This article first appeared in Malta Today
When Education Minister Evarist Bartolo posted a status saying that children suffer when parents are unemployed and that working parents have a positive effect on the family, I do not think he was prepared for the backlash in the stream of comments which followed.
Let me start off by saying that to a certain extent I know what he means: long-term unemployment brings with it a lack of dignity and teaches children that they do not need to aspire because they can simply feed off the state. There is nothing so off-putting as a lazy husband and father (or mother for that matter); but somehow when the man refuses to work and prefers to slouch around while collecting benefits, it is worse. Similarly, deadbeat Dads who take off and refuse to pay child support are in a particularly unpleasant category of human being. What kind of person brings a child into the world and then refuses to assume financial and moral responsibility for them?
When parents are averse to earning their own money, it just sends out too many wrong signals to their offspring that working is to be avoided at all costs because someone else will foot the bill. On the other hand, the ability to provide food on the table and a home to live in is something which a child will absorb and assimilate even without realizing it. It is called being a good role model for a reason and there is a lot to be said for it.
However, most of those who were commenting did not seem to be taking it from this angle. Instead, the gist of the comments were that actually, children are not better off these days, because with both parents working, they are being palmed off to grandparents or childcare facilities and that parents are barely seeing their own children. When they do see them, everyone is too tired to listen to what their kids have to say and it is a mad blitz of homework, dinner, bath, PJs and bed before the whole cycle starts all over again the next day. Many of the women who replied on the thread pointed out that they were not working through choice but because they could not make ends meet with a single paycheque, or in the case of single mothers, because they were the main breadwinners. Ideally, many of them added, they would prefer to be raising their children as they themselves had been raised, in the traditional mode of a Mummy who is waiting at home for the kids after school with delicious nourishment and a patient sympathetic ear as she listened to what they had done that day.
The picture that was painted was indeed an idyllic one, especially in contrast to today’s race against time whirlwind as children are dropped off, collected and sometimes dropped off again at various activities and households, depending on one’s circumstances and lifestyle. And let’s face it, coming home at 6pm – 7pm faced by the morning’s breakfast dishes (because you were late for work), laundry which needs to be taken off the washing line and no idea what to cook for dinner, while children demand help with their homework is not exactly conducive to “quality family time”. it doesn’t help matters when the working mother ends up doing everything at home anyway because the husband does not do his share but still expects domestic chores and children’s needs to fall under the category of ‘the woman’s job’.
On the other hand, the nostalgia for days gone by when most women were contented homemakers who were completely fulfilled with running the ‘perfect’ household, ensuring that everything was spic and span for their husband and children when they got home, as the aroma of something yummy was bubbling away in the kitchen, is perhaps a nostalgia which is already out of our reach. Of course, there are still women who have chosen to be stay-at-home mothers until their children are older (or because they can afford not to work), but for others, that choice has been snatched away. In many cases, there are real financial constraints which have forced more women, rather grudgingly, into the workforce, because without the additional income the family will just not cope. But if we have to be truly honest, it is also because we have higher aspirations than our parents who often ‘made do’ with much less; something which those in their 40s and 30s are not ready to settle for. The determination to give children what they did not have themselves, and also to ensure that they are not any ‘worse off’ than their peers is a constant presence in the minds of many parents. Living on just one income means that the family would have to scale back on their lifestyle, and not everyone is willing to do that. The price they have to pay is a more stressful daily grind and a constant juggling of childcare and job demands, which is ‘compensated’ for by the money at the end of the month.
There is another aspect to working mothers which cannot be ignored: not everyone finds complete satisfaction in being a homemaker and working gives many women a much needed intellectual and social stimulus which is important to their psyche. In fact, it often makes them better mothers simply because they are happier. After all, an unhappy, depressed stay-at-home mother does absolutely no good to her children either, despite being physically “at home” all the time.
It comes down to the cliche of finding the right balance between family and work which is great when it is achievable by both parents but is often the most elusive thing of all.