Give stressed working mothers more choices
Sitting in a meeting room, mentally preparing for a big presentation, she kept rehearsing in her head the key points she will have to cover and the sequence she decided on the night before. Then her mind wandered; she remembered she had to pick up the dry cleaning on her way back, pick up her kid from nursery, “Oh wait, what activity did I plan for my boy today? Did I remember to defrost the chicken? I also need to finish the article I was working on for the past week.” Her thoughts were interrupted. It was time to present. Her hands began to jitter as she scrolled through her slides, no thanks to the two cups of coffee she had already drunk, and the sleepless night. Her heart started racing, but she needed to maintain her cool. She is a strong, independent woman, as she kept repeating to herself. She nailed the presentation.
The above is just a glimpse of what a normal day feels like for a working mother.
A working mother’s brain can be compared to a spider’s web: Complex and meticulous. It manages a ridiculous number of tasks — everything from running a team of 11 down to her children’s meal plans. There is hardly any down time, let alone “me time.” A working mother is a juggler, a multi-tasker, a problem solver. This is why it is no surprise she is more stressed than many other people are.
According to research conducted by Manchester University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, which examined data from more than 6,000 participants in the UK, working mothers are 18 percent more stressed than other people. The figure increases to 40 percent for working women with two children or more, the study points out.
As the labor market works to adjust its expectations and demands toward the needs of mothers and families, we have noticed many countries begin to introduce various measures to help support working mothers. It is thus very interesting to find out that the same study concluded that neither flexible hours nor working from home significantly lowered women’s stress levels.
That stress manifests itself in multiple ways. It causes headaches, insomnia, increased heart palpitations, lack of appetite, and tiredness. These are only the physical symptoms. The incessant stress usually also leads to increased anxiety, depression, doubt, isolation, and ultimately guilt.
Our assumptions are henceforth mistaken. Flexible hours and working from home is not the panacea to a working mother’s existential question of “can we balance life with work?” This clearly has not worked, and in fact has created a generation of exhausted, burnt out, overly stressed mothers who continuously feel inadequate. Women have been in a rat race to prove themselves not just to the world, but to themselves too, not realizing how unfair that is.
As a working mother of a two-year-old, I read every “working mommy” blog, have attempted meditation, lit candles, realigned my priorities and strived to maintain my social relationships. It still did not work. I was still stressed more than I have ever been. Abstract ideas that suggest you change your attitude, think positively, and listen to relaxing music are as ineffective as suggesting that flexible hours can help solve the problem.
As a working mother of a two-year-old, I read every “working mommy” blog, have attempted meditation, lit candles, realigned my priorities and strived to maintain my social relationships. It still did not work.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
The study mentioned above revealed that only working fewer hours had a positive impact on stress levels — not only with women, but men too. In an effort to enable parents to reconcile their work with their family life, and for women in particular to participate in the labor market, France introduced a law in 2000 to reduce the number of hours in the working week from 39 to 35. According to the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), workers in France have above average leisure time for personal care and family time. Overtime is also less common in French working culture than in other countries. Taking work home, for example, and doing it over the weekend is not common practice. In Germany, several companies have set their internal servers to not route emails to individuals between 6pm and 7am.
This option seems highly unlikely to become the norm considering the conditions of the working environment and the ever-increasing demands. So, in light of all the above, what is the solution? The simple answer would be to give working women more choices. Options including reduced working hours, longer maternity leave, and subsidized child care at work (or close to work) may help. More importantly, we must adjust our understanding of how responsibilities are shared. Women work just as hard as men do, and for as long, but they also bear additional responsibilities in being the primary care givers for their children.
The continuous cycle of events arising from social and professional stressors will eventually result in chronic stress, which in return will cause damage to one’s health. So we must ask ourselves, is that we want? Are we so keen on hard work and success that we begin to lose ourselves, our family bonds and, most importantly, our wellbeing? Do we really want to be a society that promotes an unhealthy and unfair version of a “supermom?”
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik