I am interviewing a talented woman who is 28 years old. Her first child was born four months ago. She is a Muslim and loves to spend her free time with family and friends, reading books, taking photographs, and baking.
S: You became a mother of a beautiful baby. What does it mean to be a mom?
A: It sounds cliche, but it is the best thing that happened to me. It has made me even happier than I already was. I never expected that a child would bring so much joy not only to me, but also to us as a family and to the extended family. A child can put a smile on everyone’s face. Of course, there are days when things go wrong, maybe you or the child are not feeling well, but that is also part of being a mother and that does not make being a mother any less beautiful.
S: How did you view motherhood before becoming a mother? What did you expect and what did you not expect?
A: Before I became a mother, I was aware that having children is a big responsibility, but I still underestimated the sense of responsibility. It is a kind of heavy blanket that rests on you. If you do not get up and take care of them, nothing will happen; a child is completely dependent on you. The concerns that I have are intense. Now I also understand better why parents worry about a child all their lives and that it does not matter what the age of a child is. Secondly, being a mom goes hand in hand with uncertainty. I have never been more vulnerable and insecure in my life. You constantly wonder if you are doing a good job or if you can do things better.
Lastly, I would say guilt. When I want to do something for myself, I feel guilty because it makes me feel like I am leaving her behind and that I am being selfish. While I know that it is not selfish and is even good for her, because then I feel charged and happy. I am a much nicer mother and partner when I take a break by doing something fun. I also felt guilty when I had to make the decision whether to put my child to day-care. I have the feeling that I am leaving her behind. She is still so small and vulnerable.
I felt guilty when I stopped breastfeeding after two breast infections. When you are pregnant, people are the first to say: Congratulations! Then: how are you going to do that in the future with work and being a mother? And finally: you are going to breastfeed, right? A lot of pressure is put on a woman that she should breastfeed. Breastfeeding is good for your child’s immune system. If you are not breastfeeding, it is soon said that you are not a good mother, that you do not want the best for your child and that you only think about yourself. I spoke to other women who quit in the first week because it hurts. Another woman said you have to persevere, it hurts the first three months, but you want the best for your child right. For me, people have not made those type of comments towards me, because I have had two breast infections. Most women get breast infections and know how painful it is. Yet I notice that there is a lot of judgment about breastfeeding.
S: What does that do to you when other women exert pressure?
A: I should have stopped breastfeeding earlier, but I still tried for my baby because I felt pressured. In the end, it only made the recovery from childbirth and breast infections exceedingly difficult. Guilt has only come to work against me. That is why I have not yet recovered physically. Ultimately, I suffer and not the women who are judging. Listening to myself and my body, that’s the lesson I’ve learned. I believe breastfeeding is best for a baby, but if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad mother.
S: Can you describe what the process was like of deciding whether to continue with work after having a baby?
A: When you’re pregnant, you’re going to consider all options: stay-at-home mom, working full-time or part-time. I had made a list of all the pros and cons. When I as a teenager contemplated of being a mom later in life, I always had the image of myself that I would continue with work. I changed my mind hundreds of times during my pregnancy. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, and then work full-time and the next day I would think very differently. It is a rollercoaster of thoughts and people in my environment played a role in that process. For now, my husband and I have decided to both work less.
S: What factors does this depend on?
A: Lots of factors! First, we do not have a safety net. Our mothers on both sides cannot help with babysitting. In the Netherlands, it is quite normal that there is a babysitting day for grandpas and grandmas, but that is not the case for us. Thus, we have chosen to work less hours ourselves. I have read books on child development and compared studies of children who go to day-care and children who stay at home. Research shows that the first four years of a child are the most important years for development and that a child is best off with the parents. When the child gets older from 2 to 4 years, it is particularly important that children learn to play with other children and day-care is valuable. The mental health of the stay-at-home mother is under pressure because you simply sacrifice your life for your children and are less concerned with your own development.
I was also influenced by my environment. I started asking around how other mothers thought about it. I soon noticed that everyone had an opinion about work and motherhood. It depends on who you speak to whether you will be convicted. I realized that it seems like a woman cannot do anything right. You cannot fully focus on work and in motherhood you also drop a stitch. Whatever decision you make, it is important that you as a mother feel good about it, your child is doing well and in third place is your partner. Ultimately you do it together. You must try to find a new balance for yourself in motherhood and work, but also in being a partner, mother, daughter, and friend. As women we try to juggle it all and that’s what society expects, isn’t it?
S: Do motherhood and career go together?
A: No and yes. Perfection does not exist. You cannot get a promotion and take care of your children 24/7. A balance needs to be found and that is different for everyone. My balance is that I want to spend more time with my family and less at work for the next two to four years. You can keep children with you for two to four years and you can work until you die. What is that ratio of those two to four years compared to the length of your career? I can only respect other women who work full-time and do as much as possible for the family. Ultimately, women make decisions that are in the best interest for the future of their children. There is no unequivocal answer.
S: You have decided to work less. How did your environment respond to that?
A: At work, they are not happy with it. I notice that you constantly have to defend why you do or do not make certain choices. I also notice that many women in my team are childless and for that reason are less able to relate to women who are mothers. The colleagues who do have children are happy to share that they would never “neglect” their children by putting them in day-care. Another colleague was pregnant at the same time as me, she chose to be a stay-at-home mother. She believes that people shouldn’t have children if they don’t want to “fight” for them and leave the care of the children in the hands of a stranger.
S: What makes it difficult for women to choose for career?
A: Working full-time is associated with being a bad mother. At home, when discussing who is going to work less, it is usually the woman. I also see this back in my family. My partner will work one day less, and I will work one and a half day less. The income he is missing out on is many times higher compared to my income. This is how income inequality contributes to the system. Sometimes I think fathers have it easy. When they say that they are expecting a child, they are offered blessings. But when a woman tells this, the second thing they ask is: how do you think you are going to do it? Work and taking care of the child?
Why is this question only asked to women? Why isn’t it the conversation going about fatherhood and career? I don’t think women should be judged on their motherhood just because they bear and give birth to the child. The physical function of women must be distinguished from being a mother. The child has a mother and father. Both have an equal hand in caring for the child. We need to talk the same way about motherhood versus career as fatherhood versus career. This is not the case now.
S: What would you like to see different?
- Dutch society is not ideal for working mothers. This starts with a birth leave of 10 weeks for the mother and 5 weeks for the father. I think this is too short, a child is still vulnerable and mother-dependent in terms of breastfeeding. You can see that this is much better arranged in Scandinavian countries. For example, a woman in Finland gets 16 weeks birth leave and the partner 8 weeks. Also, in Iceland it is well arranged, for example, both parents have three months of parental leave and one of the two consecutively another 3 months. Because the father also gets leave, the care for the child is better distributed. It is also better arranged after the leave period, so that women can return to work. I would like to see this also in the Netherlands, so that there is a fairer distribution of responsibility between father and mother. This is necessary to foster equality between men and women, but it is also better for the development of the child. The child needs both parents.
- The passing of judgements of women by women must stop. Everyone seems to know how to do it, and especially how do it better. If we want to bring about change for a better society, it starts with us. If women support each other, motivate and be there for each other as colleagues, friends, sisters, mothers, and daughters, then we can work together on solutions for gender equality, motherhood, and career. We will not be able to achieve this if we bring each other down and we should not count on the support of men, because they do not know what it is like to be a woman or a mother. We can use their support to bring about change, but real change happens when women support each other.
S: If you could give advice to the women reading this and having doubts about the issue of motherhood versus career, what would it be?
A: Follow your heart and your feelings and do not let yourself be fooled. Your life. Your child. Your choice. There is no right or wrong. Everyone tries to make the best of it. I respect mothers who work full-time, part-time, and stay-at-home mothers. You make every choice based on your own understanding of what is best for your child and family.