Why we need to stop using the term ‘working mothers’
The annual celebration of the Mother's Day brings with it the usual outpouring of love and appreciation for the primary caregivers in our families, but it also tends to bring to the fore some of the deeply ingrained conceptions (and misconceptions) about motherhood in our society. One of the most common issues, of course, relates to how society distinguishes "working mothers" from the rest and continues to vilify them. While the vilification of working mothers is a social problem that needs to be uprooted, I would like to take this opportunity to take a step back and highlight a less obvious problem. I voice my contention with the unabated use of the exclusionary term "working mothers"—based on the very simple logic that all mothers work.
In creating a sub-category of mothers with the qualifying verb "working", the implication, quite literally, is that mothers outside this category are somehow not "working", even though they very much are. By labelling one end of this (socioeconomically constructed) binary as "working mothers", we are naturally left with terms like "stay-at-home mothers" or "housewives" (which often comes with a tinge of condescension) in order to identify the remaining category of mothers. These terms, by tying such mothers to a state of passivity ("stay") and fixed geographical location ("house" or "home"), place in our heads this false image of inactivity and immobility, and therefore non-work.
The real differentiator between mothers is not whether they "work" or not (since it is pretty indisputable that there can be no motherhood without work)—it is whether they are getting paid for the work they are doing. So why the discrepancy?
To put it simply, "working mothers" get paid to do their work because their output is assigned an economic value in the hyper-capitalist world that we find ourselves in, while "stay-at-home mothers" are denied payment because the output of their work does not immediately contribute to the holy grail of Gross Domestic Product at the end of that particular financial year (that magical formula that a group of mostly white, middle-aged men devised), and therefore is denied any economic and functional value.
This is not to say that the unpaid work that "stay-at-home mothers" do cannot be assigned an economic value, because feminist interventions in economics in recent times has shown that it very much can be attached to a monetary value. For instance, a report by the South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) found that when the total unpaid work in Bangladesh was assigned an economic value, it made up over 48 percent of the country's GDP in 2017. It also confirmed that the overwhelming majority of unpaid work in the country is conducted, unsurprisingly, by women.
Therefore, all mothers are quite literally "working mothers" and both groups do work that can be economically valued, but the free market economy dictates that only one group does work that ought to be economically valued and remunerated, while the work done by the other group should not.
I totally understand the need to have a specific term to identify the subcategory of women who do engage in paid work, not least because of the social stigma and guilt tripping they face every waking moment for "choosing a career over their children" (since many live in societies where the two c's of adulthood—i.e. children and career—are, funnily enough, always mutually exclusive for the mother, but never for the father). So, to be clear, I am not in the slightest disputing the need for sub-categorising this group of mothers (so we are able to better highlight their experiences and struggles, etc.). I am merely proposing that we use an identifying term that does not, by default, peddle capitalist myths and deny recognition to the very real work done by the other category of mothers whose labour has long been denied any economic or functional value.
I also understand the absolute need to recognise that a good many stay-at-home mothers were simply never given the choice to have a career. But that does not mean we should refuse to grant due recognition to the work they have to do, even if they had little or no choice in the matter. Nor should we ignore the reality that many mothers have fully exercised their own autonomy in choosing to maximise the time they spend with their children without it being superimposed. The fight towards recognising unpaid work, and ensuring mothers have a bona fide choice in pursuing or not pursuing salaried careers, is part and parcel of the (same) war against gender inequality.
Therefore, the longer we keep on using "work" to only mean "paid work" in the context of motherhood (and domestic or care work, more broadly), the longer we are going to be in a reality where the unpaid work of women remains unrecognised and unvalued and thereby continues to be a driving force of gender inequality across the globe. There is no better time to rethink the definition of "work" and implement this conceptual coup than in these dreary days of lockdown where it becomes clearer to all that housework and domestic chores do not get done on their own.
P.S. I write this piece as the son of a woman who will not be known as a "working mother" but who somehow still happened to have fed me, clothed me, educated me, transported me, disciplined me, trained me, budgeted for me, managed a large household and, finally, enabled me (in every sense of the word) to do the "work" I do today.
Taqbir Huda is a socio-legal researcher.
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