Saffiyah Edoo

Child-rearing has traditionally belonged to and maintained in the woman’s lap. We would like to boast that we are now a progressive society where a number of men have taken a hands-on role in the rearing of children. However, judging by a lot of mums’ stories, it would seem that we still have a long way to go for child-rearing to be an ideally equally shared duty.

The excellent comic strip by Emma, a French cartoonist, details precisely how mothers lug the “mental charge”. This refers to the micro management of the multiple tasks that befall mostly on mothers. For instance, ensuring that everything is packed in anticipation before going out, or remembering doctors’ appointment for each child, or what she needs to get for the different projects of her children, while thinking about that deadline that she had to meet yesterday. These are but a glimpse into what mothers’ responsibilities entail. Arguably, the father’s mental charge is not negligible but not as mentally draining as that of the mother. It would seem however that the times we live in has two parallel currents, which do nothing to encourage working women to ease into motherhood seamlessly.
On the one hand, we encourage our girls to aim high and pursue their dreams. At the same time we urge them to beware of the good old biological clock and the necessity to raise a family. While our girls, who perform better than boys, have succeeded in excelling in a different range of fields, and are working very hard to break that glass ceiling, we have not updated the tools they need to ensure a work-life balance in the real sense.

Today, when a professionally engaged woman starts to plan for a family, one of the utmost priorities will be childcare, especially if extended family’s help is not an option. The lookout for that one crèche where the child will get an equal if not better attention that the primary caregiver can provide will be arduous task. Many would say that there is no better carer than the mother or that the foundation years are the most important ones for the child and thus having a parent, ideally the mother, is essential. While these claims are not unfounded, they are also not a possibility for many women, who absolutely need this pay check for the family’s livelihood. We no longer live in an era where extended family is available at hand to help us raise the next generation. With an improved standard of living and life expectancy, members of the extended family who would have stepped in in another era, are now enjoying an extended professional career or are enjoying the rewards of their hard-earned money in different types of activities than what their own parents used to indulge into. Where do we go from here?

The provision of childcare facilities in the workplace

The answer may have inadvertently been provided by Joanna Bérenger although she raised the issue in a different context: the provision of childcare facilities in the workplace, in her case, Parliament once a week. The amount of backlash she got on social media following her declaration is not only astounding, but more importantly, revelatory about the mindset that prevails regarding mothers who go to work. From telling her that women who work in fields did not ask for such privileges or that she was taking people’s money to do what mothers have been doing all along, there is the whole underlying narrative of ignoring the difficulties that women face raising children when working. Joanna Bérenger is right, setting up a crèche in Parliament will undoubtedly help to tick off an important item on the list of a mother who works there. But it will be not be limited to this. The effect of such an action is wide reaching.

A crèche in Parliament is a concrete example from the very top that has the huge potential of trickling down to other workplaces. While this is an initiative that is already implemented in some parts of the private corporate sector as well as a private tertiary institution, it is far from being widespread.  The provision of childcare facilities by the workplace not only reduces the parents’ stress but in fact acts as an impetus for the employee who juggles parental responsibilities. Such a move has the potential of improving productivity with a sentiment of having one’s reality being understood by management. The advantage of such a family-oriented move is manifold. It ensures that the mother does not have to worry about a pregnancy being a deterrent for her progress within the company, it already relieves her from the burden of looking for childcare, allows her to keep a reasonable breastfeeding schedule and widens her access to her child in formative years. Such a policy also benefits fathers, who could not only shoulder the responsibility of dropping the child to the crèche but also a possibility of bonding that would not have been possible otherwise.
Childcare should not only be considered in the corporate world. It should, most importantly, be given a boost for the underprivileged who cannot work because of lack of childcare support or who have no choice but to leave children unattended because they are the only breadwinners of the family. In line with its « inclusive » vision, the government could consider a subsidy for childcare along with the extended parental leave announced for parents.

A well-advised person once said, in a private conversation, that women generate an economy for women. Women who work, as well as those who don’t, need help to take care of their households: maids, cooks, nannies. Women stand to gain a financial independence and a means to help raise their families. For these women to go to work, there needs to be proper structure in place to allow for each of them to tap into and achieve her full potential. The village that once was to help these women blossom is changing. It is high time that mindsets and practices started evolving as well.