Aug, many mums “enjoy what they do and their careers give them satisfaction. Their jobs also give them a break from being mums.”
Sure the first six months of a newborn’s life are a treasured and important time for breastfeeding and for bonding. But you can still breastfeed exclusively upon returning to work. Yes, taking time out to pump, wash and sterilise repeatedly is a chore. But it’s doable. As for bonding, bonding doesn’t stop upon the end of your four or six months of maternity leave – it’s a continuous effort throughout your child’s life, which you must make time for. Even if you choose to stop breastfeeding, there are countless other wonderful ways to build a beautiful bond with your baby. Coco and I established a strong bond during her first few months. The bond is not any less strong because I returned to work after three months and weaned her off the breast at six months. I can confidently say that mummy is Coco’s favourite-est person on earth. Now who dares to challenge that? (okay, maybe Dannie will…)
Six months is not a short time. Returning to work after three months was challenging: I forgot my account passwords; it took me awhile to catch up with the files that I had been working on before I gave birth; it took me weeks to find my focus and efficiency at work again. Plus, I felt bad about saddling my male, single female and non-parent colleagues with my share of work while I was gone. I still feel the same while I’m on hospitalisation leave for almost three-weeks now. Covering a colleague’s work for six months is no joyride. Even if you could save some of the six months to apply for leave as and when you wished to, it’s still six months of not doing any work.
So, dear NTUC, no thanks for submitting a proposal that I don’t agree with on my behalf. I, like Ms Ng, believe that the solution doesn’t lie in more maternity leave, but in flexible work arrangements (FWAs – because the full term is too long to type repeatedly. It’s not like, “boy”, you know.)
FWAs let us continue contributing to the organisation and to the community as a full-time worker. They let us continue earning full-time pay, which is a big bonus in supporting our plans to have a bigger family. Longer maternity leave is a short-sighted measure. FWAs are in the long-run, more sustainable, both to employers and employees.
My telecommuting arrangement is due for review in September. I would have worked from home, once a week, for three months by then. So far, I’ve found that working from home works for me. I get to spend more time with Coco during the day. The limited pockets of time that I have to do my work (when she naps) force me to be more focused and productive, compared to sitting at my office desk the whole day. I am driven to get work done over email, to communicate my presence and prove that I’m not slacking at home. And I hope that I’ll get my bosses’ support to continue this FWA.
It’s not about being entitled to more time away from work in the short term. Nor is it about the Government paying you to stay home and look after your children. For centuries, women have been caring for their own children without the need for financial incentives. Many women in poorer and less developed communities still do. On top of that, many women work while doing so – tending to farmland, selling market produce, etc. Heck, even female animals leave their young in the care of their partner or fellow female caregivers to go out and hunt.
Nor is it about the money: some parents called for more tax reliefs. Dan and I think that the current tax structure and various types of parenthood reliefs are already rather generous. This year, thanks to Coco, we didn’t pay any tax. I think parents who still have to pay tax (and probably a minimal amount only) must be pretty high-earners! If you’re earning so much, then why is “money no enough” an excuse for not having a child (or more)?
This has been a really long rambling entry. Hey, I’m on leave till 17 August. I have LOTS of time to read the news, collect my thoughts and pen them down in the blogosphere. I tried to keep busy by offering to work from home but my boss told me not to worry about work and to focus on the IVF. How nice is that?!
In short, this age-old debate is getting pretty tiring. Instead of agonising over whether to be a SAHM or a full-time working mum, I suggest that more women – and their employers – seriously consider and make a case for flexible work arrangements instead of blindly supporting or vehemently opposing the call for more maternity leave.
My other (less important) recommendation is to stay away from people who can’t spell “baby”, “girl” and “daughter” properly.
So thank you Ms Kellaway and Ms Ng for sharing your valued insights on the topic. I don’t claim to speak for every mother out there. But thank you for speaking for me.