Costly mothering: the economics of a fulfilling life.

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Photo Credit: Robyn Lang (c). Used with permission. 

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on Women in Depth. The host, Lourdes Viado was discussing the phenomena of women who stay in unhappy, even abusive marriages for various reasons, mostly centering on fear of the financial and emotional consequences of leaving.

Whilst the podcast sensitively discussed the experience of many of these women, what was consistently drawn out was the way in which these women were “choosing” to live a life that was not in accordance with “who they really were” for economic reasons and fear of the unknown.

One thing that really struck me about this podcast was the absence of a critical economic perspective. There was a lot of discussion about the economic motivations that prompted these women to stay in unhappy marriages, but very little about the different economic realities of men and women and in particular, the role that the care of children plays in shaping people’s economic choices.

For me, this blunt reality was driven home after the birth of our son. Raised in a thoroughly egalitarian household where I had been cared for by a stay-at-home dad from the age of one to 13, I simply assumed that my husband and I would split care of our new addition 50/50. Whilst theoretically such an arrangement may have been possible, it seemed thoroughly impractical with a newborn. A newborn, I realised, needs to nurse a lot. The arrangements of pumping and bottle-feeding seemed unpleasant and difficult. The stress to father and baby that would come from baby being unable to nurse (and therefore most likely crying) for long periods of time weighed on me. I didn’t want to leave my baby. My husband on the other hand, was less intensely attached and was happy to go out and in fact, wanted to.  I slowly realised that as egalitarian as my views might be, in this particular situation, as a nursing, attachment-minded mother, my choices were just different from those that were available to my husband.

In this particular time and place, it was simply easier for my husband to go earn money. However, this left me completely dependent on my husband’s health, willingness to provide and general good-will in a way that did not seem to recognise in any way the important work that I was doing caring for a tiny newborn life. 

The absence of recognition was driven home so much more strongly because in the year prior to my son being born I had worked as a full-time nanny. I had spent the day with a cute baby and earned a pretty penny. It seemed absurd that doing the exact same thing, but with new night care and milk-production responsibilities, not only had I not gotten a pay-rise, but the promotion earned me literally nothing in a financial sense. My maternity leave ran out at three months (which is considered generous compared to what is provided for many mothers) but my child was absolutely not ready to be away from me for hours at a time. The fact that the government where I live would generously subsidise day care at this age – but not provide me with any of these resources to choose to take care of my own child seemed baffling.

It took all my social capital, intelligence, track record of academic achievement and plain ingenuity to manufacture our current living arrangement where I am able to care for my now one and a half year old son for most of the day and also earn the majority of our family’s income. It is precarious, at times very difficult and most of the time exhausting.

I am however, acutely aware of the millions of women who lack the resources to craft a niche PhD candidate life. It was not easy and I do not think that it is something suitable for everyone. And this is what galled me about the discussion on this podcast about these women who were not being themselves by choosing to stay with a long-term husband who they disliked for health insurance or other economic benefits. Living in accordance with “yourself” and “your values” is – at the end of the day – an economic privilege. The fact that the women discussed in this podcast ended up at the ages of sixty and seventy, financially dependent on abusive and neglectful men after decades of unpaid labour during which they had birthed, fed, educated and cared for infants, toddlers and children seems like not only a personal tragedy but a fundamental injustice.

(Note, even though the tone of this discussion rubbed me the wrong way, women in depth is one of my favourite podcasts and I highly recommend it. Lourdes Viado discusses a wide range of interesting and unusual subjects of relevance to women with a fascinating array of guests. I love the podcast because Lourdes discusses a range of topics that many women experience but we rarely talk about together).


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