Valuing Your Work

My daughter, who is nearly two, has recently taken to hiding when she sees me take out her clothes.

My daughter, who is nearly two, has recently taken to hiding when she sees me take out her clothes.  Her dislike for being ‘handled’ results in a game of kukulu and it is only after her stuffed monkey is fully dressed that she submits to my unreasonable request that she puts on some clothes. Then of course, it is time for breakfast, and a small battle ensues over hand-washing. I am so immersed in my daughter’s activities and development that I often don’t know what day of the week it is – after all, my’ boss’ does not let me take weekends or evenings off.

Because being a mother is my current occupation, I often pause when I am asked what I do.  In Amharic in particular, I find ‘’EnatNegne’’(‘’I am a Mother’’) to be a poor substitute for the more descriptive ‘a full-time mom’ or ‘a stay-at-home mom’. Also, the phrase often elicits a puzzled look as often, my conversation partners are mothers or fathers who also have paid work.

When I try to explain that my current work is taking care of my daughter, the response I most often receive is, ‘’oh, so you don’t work.’’  Many people seem to not realize that raising a child is work albeit unpaid, which says more about society’s value of women’s time than about the ease of the task. As I never fail to respond to the observation that I don’t work, I have never worked so hard in my life.

I decided to take a break from the eventful career I have had as a gender equality activist because I have always known that I want to be a hands-on mother, and a full-time job would not have allowed me the freedom to do that.  Furthermore, I gave birth to my daughter while studying for a higher degree on a scholarship, and in addition to the monetary flexibility that this arrangement allowed me, it also gives me enough diversion from finger-painting. Therefore, I am a full-time mom during the day, and I work on my thesis at night, whenever I manage to get my willful toddler to sleep.

This arrangement, although very challenging, works for me. However, my decision to not take on additional paid employment when I could (if I had hired childcare help) is often met with surprise or pity. The most common question I get, from mothers is “ayselechishim?” (“Don’t you get bored?”).  Summarizing this line of thinking, a male acquaintance chided me, ‘’you could use your time better.’’

I disagree.  I can’t speak for other women but my time currently is very well-spent.  Yes, I spend hours changing and washing nappies when I could have been facilitating meetings, but although I miss adult conversation, I have the daily pleasure of hearing my daughter’s first sentences. I cannot claim to be implementing well-funded projects but I know I am the one who taught my little girl to say ‘’Ebakishin’’, even to her dolls, and to climb our steps. I draw and sing where I used to write proposals, but I get a great kick when she can finally tell a cow apart from a horse.  Best of all, I am a daily witness to how the sense of security that her father and I have furnished her has her flourish into a confident and happy child who would hug strangers if we let her.

I realize that cheap labor and our near history of feudal relationships have resulted in almost all of us having been raised by nannies. However, when people comment on my current work as if itwere something remarkable, I still wonder at this complete disconnect  with what is surely the natural progression of giving birth – caring for one’s offspring oneself.

Please note that I am not advocating that every mother (or father – as despite stereotypes, men can parent as well as women) stays at home to raise his/her children. Particularly where women are concerned, such a stand would actually be against feminist principles as women all over the world have fought for the right to lead professional lives. In addition to the right to work for pay as an intellectual pursuit, many women also need to work to maintain or help maintain themselves and their families.

However, where women, and in exceptional instances that I am aware of, men, take time off paid work to care for and nurture their children’s character, that decision- and the occupation-  need to be valued.  After all, while none of us are indispensable in our professional roles, we are the only parents assigned to our children.  Is full-time parenting an easy job? Not by a long-shot, it is often hard every day.  Is it appreciated? I have yet to meet a child who thanks her mother for feeding or changing her.  Active parenting is like the stable foundation our houses sit on. You don’t ever think to appreciate it but you would notice if it was not doing its job in supporting the house. It is under-stated and unglamorous but oh, so rewarding – all the more reason to value the work of a full-time parent.