“Why did you go to uni if you just stay at home?”
It was an innocent and unexpected question to my friend from her six-year-old daughter.
Her daughter had absorbed two pervasive ideas about education and motherhood, and then pieced them together to draw a conclusion that is really bad for women.
The first idea is that we no longer value education as an end in itself, as something worthy of pursuing because it makes for more rounded individuals and a more civil society.
Education is now just a means to get a better job and make more money. If it’s not a direct path to a greater income, then it’s seen as a waste of time.
The second idea is that caring work is unimportant women’s work and it’s not regarded as requiring any great skill.
Her mother JUST stays home. At six, this little girl has already learned that the real work – the work that’s valued and matters – is done outside of the home. And most of the time, it’s done by daddy.
My friend, who’s an organisational psychologist, was surprised how defensive she felt answering her daughter’s question – and the implication that she’s ‘just’ a mother.
She found herself providing her daughter with a detailed rundown of her pre-motherhood CV. She explained all the things she had achieved professionally before she had three children, and the things she plans to do when she re-enters the workforce.
In the process, my friend realised that she was also implicitly devaluing the work that she does all day – namely mothering, caring for her daughter and her siblings.
She was reinforcing the belief that mothering is the crap option, a poor second to working outside of the home.
I’ve found myself doing the same, often without thinking. Just the other day I complained to a friend, “How many years of education do I have and I’m at home doing laundry and baking a quiche.”
The devaluation of motherhood starts early. Last week when my daughter’s Grade One class dressed up as ‘useful people in the community’, there were nurses and doctors, teachers and firefighters, a crossing guard and builders aplenty. But not one child dressed up as a mother.
Given this, it’s not surprising that a six-year-old has joined the dots on work, education and motherhood.
There’s some suggestion that while women are entering higher education in greater numbers than men, some are opting out of more expensive degrees, such as medicine, because of concerns about being able to repay their HECS debt.
As consumers of education, women who plan to have a family in the future are making decisions that will effectively preclude them from high-paying and high-status careers down the track.
An economist might say that women are just making a rational choice. You can’t have everything, and there has to be trade-offs, after all. But how free is this choice, really?
How many men make similar trade-offs in thinking about future careers? How many men factor in looking after their children when it comes to making choices about university? Or, if they have no desire to have children, to take another example where women typically pick up the slack, caring for elderly and frail parents?
These tend to be decisions that women are expected to make, so they’re not simply the outcome of personal choice and preferences.
I wonder how many children have questioned why their fathers bothered to go to university?
Part of the problem is the dearth of skilled and interesting part-time work in Australia. I know plenty of mothers who would love to return to work but their options are limited to poorly-paid, insecure and unsatisfying part-time jobs or full-time work – in addition to shouldering an unfair burden of domestic work and childcare.
Creating more skilled part-time work for parents is not an economic impossibility. In the Netherlands, for example, 26.8 per cent of men and 76.6 per cent of women work part-time and their economy hasn’t collapsed.
But the larger problem is the systemic devaluing of domestic and caring work. We need to find a way to break free from the catch-22 of caring work – caring for children, for the sick, the disabled and the elderly needs to be recognised for the valuable work that it is. It’s the backbone of our community, and without it our economy really would crumble.
Our society is unlikely to acknowledge the value of caring and domestic work until men start doing more of it. But men are unlikely to step up and share the burden of this work when even a six-year-old thinks it’s the dud option.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something And The Clock is Ticking.