The ordinary (and extraordinary) flexibility of the working mother

Posted on Nov 11th, 2016 | News and opinion

The ordinary (and extraordinary) flexibility of the working mother, image of mother and child

Paid work generally sits somewhere on a scale between complete financial necessity and absolute passion. Exactly where it sits on that scale is unique to each of us.

If we have children, another level of complication gets added in: How can we combine the demands of work with the demands of family life?

At this particular point in history, mothers face enormous amounts of judgement and stereotyping when it comes to working outside the home and our culture offers very conflicting messages about what is expected from them.

On the one hand, should they not be fully available 24/7 for their young children? But on the other, ought they not to be out at work paying taxes and contributing to society?

This ambivalence towards mothers leaves them in a double bind. They are made to feel guilty if they do work and guilty if they don’t. Yet scratch the surface of this conflictual demand and you will actually find a cultural expectation that mothers possess god-like capacities that should enable them to do both.

Returning to work

For some women after having children, work just doesn’t work for them anymore. It might be the lack of flexibility entrenched in a very family-unfriendly employer that precipitates a change of career. For others, the transformative experience of having a child changes not only their priorities, but also gives them a new world view with different drives and interests. Some even discover they have new skills, talents, and capabilities they didn’t realise they possessed.

It is for these reasons (and as many more as there are women) that so many mothers are finding different, flexible, and often freelance work is the solution to the restrictions and opportunities that now face them as women who are both mothers and producers of work.

We often hear about the instability and other potentially exploitative aspects of an increasing freelance workforce. When the term ‘flexible working’ applies to employers, it can often refer to their ability to hire and fire as quickly and easily as they wish. But flexible working means something very different from an employee’s point of view. It means the capacity and possibilities they have for managing both their work and their domestic responsibilities.

And research is now showing that more than two-thirds of women rated flexibility of work as one of the major reasons for working freelance.

Flexible childcare

One innovative solution to the tricky business of combining work and childcare is OffiCreche in Brighton. Elizabeth Moody-Stuart set up the Ofsted-registered nursery and work space when she was expecting her second child. At the time, she could not find the flexible childcare needed to gradually build up her work again as a freelancer at the pace she wanted.

Elizabeth says Officreche – and other nurseries like it – fill a huge gap in provision for the increasing amount of parents who do freelance or project-based work and need the flexibility to adjust the amount of childcare they need each week. Parents can choose from as little as two hours a week – unusual for a nursery – while also making use of the shared workspace upstairs from the creche.

As well as those who work with variable workloads and ad-hoc deadlines, Elizabeth says this particular form of childcare can really support breastfeeding mums as they are in easy reach of their baby, as well as women who would like a small amount of time each week when their baby is still young to creatively explore how they might make that transition back into work.

Supporting working mums

One thing we do know is that mothers throughout history, with few exceptions, have always done paid work. In the past, the childcare that enabled them to do that was often provided by older family members, elder children or ‘the village’ as a whole. Nowadays we have to be imaginative about how we create support systems for ourselves, and working at home as a freelancer or living far away from family are some of the factors that could make modern family life isolating and exhausting.

Elizabeth says she possessed ‘super-human’ amounts of energy when she was setting up Officreche, and acknowledges that despite a clear need for this kind of innovative service, the challenges to making it work are such that it would not have been possible without her particular level of drive, determination, and resource. Current policy making doesn’t support these kinds of ventures and, despite being popular with parents, Officreche remains a labour of love for Elizabeth.

Labour of love

But having children is, of course, a labour of love too. Perhaps culturally we are too used to accepting the mountain of unpaid, unseen labour that goes into raising a family – mostly by women. As a result, superhuman qualities are considered a minimum requirement for women to get things done inside and outside the home.

Mainstream media often likes to portray certain working women as ‘supermums’, but most do not have multiple children and multi-million-pound turnover businesses like Dragon’s Den Investor and mum of four Sarah Willingham or Investment Fund Manager and mum of six, Nicola Horlick. Instead, most quietly get on with the work of juggling paid and unpaid work while no doubt finding some parts rewarding and others not so.

To elaborate on a point made in our recent article on entrepreneurs, the notion of heroism is neither necessary nor appropriate when it comes to working mothers.

The ability to be flexible, to be supple, adaptive, and creative in one’s management of work and family life only becomes a superpower when the environment itself is so unresponsive and rigid that it requires superhuman qualities to navigate through it.

Currently, most childcare subsidies kick in when the child reaches three, and the costs for providing good-quality care can prohibit a nursery offering small, irregular slots to a freelancing mother or father. Elizabeth from Officreche believes that brave and innovative political solutions must be found to tackle these challenges, enabling different models of flexible childcare to be offered for this new generation of working parents.

Women are aware of this, she says, and in a climate of increasing amounts of freelance work and the possibility of one or more career changes, some women are making plans about how they will work flexibly as a mother before they even have children.

Flexible working on the rise

As a society, we are not going to stop having children, nor are we going to stop working. By 2020 it’s estimated that 70% of us will be enjoying flexible working, and the only rising sector of workers will be the freelancers.

The Work Foundation believes now is the time then for their needs to taken seriously, for policy makers to re-think, and for society to adapt to accommodate the very creative and superlative ways that modern families are finding to make work, work for them.

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Written by Rosalind Howell

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