x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Caught between two views of women

Women wanting to have both a career and a family are trapped between two contradictory narratives

It never occurred to me that I would choose not to have children. I thought kids were cute. But once they started to wail, or snot dripped off their noses, it was time to return them to their parents.

I never felt broody. What I saw instead was myself in two or three decades, having friends and companions by my side: my children.

There was a lot of romantic talk about how having a child would fulfil me as a woman, and more graphic edicts on how my uterus was only there to bear children.

Unsentimental as it sounds, it was the future that prompted me to choose to have children.

As all parents will tell you, the first two years have been tough. And loath as I am to admit it from beneath dark rings under my eyes, I have grown in unimaginable ways since having a daughter. I'm gentler, less easily distressed by challenge, more efficient and more compassionate. I'm also more tired, more stressed and sometimes more fuzzy-brained.

It's a tale that is familiar in modern parenting debates.

In a recent American book Why have kids? third-wave feminist Jessica Valenti argues that societal beliefs like parenting is the hardest thing you can do and that mothers know best, are simply designed to put a positive spin on something that is miserable and strips you of your self-identity.

She says her book is a call to talk about the reality - not the rose-tinted public image - of motherhood.

I hear and applaud this, except I think we do talk about how hard motherhood is. Since both she and I are relatively new mothers, I wonder if our assessment of how fulfilling it is will change over time.

It's unemotional to think of children as businesses but the analogy works: starting up a business is hard work requiring significant time and financial investment. But after the start up period, it pays back manyfold.

We have two competing narratives in modern life, between which women are trapped. There is a historic narrative about gender roles, and in particular that women must have children, that this is the only way that they can be proper women.

On the other hand, we have the wider narrative of modernity that work is the marker of status and worth. That in the work-life balance equation, work - as the wording even suggests - comes first in terms of priority, value and importance. That to be a valued member of society, economic contribution is the primary factor.

Somewhere between these two narratives women are caught in a paradox: that being a proper woman means being a mother, but being a proper valuable member of society that is considered to have worth means contributing economically.

How can a woman ever achieve being a "proper" mum whilst still being a "proper" economically active individual? It's an irreconcilable conflict, and no wonder women feel over-burdened, or simply opt out of this false choice.

So when women ask the question about whether to have children, they are reflecting the fact that society is not structured to facilitate the multiple roles they wish to inhabit.

There would never be shock at men deciding not to have children because it's assumed they can do both. They are not trapped between contradictory narratives. And women shouldn't be either. After all, whoever used the phrase "career man" as an insult?


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk