By: Erica Komisar – wsj.com –
Women’s empowerment is usually equated with paid work outside the home. That’s a mistake. Assuming that women who choose to stay home and nurture their young children are powerless or unenlightened is not only insulting but dangerous. A woman’s value isn’t only a matter of how much she can earn, and women’s leadership should be understood to include nurturing.
In developed countries around the world, there is increasing pressure on women to leave their children as early as possible to pursue stressful and demanding careers. The implication is that women are useful to society only if they work full-time and add to gross domestic product. But women also contribute if they temporarily sacrifice career advancement in favor of raising emotionally secure children by being as present as possible, both physically and emotionally. Motherhood isn’t weak or worthless; nurturing children is the most significant and meaningful work a person can do.
I had a painful therapy session recently with a patient who had given birth to a daughter and was in great conflict over staying home versus returning to her prestigious full-time position in finance. While pregnant she didn’t anticipate how attached she would feel to the baby and how painful it would be to leave her behind. Nothing prepared her for these intense feelings. She assumed she would easily return to work after six weeks of maternity leave. Like many of my patients, this mother is well-educated and was taught from girlhood to believe that to be successful, significant, modern and a feminist, a woman had to work outside the home.
Many of my female patients are similarly tormented by internal criticism that they are betraying feminist ideals. To make matters worse, they are inundated with unsupportive messages from their husbands, parents, friends, co-workers and social media that staying at home to raise children is a waste of their precious education, a cop-out, not “real work.”
Most frustrating, there is little recognition that being a mom and raising children is the most important kind of work and leadership. Often, even in intact two-parent families, there is no leader at home to provide structure, comfort and consistency for children who desperately need hands-on guidance as well as the emotional support that lays the groundwork for emotional security and resilience as they mature.
It’s true that many women need to earn money to support themselves and their families. It is also true that having control over money is a kind of power in any culture. But that doesn’t justify bullying women who can afford to stay home or work part-time by insisting that paid work is the only meaningful existence.
Even for those who need or choose to work, developed societies force women to choose between nurturing and economic freedom. I spent time in Rwanda and Uganda this summer observing mothers in weaving cooperatives who are able to integrate working for pay and caring for their children. Many wore their infants on their bodies, while others wove or sold their goods as their toddlers played nearby, sometimes under co-workers’ supervision. These mothers supported one another in a collegial effort that allowed them to do remunerative work without abandoning their children. The African women I observed have something to teach us about power, entrepreneurship and nurturing.
Real power consists in choice, creativity, control and flexibility. As a mother of three, I have always balanced my work outside the home with the source of my greatest power—nurturing and prioritizing my children. If I had any doubt about the importance of my work as a mother, my teenage son dispelled it when he told me, “Mom, I don’t know what I would do without you. You are always there when I need you. You are my home base and my security.”
Being a full-time mother or a mother who prioritizes her children, particularly in the early years, may be less financially rewarding than working outside the home. But it’s just as important, and it’s far more emotionally gratifying.
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