Childcare should not only be a woman’s job
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tweeted this past week that she and her partner Clarke Grayford will “join the many parents who wear two hats. I’ll be PM & a mum while Clarke will be ‘first man of fishing’ & stay at home dad”. The idea that a Head of State is going to experience what countless women in the free (and unfree) world go through is not new.
Benazir Bhutto, once disparagingly referred to as the ‘permanently pregnant prime minister’ -- the acronym dovetailed neatly to the party she headed -- had three children in and out of office. Her second child, a daughter, was born while she was Pakistan’s prime minister. Perhaps to prove that she was asking for no special concessions for being a woman, Bhutto, who delivered that child by Cesarean section, returned to work the very next day.
Back then, women with jobs took it on the chin and carried on. I remember a former woman colleague telling me about how she was headed for an important meeting when she got a call that her son had had a bad fall and was being taken to the hospital. Naturally, she said, she went ahead with the meeting.
Things have changed, mercifully, since that dreadful time when a woman, even a new mother, was under pressure to prove she could do the job same as a man.
Today’s working women can be assured that asking for maternity leave is no longer asking the boss for a ‘favour’. A new generation of women sees no conflict between giving birth, becoming mothers and just getting on with the job. Just this past week, AAP MLA Sarita Singh showed up to work at the Delhi Assembly with her two-month-old baby.
And yet, this new generation of marvellous multi-taskers still doesn’t have it easy.
All over the world, the responsibility of bringing up children lies disproportionately with women. A 2015 report by McKinsey Global Institute found that 75% of unpaid care work – cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for children and the elderly – is done by women. In India, the burden is much heavier. One study estimates that on average, a woman will spend over 351 minutes a day on unpaid care work. Another study says we are the second worst country when it comes to men contributing to housework. (Relax Indian men: Japan is the worst.)
We tout exceptional stories as the norm. And, so, a woman who chucks up her job in order to take care of her kids is just another mom. A man who does it is, well, a superhero.
Exacerbating the problem is workplace culture – though this is slowly changing too – that takes pride in employees being available 24/7. If you talk to mums in jobs, most will tell you that the only meaningful time they get with their kids is between 6 and 8 pm on weekdays. If you’re going to push employees to routinely put in 14-hour days, you’re going to end up with a lot of stressed out mothers (hopefully some fathers too) who will at some point wonder if it’s worth it and who will at that point quit, or be tempted to.
Increasing maternity leave from three to six months, as the government did last year, is great. But it also serves to reinforce a stereotype: Childcare is a woman’s job.
Since being a parent goes beyond maternity leave, what working mums need is a workplace culture that can adjust for exams, illnesses and the odd sports day.
What working mums need are dads who chip in with the PTAs and the special projects and, yes, it would help if they made the lunch dabbas or bought groceries or just did the damn laundry.
Ardern plans to take six weeks off after she gives birth. When she goes back to the office it will be with the knowledge that her partner, a TV presenter with his own career, is going to be the stay at home dad. Every woman should be that lucky.
Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender
The views expressed are personal