Why mothers shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to work
Ten years ago I woke up one morning and realised I didn’t want to go to work. Ever again. I’d achieved everything I’d always wanted as a management consultant: climbing the corporate ladder and earning good money. But I felt empty and unfulfilled.
Yeah, I know, cry me a river: #FirstWorldProblems.
I felt guilty for being such a spoiled brat, but I still fantasised about giving up work forever. I thought that if I was somehow rich enough not to work I’d be happy.
And I was wrong.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter I was made redundant. (It’s remarkable how many pregnant women are ‘restructured’ out of companies. What a strange coincidence.) Having no job to return to after maternity leave, and being fortunate enough to afford to stay home, I hoped to find happiness in being a full-time mother.
I was wrong about that too. I needed to work. And I spent years feeling guilty about not finding motherhood totally and utterly fulfilling.
But I’ve now reached a point of being able to admit without a shred of guilt that I want to work. I want to use my brain, interact with adults and have the independence and social status of earning my own money. It is not a reflection on how much I love my kids; my desire to work isn’t about my kids at all. It’s about me.
Despite being raised in a culture that tells women they must put themselves last, I now realise that I am entitled to prioritise my own needs too. And not just so I can be a good role model to my daughters, but because my needs matter just as much as everyone else’s.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all women should work. If you don’t want to do paid work, and you’re lucky enough to afford not to, then more power to you. However, it does worry me how many women have almost no power in their marriages and lives because they gave up their careers to care for their children. I’ve had enough whispered conversations with women to know that giving up financial power often means being relegated to a second-class citizenship in their relationships.
I have witnessed friends who used to kick arse in the boardroom be stripped of their self-esteem and control over their lives after they had children and gave up work. They tolerate bad behaviour by their partners, and sometimes even abuse, because they no longer have the confidence or the means to demand better.
One acquaintance who used to be a lawyer but hasn’t worked for seven years said, “I feel like my husband is my boss and I’m his employee.” Another mother cancelled a quick coffee catch-up with me after school drop-off because her husband was home sick from work and she didn’t want him to know that she was socialising. “What have you been doing all day?” and “I’m more tired than you because I have a ‘real’ job”, have been constant themes in their relationship. And while her husband no doubt has coffee breaks and long lunches from time to time, she feels she cannot even have a cup of coffee lest her contribution to the family be called into question.
The only reason I can work without going completely crazy is by having equality in my home. I could not work as I do if my husband didn’t do his share of the domestic work and caring for our children. I feel lucky, even though I really shouldn’t have to, that my husband truly does see family life as his responsibility, rather than resentfully “helping out” occasionally when he gets sick of the nagging.
Many women are forced to carry the unfair burden of domestic life because their partner simply will not step up.
My experience tells me that domestic inequality is one of the greatest barriers to inequality in the workplace. Not only does it drain women’s energy and bandwidth, having a wife to manage every other aspect of a man’s life frees him up to direct even more energy into furthering his career.
Fighting against the pay gap, calling out sexual harassment and pushing back against sexism in the workplace are signs that we have reached a point where women believe that we deserve to be treated equally. We no longer believe that we should feel grateful for being tossed the scraps.
But the fight for equality in our homes and in our relationships is just as important. In fact, the two are intimately connected. We deserve equality in our public and our private lives; and we need to keep fighting for both.
This is an edited extract from Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind, by Kasey Edwards, published by Black Inc Books on May 1 (RRP $27.99).