This Boy Can
I love Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign to get girls into sport with glossy ads showing ordinary girls and women of all shapes, sizes and colours enjoying sport. Set to high octane music it oozes adrenaline, power, energy and confidence. It’s about sport, but also ultimately about self-esteem. Its underlying message is that women should be confident about themselves and their bodies, which is a great message which is why the campaign has been so acclaimed. There have been a number of other positive Ad Campaigns empowering women to achieve, study maths and science, aim high, aspire and be ambitious. GREAT! Despite all that women have achieved in the last 100 years, I can attest that women still underestimate their ability in the workplace and this media encouragement is totally welcome.
However, it doesn’t work on its own.
How do I know this? Because I, and all girls that were fed through an ambitious, high expectation girls’ school in the nineties already heard this message and were already ambitious and aiming high. We flew the flag, but like the generations before us were cut down to size when we reached the higher echelons of our organisations, or the minute we fell pregnant. Many of us even felt bitter towards the encouragement that we received as young women because we were fed a dream that society could not yet deliver.
The bottom-line is that there is only so much women can change and society’s current solution of “encouraging women to change” (codified in encouraging women to become “more” confident/ ambitious/ this-that-and-the-other) in order to fit into pre-existing male oriented organisations and structures has not worked. Not only has it not worked, but it continues to perpetuate the myth that the reason that inequality has not yet been achieved is because women have not put in enough effort into changing “they do not put themselves forward”, “they shy away from leadership positions”, “they choose to opt out”. The implication is still “Women are not good enough”.
This perspective turns a blind eye to the fact that it is also institutions and their cultures that need changing. Women are being put off by bullying and macho cultures exemplified but not limited to the goings-on in British politics (men are driven to suicide by it, so why would women want to engage?).
And, if society wishes there to be a next generation, SOMEONE needs to look after the children. For many of us, we believe this strongly and fundamentally should be parents. If we continue to one-sidedly empower girls and women to take on rewarding and powerful careers, what is society’s solution to “parenting” and “family-life”?
What is the solution?
It may not seem attractive at first (but isn’t it the job of slick Madmen to make it so?), but I believe that for every “This Girl Can” ad that goes out; there should also be a “This Boy Can” ad. Footage of boys crying, talking about their emotions, helping another child, reading, drawing, dancing, dressing up as a Princess. Footage of men sticking on plasters, listening to the ideas of their female colleagues, talking to their daughters, nursing their elderly parents, helping children with their homework, picking up children from school, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, cooking the family dinner. These latter activities are the really important things that keep Britain going. The Engine of Britain is not just the boardroom, but the living room, dining room and kitchens across the country. Without the domestic engines, no one could get to work. As long as these activities, pivotal to family life, are undervalued and represented as “female” or lower order tasks, there can be no escape for women from the home and no “respect” for women overall.
Many boys and men already do these things and they need to know that their efforts are appreciated and the ones that are not doing these things need to be empowered and enabled to do so, else any women’s empowerment program will be futile. As long as we continue to view ambition, aspiration, hard-work, determination and ruthlessness as the only virtues worth rewarding and publicising, we are devaluing and undermining the equally valuable virtues of compassion, loyalty, understanding and sensitivity. As such we marginalise the fantastic people who possess these traits and create future generations with warped and unbalanced ideals. Much as I applaud campaigns to improve body confidence, body image problems in women will continue to be problematic as long as there are men who objectify women. While empowering girls is good, we must also focus on educating boys, and I feel that this part is lacking.
Whilst many may feel that traits are gender specific (typically masculine: ambition, determination etc.; and feminine: compassion, empathy etc.). I don’t believe this to be the case but that from a young age children are taught to emphasize these traits within themselves and suppress other traits to conform to gender expectations. While great Ad Campaigns like “This Girl Can” try to address this imbalance for girls, what we desperately need in concert is a “This Boy Can” campaign to empower boys to truly be themselves.
I really hope that someone steps up to the mantel and does it.
My International Women’s Day post: A gender for parenting
It’s International Women’s Day again! Last year I griped about the career prospect inequalities for women and I am pleased to say that although it’s not exactly “all change at the top”, I think that the world is waking up to women in the workplace and the agenda for change here has started rolling into place. So this year, I am moving the gender agenda on…
A few months ago I attended a fascinating talk on the impact of post-natal depression in mothers on their children. As you can probably already guess, the impact is not just for the duration of the mother’s depression, but due to the massive development of the baby’s brain in the first year of life in response to its environment, problems in its “environment” (which is largely provided by the baby’s primary carer) can be life-long. For mothers to get depression (or worse still, psychosis) at this time is crippling as not only does it affect them for the duration of their illness, but can impact the child LIFE-LONG. I don’t think any other mental illness can have such a profound effect.
The talk went into much detail about the observed negative outcomes in children and the mechanisms that led to these outcomes. In brief, lack of love, warmth, responsive parenting, talking and interacting with babies in “motherese” lead to abnormal or insufficient normal brain connections in the baby (motherese is the repetitive and sing-song baby-like voice that mothers adopt when talking to babies that is infinitely nauseating to non-parents – isn’t it darling? Yeees-it is! Yeees –it is!). Many clinical trials have been undertaken to treat post-natal depression to prevent these negative outcomes in children, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and anti-depressant medication, but all with marginal effects. Really interesting stuff that I am sure I will blog about in more detail another time.
A PhD student had done some interesting work around the ability of depressed mothers to differentiate between a distressed cry and a non-distressed cry from various recordings of a baby crying. Depressed mothers can typically not differentiate the cries and find all cries aversive. Interestingly though, depressed mothers that had been musically-trained (played grade 4 or above piano) continued to be able to distinguish a distress cry from a non-distressed cry from her baby presumably because of their superior ear in differentiating musicality in sounds. This led to the suggestion that training in music may be protective in some way for the negative impact of maternal depression as these mothers preserved the ability to identify distress in their babies. Someone suggested teaching mothers the piano in pregnancy.
When questions went to the floor, other people suggested a blast of oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin is the “mothering” hormone released in pregnancy and during breast feeding and given to apes has been found to increase “maternal behaviour”.
Tentatively, I put up my hand. From the back of the hall (I have not yet escaped my student-style sitting at the back of packed lecture theatre habits) I wait my turn to be picked. “Umm – wouldn’t it just be easier to ask the dads to step up and do the parenting bit?”
It struck me as obvious that if the best anti-depressants were contra-indicated in breast feeding, and available anti-depressants were not achieving good enough effects and CBT was taking too long to treat mothers, that one should look not to new and under-developed drugs like oxytocin or expensive and frankly bizarre suggestions of NHS funded piano lessons for mothers to “cure” the mother; but to additional support that could take over the “warmth, love, responsive parenting, engagement and social interaction” with the baby. The clue was in the term “parenting”. Dads are parents too.
What amazed me was the response.
Maybe I had asked a silly question. Maybe there were already piles of research, unread by me; that excluded fathers from nurturing a baby. There was an awkward silence as if I had breached some sort of sacred unspoken code of conduct. There followed mutterings from the row of my esteemed male colleagues sitting in the front row. I imagined that they were saying “Trust her (rampant feminist implied) to bring this up!”
The speaker responded to my question thus (as verbatim as I can remember but cannot be vouched to be word for word): “Yes, but people don’t respond well to being told to do things, and of course there is already a large role for fathers to support their wives. Often fathers are at work and are not available to do this.”
I wondered if I had time travelled to the 1960s.
Can it be that in the 21st century, my esteemed, brilliant, talented, caring profession is still stuck in a time-warp? Decades after my predecessors saddled mothers with terms such as “Refrigerator mother”, “Schizophrenogenic mother”, “Good-enough mother”, “Tell me about your mother” and volumes on the paramount importance of maternal bonding and maternal attachment – can it be that we have not moved on from the primeval importance of mothers to babies? I am not disputing Bowlby here; I agree that attachment is vital. My dispute is with the gender requirement. Why can’t fathers bond and attach to their children – particularly if the mother is down or out?
My view on the issue is this:
Parental bonding and responsive parenting to babies is vital.
Biology provides some mothers with an advantage over fathers for bonding through pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding hormones. This hormonally driven advantage is lost once mothers stop breast feeding. In the UK, less than 1% of mothers last to 6 months of breast feeding. The hormones do not make mothers “better” at bonding, but makes them “desire” to bond and care for their young – kick starting the supposed “maternal instinct”. If there is a strong “desire” to parent, maternity hormones are completely unnecessary, which is why mothers who adopt babies are still perfectly wonderful mothers without having exposure to any maternity hormones. Believe me when I say that it was not oxytocin that told me that if my baby is crying I should pick her up, and if my baby is crying and her nappy stinks that I should change the nappy. That’s just common sense and I don’t need hormones for that.
Some mothers lack this advantage over fathers (having low levels of hormones or being unresponsive to hormones) and have no “maternal instinct” and are uninterested in babies (in the same way that many men lack the “aggressive instinct” that they are supposedly stereotyped to possess). Many men possess a “nurturing instinct”, in the same way that many women possess an “aggressive instinct”.
Some mothers get post-natal depression and are completely incapable or are severely handicapped in bonding and responsive parenting.
The conclusion should therefore be that fathers who have a strong desire to bond and care for their babies are no worse parents than mothers. Once mothers have stopped breast-feeding, they and their husbands are equally placed biologically to provide the love, care and nurture that is required to support a baby’s development. If a mother has post-natal depression or is uninterested or incapable of parenting for whatever reason, than the father is better placed to provide the love, care and support (provided he is not also disinterested or depressed), and particularly if he is warm and loving.
And yet, no one is shouting this from the rooftops, because there is no evidence to support this.
Just piles and piles of research on the bad outcomes for babies raised by mothers with problems.
Why is that?
Because in the past, it was the mother’s role to nurture babies and look after children. The body of evidence regarding mothers has built up over time. People writing research proposals and funding bodies granting money for research want to see an evidence base for the work that researchers they fund are building on. There is very little that has been done on fathers as the main carers for babies because up until the last few decades, this just happened so rarely. Even today, the vast majority of funded research in the parenting area relates to looking at mothers and their children. There is no evidence that fathers can care for babies, but equally, there is no evidence that they can’t. There remain large personal and societal incentives for many people and organisations NOT to produce research and data that may support equality in parenting capability. Yet, anecdotally, the gay dads that I have met (both personally and professionally) have largely been fantastically capable of love, warmth and responsive parenting and I am just sad for the many children whose lives are inordinately altered by mothers with post-natal depression where fathers have not stepped in.
The next stage in gender equality is surely to evaluate if the skewed evidence that we have been fed by parenting researchers who lived through a different society is scientifically relevant going forward, and to generate new evidence on parenting; where parenting is not just a proxy for “mothering”. My profession should be at the fore front of this, advocating for this research to take place and stamping out the gender bias in parenting. For if going forwards we are moving towards equality within the workplace (which we are), are we as child psychiatrists going to hinder this progression by continuing the rhetoric of hanging the responsibility of childcare on to aspirant mothers, or are we going to apathetically hang back and allow governments to enact it’s solution: to hand childcare over to the state? I believe we should speak with one loud voice for parental responsibility for parenting. Both parents in concert where possible and gender being irrelevant.
I am reminded of Harlow’s controversial primate experiments. The baby monkey chose to lay with the wire frame dummy covered in faux fur that gave it warmth and comfort, rather than the wire frame monkey that gave it milk. It is love that matters not mammary glands, and I am confident in my assertion that mothers and fathers are equally capable of that.
Shrink grows kids: One year on
Shrinkgrowskids is officially a year old, and I am so glad that I have made it to this milestone! Thank you to the 117 subscribers and the many more regular visitors. Shrinkgrowskids is being read in 102 countries worldwide, and especially in the UK, USA, Australia, France and Brazil. If you are reading this in Brazil, “Hello!” I do not know who you are but thanks for your time!
When I started writing a year ago, part of the impetus was as I was frustrated that a Consultant Child Psychiatrist was unable to find work that fit in with parenting responsibility. During the school day I wanted to do something with my knowledge, not just the dishes. I would meet up with other women (lawyer, business consultant and tech consultant) in local coffee shops complaining about the career paths that we had given-up out of necessity, not truly free will. Over the year, I have come to realize that times-they-are-a-changing and that there is nothing that can hold back the tide of change for equality any longer.
Employers will increasingly be encouraged to promote women
Men will become increasingly involved in parenting
Men and women will become treated more equally at work
Parents will not automatically be assumed to be mothers
Children will be happier raised by parents of both genders
I am finally seeing and living through change. I might get to witness the end-game of feminism in my life-time. Thanks to the major research funding bodies colluding to only fund research in institutions that are putting in place strategies for gender equality, over the last year, my University has been falling over itself to send women like me on Women’s Development Programs and Mentoring schemes. Although some schemes need fine tuning and we are yet to confirm if lip-service converts into true commitment; with a gun-to-its-head it really looks like progress is going to be made on this. Thank you funding bodies!
This leads me to believe that progress and change can and will eventually filter to all professions, we just need more “financial-guns-to-heads”. Many of my friends in the city say “yes, but it won’t work in banking/ law/ accountancy/ consultancy”; because “of the nature of their work” and “client expectations”. Yet, who dictates “the nature of their work” and why do “clients expect” things to be delivered at awkward times of the day (or rather night)…? We as a society do not have to accept the status quo. We can press for change. Given incentive everything can change.
It reminds me of the arguments made by people opposed to the European Working Time Directives (EWTD; European laws that prohibited doctors from working more than a 48 hour week) for doctors when I was a trainee. In those days, we worked 96 hours a week. On some weekends, we worked Saturday 9am through until noon on Monday. I’m telling you the sleep deprivation of motherhood was nothing compared to this and after this experience all-night breast feeding was a doddle. Believe me, it is far easier to wake up and slap a baby to your breast than it is to wake up to catheterise a gentleman. It was thought “impossible” for the system to change to allow doctors to work less because of the “vital” work that we doctors were doing. How could patient care be transferred safely from one doctor to another? Impossible!
Well, as it turns out, all doctors have now moved to shift work without a massive rise in the death rate of patients. Indeed arguably care is better as doctors have had a decent amount of rest. I can never forget the poor patient that sat in hospital for a whole week without being seen by any doctors as my colleague on a weekend shift had forgotten to put his name on our patient list. The medical system was forced to change by financial penalties for non-compliance, bringing with it a surge of female applications to medical school. Medicine is still not ideal, men still dominate the upper echelons and prestigious specialties, but at least the days of long hours culture is gone. It is not beyond the wit of man to change systems in other institutions to afford their employees a better work-life balance; their talented junior women a real shot at success and their talented junior men a shot at being a decent father. They just need the financial incentives, because at the end of the day, money is the only cattle prod that works.
Indeed, it is money (or rather lack of it) that will likely be the solution to my other bug-bear: the lack of high-functioning part-time jobs in medicine. After struggling to find a position in London happy to take me on a part-time basis, it turns out that the NHS are so short of money that they are now happy to employ part-time Consultants. Not because they value retaining female staff or work-life balance, but because they no longer have enough money to pay for full-time consultants. Either way, it is good for me and other parents who wish to work part-time as a Consultant in the NHS. Fingers crossed that over the coming years something will turn-up for me. In the mean-time I’m thoroughly enjoying my University position that allows me to interact with some of the greatest minds in Child Psychiatry, and on my days off, as waiting lists have exploded in the NHS; private practice is booming. It is hard to argue against well-paid work that can easily be fit in between the school drop-off and pick-up. It’s sad that this can only be done in the private sector, particularly for a die hard NHS supporter like me.
What of my coffee-morning compatriots? After a period of part-time work at a lower level, the lawyer has succumbed and returned to full-time work at Big Law Firm and has employed a nanny. The business consultant has set up her own successful business, which operates on her terms within school hours. The tech consultant moved out of London and is content to be a stay-at-home mother. We all moved on, and its now pretty hard for any of us to find time for a cuppa. Maybe its that the children are growing, maybe its a sign of the times, but good women can no longer be kept down.
The other day a younger male friend who just got engaged told me he was thinking about taking his wife’s name…
Who knows where we will be a year from now?
In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read my blog. Here are some of my reflections on parenthood from the last year.
Did you get Maternal Adjustment Disorder (MAD)?
Why the stay-at-home mother is more vital than the female CEO to achieving gender equality
The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).
I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.
I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.
In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.
Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.
How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.
This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:
“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”
My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?
In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.
How does this relate to the title of my post?
A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.
OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.
This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.
Did you get Maternal Adjustment Disorder (MAD)?
Maternal adjustment disorder (MAD)
This is not a real disorder, but it should be.
Adjustment disorder is a real disorder (included in World Health Organisation mental health classifications) and I have just bunged “maternal” in front of it to describe how I and many other mums I know felt when we became mums.
The legitimate diagnosis of adjustment disorder is described as a “state of subjective distress and emotional disturbance, usually interfering with social function and performance, and arising in the period of adaptation to a significant life change or to the consequences of a stressful life event. The stressor may have affected the integrity of an individual’s social network or the wider system of social supports and values” (ICD-10). It’s supposed to apply to stressors like migration, bereavement or adaptation to illness or disability; but why not modern-day motherhood?
Having a child is a significant life change. What I found distressing was not the obvious sleepless nights, financial pressures, breast feeding, fevers blah, blah, blah, but the subtle but seismic change in identity and power. As much as I’d like to say that this life-changing experience affects both genders equally, currently I do not think this is true, and by-and-large for most families, the brunt is borne by the mother.
This is of course a modern-day phenomenon as even one generation ago; women grew up without expectation of financial independence, of autonomy, of economic power. They were defined by their husbands and felt no big loss when they settled down to have a family. They came from a position of inequitable power and continued.
For me, up until childbirth, I enjoyed financial independence. I was quite satisfied with my identity as a doctor with intelligent colleagues and friends, thank you very much. I had a healthy salary, I rented my own flat, I owned my own car; I bought whatever I wanted with my money. For a time, Banker lived in MY flat and drove MY car. At another time, I lived in his flat and drove his car. We shared the household chores. Our relationship was 50:50.
So where did it ever say, that once you pass a melon-sized being from out of your nether regions that that contract with your partner, with society, with your own self had to be torn away with your placenta?
From hence forth, I was no longer me. I was Mrs Banker, or mother of Big Sis and Lil Bro. Even though I had kept my own surname, once Big Sis and Lil Bro came along with their Dad’s monogram, it was inevitable that I would now be referred to as Mrs Banker. Staunch refusal to change my name on my passport led to my being interrogated at Heathrow airport for child trafficking as the official doubted my relationship to 2 year old Big Sis due to non-matching surnames. Thankfully, Big Sis came to the rescue as I started my feminist “Taking your husband’s name is an outdated sexist practice” rant at the official by saying “Why are you getting cross MUMMMY?”
I was still a doctor, of course, and yet, not the academic high-flying, arse-kicking-doctor-stroke-clinical-academic-jet-setting-to international-conferences-doctor I had set out to be. For ease of life, I went from full-time clinical work with academic productivity, to full-time clinical work with no academic productivity, to part-time clinical work, to part-time research work. It eased my life, but the loss of status and identity still tastes bitter. It’s only two steps and a push to considering an art-course, or maybe running a loss-making boutique funded by my husband to keep me quiet…I’m joking, but some jokes speak truth. Several other doctors I know have given up medicine when their children came along which is such a waste of talent, and yet, the NHS (like many other employers) does very little to support high-level part-time working, preferring to source doctors from abroad.
Stepping back in a career is sufficient to “affect the integrity of an individual’s social network”, as work is not just about money, but about esteem, about intellectual stimulation, about friendship, about intelligent conversation. It’s replacement with discussions about faecal consistency with other MAD mums, raucous bouts of “Jelly on a plate” to a mute baby, and various “telling offs”, rebukes, unrequested nuggets of parenting advice, raised eye-brows and generally being spoken to like an idiot, from teachers/ parents/ friends/ the supermarket check-out lady/ any random stranger, just doesn’t bear comparison.
And the first (and last) time Banker ever dared utter “What have you been spending my money on?”…that stuck in the throat. Never since graduation had I had to ask permission to spend money. I earned money; I spent it how I saw fit. Yet, with declining hours of work, come diminished income and the inherent shift in power dynamic in the relationship. As I am now “at home more”, there somehow passes an unspoken expectation that the days of shared laundry, cooking, cleaning and household chores are over. An unspoken expectation that money has to be “asked for”, and “kindly bestowed”, a nagging worry of “Could I manage financially alone, having stepped back on the career” should the worst happen and our relationship falter, – or worse still, would I feel I could not leave?
At times I stared at myself in the mirror and barely recognised myself. I had turned into “Hockey-mom”. There is nothing wrong with Hockey Mom, but she was not who I had ever identified myself with.
But at least the children will be grateful for my presence won’t they?
The other day, Big Sis said: “Mummy, you’re lazy”
“Why?” I questioned.
“Because you only work 3 days a week.”
%$£”&*!! [Thought – not spoken]
I’m telling my story, but I know many other mums who have felt the same.
The treatment for adjustment disorder?
Most of us learn to accept our fates, and “adjust” to survive.
Some of us find new pleasures in our new roles, however unexpected.
I guess that’s the beauty of life.
Caveat: some people do not get better from adjustment disorder, and their diagnosis shifts to depression. This goes for MAD too, and depression in mothers is pretty common.
It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow. Sadly, I’m not going to write about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie or Emmeline Pankhurst. I’m writing about a very depressing University held event that I went to recently entitled “Inspiring Women”.
It was part of the University’s on-going initiative to encourage more female scientists to remain in academia given the Government’s concern that there is an attrition of women as you move from the bottom to top in academic science. It is not just in science that the gender gap is seen but across academic disciplines. Despite the proportion of female academic staff in the U.K. being close to equitable to males (around 45%), the proportion of female professors remains low ( a dismal 19.8% of all professors). It’s no surprise then that close to a third of men in academia are in the well paid academic positions (earning > 50K), whereas this figure is only at 17% for women (ECU, 2012). You don’t even want to know the figures for ethnic minority women.
There has been much interest in finding out the reasons for this drop out. The Ivory towers it would seem are just as hard to get into as the FTSE 100 Boardrooms. Why? Just like in FTSE 100 companies, where the foot soldiers are high in oestrogen; there are plenty of XX science PhD students. Of my peers, I know 3 talented women who completed science PhDs. One, graduated top of her year in Natural Science at Cambridge with the highly coveted and rarely achieved triple first, another graduated with a first class degree from University College London. The third studied her PhD at Cambridge University. Are these 3 now all Senior lecturers or Readers en route to the Professorial track? No. They have all left academia. They are all married with children. They are all science teachers. This is great news for teaching and I am sure they are fabulous teachers, but given that teaching was the available career option for women 50 years ago, why has nothing changed since then?
The event got off to a bad start as it was obvious from a quick look around that there was not one Y chromosome in the room. Clearly from the institution, and society’s point of view, encouraging women to succeed in their careers is much like breast-feeding. It’s “women’s business” and men need not get involved. Women’s failure to succeed in the workplace is clearly down to them and there is nothing men can do to help this situation. Proceedings took an ironic turn as the Chair that was introduced was an ex-colleague of mine who by chance I had bumped into a month earlier. I had last heard that she had become a senior lecturer, was the “right-hand” lady to a recently knighted Professor and was touted for great things. I was therefore surprised and saddened when she told me that she had resigned from her academic position at the University because of the unsatisfactory work-life balance and unsupportive institution in which she worked. One could only be somewhat sceptical then about her putting on a cheery face to “inspire” other women.
That aside, we were then treated to the career stories of 4 female professors. It was interesting to hear the struggles that my forebears had endured in order to achieve their current Professorial positions. One Professor was required to return to work a few weeks after giving birth and to prepare data for an international conference in the first few months following childbirth. She talked about taking her child with her to international conferences, and when she had difficulties with childcare, her child played under her desk at work. All 4 professors were clearly remarkable and driven women and had made personal sacrifice to achieve their positions.
However, I was grossly disappointed in their summation of strategies for success. Even when I posed the question of what institutions could do to support women in academia, all 4 professors deferred to personal attributes required for success, emphasising the need for “dedication, passion, perseverance and strength of personality”. One went as far as to say that “If you want to make it in science, it has to be your single passion. You cannot for instance be passionate about science and architecture; it has to be science alone.” Another Professor talked about how finding a “niche subject”, “that nobody else was interested in” had helped her get to her position as she quickly became a leading expert.
Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I found these messages deeply depressing rather than “inspiring”. I felt that clearly unbeknownst to the organisers, it was exactly this mantra that has been putting off generations of female scientists.
I could totally understand that these were things women had to do 20 years ago in order to get ahead in a “man’s world”, but surely this does not apply to the here and now? Are women still excluded from major and competitive fields of science such that they are required to seek out an uninteresting niche in order to succeed? Why should women not aspire to succeed in a major area of science? What if your “other passion” is family? Whilst I agree that to succeed in any walk of life passion, perseverance and determination are required, can it be that women are so much less “passionate, determined and persevering” than men…? I feel we need to get beyond talking about personal attributes and thinking about systemic, cultural and institutional solutions. We already know most women undervalue themselves anyway, so the emphasis on personal attributes just means that women drop out saying and believing “I’m not passionate or committed enough” when in actuality they have as much passion and commitment as their male colleagues but systems and culture are against them. How many male Professors were the main caretakers for their children or elderly relatives, might this not impact on commitment and dedication? Shouldn’t we be discussing why these roles can not be fulfilled by men when we talk about barriers to female success?
The event soon went from bad to worse for me as we went on to breakout tables to discuss issues more intimately. I had an unfortunate clash with a Professor who compared my juggling parenting, clinical work and academia with her juggling her career with her desire to exercise (as she had no children). Aside from exercise and sex both being choices, I cannot see any comparison between parenting and exercising. One is a responsibility; the other is a leisure time activity with some health benefits. In addition, insomuch as good parenting leads to well-functioning children and adults, there is a societal benefit as they will be the people paying for our pension and healthcare as we age, whereas exercise has only individual benefit. Whilst the comparison is ridiculous to me, it was shocking and demoralising to realise that this is the view of some intelligent women who have made it to the top. And it seems that I am not alone in my feelings as research shows that women do not just need “role models” and “mentors”; they need the right kind of role models and mentors and are “put off by successful female professors who are seen as aggressive and competitive, and are often childless”(The Guardian, 2012).
Other advice from senior women I have had included: “It’s hard, but we just have to get on with it”, which was comforting until I found out that she had put her own children into boarding school so that she could “get on with it”. Many others have offered support by saying “You’ll never regret time spent with your children”, which is supportive and appreciated, and yet for some reason I had a nagging “doomed” feeling about this kind of advice. For a while, I was unsure why, then I realised, it is these supportive words that perpetuate the myth of maternal responsibility which acts as the source of guilt that is eroding female careers. I can bet no one is encouraging my male colleagues to go part-time to spend “unregrettable” time with their children. Yet, why not?
I left the event after this, but I hear it was “a great success”. The majority twenty-something audience lapped it up with their wide-eyed enthusiasm, much like I would have done a decade ago. Little do they know about the choices they will have to make a few years down the line, oblivious to the fact that the majority of them will soon be lining up to teach secondary school science.
The problem of course is not unique to academia. My husband, a banker, hears women talk about this all the time in banking. What then, can be done to retain more women in science, academia, banking, law, politics? The right role-models? Gender sensitive leadership? Varying management styles? Emphasis on quality of work rather than quantity? An end to “presentee-ism”? Increased availability of part time senior positions? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is beyond personal ambition, and will involve changing long established systems and cultures, in the workplace, in society, in families. Institutions need to stop thinking about ways to encourage women to change, and think about ways in which they can change to allow women to succeed. I know that “systems and cultures” may be too great a task to take on, but one might hope that the brilliant women who have already made it to the top, along with their male colleagues might be able to attempt to take this challenge on.
Now that to me; would be truly inspiring.
ECU 2012: http://www.ecu.ac.uk/news/targeted-action-needed-for-greater-impact
Guardian 2012: www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/24/why-women-leave-academia.