This weekend, speaking on a panel at a conference meant to highlight women’s accomplishments, I was introduced as “wife of.” The moderator went on to list my husband’s name, and title and the name of the company that employs him as the main qualifications for my presence on the panel. At the end, as a mumbled afterthought, she briefly stumbled through the name of the business I founded.
It was a spectacular display of patriarchy, at an event purportedly about rising above it. I’ll skip speculating why it occurred, because I’m hardly the first woman it has happened to, and frankly, the whys of my particular experience aren’t important. The incident is most notable for occurring in the context of the discussion, which was meant to be about the “mommy guilt” that encumbers many women’s professional and personal choices.
Society, even highly educated society, unfortunately continues to paint women’s identities as contingent upon another: As wife-of, or mother-of (or previously, daughter-of). In the course of our daily lives, women receive consistent micro-signals from people and institutions telling them their role as “caretaker-of” forms the crux of their identities.
The message can be overt, as my introduction was, but more often, it’s subtle. It’s the co-workers, who ask in very concerned tones who is taking care of the baby while you’re at work. It’s the husband, who looks alarmed and overwhelmed when you say you need to go on a week-long business trip. It’s the grandmother, who suggests you should stay home while the kids are sick (and by the way, there are stats on this: When a parent needs to stay home with sick kids, 90 per cent of the time, it’s mom). And it’s well-meaning friends, who quiz you on what classes or tuitions you’ve registered your child for, and of course, never ask the same of the kids’ dad.
This adds up. First, being constantly addressed as the “default parent” — the sole organiser and dispatcher of childcare — is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility; even if your partner provides equal childcare input and support at home, in most instances, he is not ultimately responsible and therefore, doesn’t get judged when there’s imperfection in its execution.
But second, and perhaps more insidious, when you’re constantly receiving signals that you’re most valuable as “wife-of” or “mother-of,” it becomes an integral part of your sense of self-worth. And that’s where the mommy guilt creeps in. If you’re not absolutely perfect in your caretaking, you’re failing at your most important role in life.
Is it little wonder then, why women leave the workforce in droves after childbirth? Mommy guilt isn’t a figment of a paranoid housewife’s imagination. It’s a real experience with profound social and economic implications for families, employers and countries.
It’s too pervasive and complex an issue to unpack fully in one small op-ed column, so I’ll end with this: When women’s identities aren’t inextricably linked to their husbands and children, everyone benefits. This seems almost too basic to mention.
Incidentally, I do come to this conversation with some relevant experience. I hold two Ivy League degrees and have co-authored an academic book. I had a 10-year legal career, during which I managed a team of 500 lawyers, more than 50 per cent of whom were women. And for six of those years, I managed — in an Indian context — many of the HR issues that come up when women feel guilted into leaving the workplace for home. And I left that career in my mid-30’s, to start a business with the specific objective of helping other women feel supported in their experience as caretakers and professionals.
I also happen to have two children of my own, and keenly feel the mommy guilt that impacts so many of the women I admire and respect. And I’ll be introducing myself on the next panel, thank you very much.