Sunday, 28 February 2010

Musings on language

I'm starting to really hate the term "working mum". The implication is that every mother, biological or otherwise, is somehow not working unless she is paid for that mahi. Which is ridiculous.

And why does there appear to be no commensurate term for male parents who are in paid employment? You hear about "stay at home dads" or "house husbands" but never "working fathers". I've been trying out that term here a bit myself, but it has the same problems as "working mum", and it doesn't appear to be catching on much anyway!

"Stay at home" bugs me too, because in my experience and observation being a parent involves going out rather a lot. It's as if the only Going Out that counts is the trip that ends at a workplace.

After a few days away for work with people I haven't met before, or see only a few times a year, I am worn out from repeated conversations explaining that my partner works part time to be available for the unpaid work of raising our child and running our household.

Why do I bother explaining? Mainly because I am nervous about being judged, because my child has until recently been under 2 and there are still a lot of people out there, even in my pretty progressive workplace, who disapprove of infants and toddlers being in an early childhood service. The Burning Swivelly Eye of Judgement generally focuses its beady stare on the mother, who should apparently be first pick for the non-paid role.

Has anyone ever heard of a father facing any "maybe you shouldn't be back at work yet" comments? Not that that would be ok either, by the way.

The other reason I explain our situation is better. But I'd be lying if I said the main motivator for explaining was to share an example of a non-traditional division of labour, and to be a bit of a role-model about a different way of doing things.

It is nice though when people I tell share their own stories about men who took up the bulk of the childcare. My own father worked from home a lot through-out his life, in particular when I was under 5. Apparently I used to love sitting in my bouncer on his workbench while he made wooden children's toys. I can't remember it, but I have a nice picture of it in my head nonetheless. To the outside world no doubt it looked like a very traditional division in our family home, and in many ways it was, but Dad was involved in my upbringing in a way few other fathers in our neighbourhood would have been at that time. Mum still did most of it, but for someone of my father's generation and with his socially conservative approach on many matters to be that engaged with his daughter was pretty cool.

Maybe we should just quit referring to "stay at home" or "go to work" parents? Perhaps it's more accurate, and fairer, to simply call people mothers and fathers and parents in a manner that isn't loaded with implications about whether they are economically productive worker ants (aka neglectful, absent, selfish people who contribute only monetarily to their family) or conversely Gods and Goddesses of the Domestic Realm (aka slothful, latte-sipping, hippies who just drain the coffers and can't hold an adult conversation).

I'm not sure we can take the judgeyness out of the terminology we use until we take the judgeyness out of ourselves first.


Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

Your last sentence is absolutely spot on. Big challenge.

AnneE said...

I've been appalled to see the resurgence of this idiotic expression. Remember the 70s button - "Every Mother is a Working Mother"?

Boganette said...

I remember that button! I might even have it somewhere - handed down from an Aunty along with a bag that says "Never underestimate the power of a woman".

Spot on Julie. And it's a massive insult to men too. It's denigrating their status as parents. My father pretty much raised me on his own and I know he often came up against weird stuff like not being able to sign forms for me - it had to be the mother etc. All very odd. I suppose that's another post entirely.

Actually even last year when I got citizenship here I was told my father couldn't sign the authority for me. I was told my mother had to do it. My father marched in and made such a scene that they STFU and let him sign it.

M said...

I agree with you, except that I quite like the term 'stay at home'. I think in terms of 'stay at home parent' (perhaps because I see a few men looking after their kids at playcentre these days?).
I do stay at home, it's where I spend most of my week, and the negative association just isn't there for me. It's a descriptor - perhaps the negativity depends on who is using or hearing the term, but for me it's a useful way to describe what I do.