A few evenings ago I had a conversation about maternity with a woman who is currently employed as a domestic worker.
As some background, she lives in the home of the family she works for (cama adentro = live-in maid). She works from early in the morning preparing breakfast for the family until the evening making sure that everyone is served dinner – aka, a situation in which “living in” is necessitated by the impossibility of commuting early enough to make everyone breakfast and late enough to make sure that everyone has dinner. I should also note that this is not a situation of maltreatment or anything of the sort, she seems very happy with the family she works for and the family is very happy with her.
She recently married her partner, although has not told the family for reasons of job security. Her husband has expressed his desire to have children. She, too, wants kids, but explained to me that she wants to wait several years and continue working. “Once I have kids I won’t be able to work anymore,” she says. At least not in the job she currently holds. She has dreams of opening up her own tienda (store) where she’d be able to set her hours and still take care of her kids.
This conversation made me think of two things: 1) the issue of maternity within the field of domestic work, and 2) women quitting their jobs or going part-time after having children so as to be able to take care of their kids.
The issue of domestic workers and maternity is complicated. If you are a live-in domestic worker, as many are in Lima and in other parts of the world, it is extraordinarily difficult to balance maternity with work. You cannot be in two places at once, thus keeping your job either means not having kids, or it means having kids and leaving them with someone else to be raised while you visit them on your day off once a week. Speaking as someone who has had a visit-only situation with one of their parents, this latter option is an immensely difficult position for kids to be in; therefore I can’t imagine what it would be like as a parent. In the case of my host mom, she told me that in the case of almost all of the domestic workers that she’s had that have quit/resigned, it has been either because they have decided to have children, or because something happened where they had to attend to the children that they already had.
At first, when I thought about this particular woman’s situation, I thought it sad that she feels as though she can’t work anymore after having children. But then the more I thought about it, I realized that, yes, it was partly a situation where she literally felt as though she could not work if she had children. But it was also a situation of “if I have kids I WANT to spend time with them and raise them.” Which made me think of my own personal beliefs about maternity and working. When I have kids, I want to stay with them and take care of them. The idea of spending every waking moment with your little human for nine months and then being forced to just LEAVE them after your American maternity leave is over breaks my heart. But then I think about how many women’s careers are stunted and held back by staying at home with their kids, and I wonder if staying home would make me feel as though I had stunted my professional growth and potential. I wonder if staying home would make me a bad feminist; but then I have to remind myself that feminism is about women having the freedom to make the decisions that are best for them.
And then I wonder, are women genetically predisposed to wanting to spend time with their kids after birth? Will I be held back by my female psyche? Am I weak? (Because often feminine attributes are associated with weakness and I have internalized that association.) Have I been brainwashed by society into thinking that maternity is the most important thing in the world? Am I second-guessing myself because I have been brainwashed into devaluing maternity (devaluation of women’s labor) and equating work in the formal sector with the only kind of “worthwhile” work? And then I think, wait a second: shouldn’t men be hardwired to want to spend time with their children as well? What if they are, and patriarchy and capitalism has just made them pretend like they aren’t? What if this situation, which should totally be a two-way street, has been transformed into solely a “woman’s problem”?
So the question I suppose is not only one of “are women hard-wired to want to stay at home and spend time with their babies after birth?” But also, is it just as difficult for men to leave their home and go back to work after their children are born as it is for women? If that were true, how is it possible that so many men leave their wives and children? You don’t see women just up and leaving their families with that kind of frequency. But maybe that weaker connection is brought upon by the lack of father-child bonding that takes place after birth, thanks to practically non-existent paternity leave policies.
But anyway, back to my initial question of “is it just as difficult for men to go back to work after their child is born?” Perhaps it is. And the fact that the conversation is so concretely structured as one revolving around women (are women hard-wired to stay home? If you don’t stay home are you a bad mom? Is it possible for women to “do it all”? [whatever that means] Do children suffer without a stay-at-home parent? [read: mom] etc.) has resulted in us ignoring the role that fathers have in raising children. I recently saw an ad in which mothers and nannies were asked questions about their children/the children they are in charge of taking care of. In the video the nannies knew much more about the kids than the mothers (as obviously they would since they spend more time with them) and the video ended with some quippy little remark about how mothers should spend more time with their children. The injustice of that video made me upset. Where was the video comparing fathers’ knowledge of their children to that of the nannies’? Why are women always guilted for trying to have a career after having kids?
There are no conversations around “can a man have it all?” And even when you ask that question, our stereotypical definition of “all” is different than how it is defined for women, because the assumption is that they don’t feel the desire to stay at home with their children. So maybe the domestic worker I spoke with, me, and women everywhere aren’t “weak” or “overly feminine” for wanting to stay home with our kids, maybe it’s just that the conversation around men staying home has been obliterated to the point where we assume it’s only a women’s issue.