Saturday, September 23, 2006


I'll echo Alison's thoughts here - although in general I'll do this in the comments section. It is really gratifying to see this blog prompting the kind of discussion we'd really hoped for. I see it much more as a discussion forum than a regular my journal type blog and to see you all joining in with gusto is just fantastic. Thanks so much!! And I hope you will undserstand this is why you often won't get an email response to your comment, but rather a reponse in the comments section. Please come back and leave further comments on the same topic if people say things that give you thought.

Now I've been thinking about doing a post on risk for a while and a few things recently have added fuel to my thinking. I'll start by saying 'risk' was a key part of the theory I used when writing my thesis on work and family. I found it really interesting and it gave me another way of thinking about some of the dilemmas I faced as a mother around my identity, work, financial dependence and so on. I'm not going to get into a deep academic type discussion here, but I thought I'd let you know the background to my thinking. Of course if anyone is interested in the academic stuff let me know and I can point you to some reading. I'm simplifying a lot, so I hope you'll give me some latitude.

Basically the idea is that as the world has become more complicated and diverse, as people have more choices, more mobility, less certainty, what happens to us is less predictable. A century ago it was a serious and significant decision to elect not to marry, for example, and the choice almost certainly carried some consequences, which were fairly predictable. Similarly even 50 years ago if you were a young working woman and you decided to marry and have children the decision almost certainly entailed giving up paid work, or if it didn't there would have been social and familial consequences. In fact in most industries it was illegal to work when married, a law known as the marriage bar. [And just as an aside the marriage bar was repealled in Japan as recently as 1985 - how gob smacking is that?] The minimum wage was also set in Australia based on the notion that a wage had to support two adults and three children because this was the norm for the vast majority of wage earners.

But now, in theory at least, we are the captains of our own ships. The decisions to marry, bear children, work and so on are our own. We will almost certainly suffer some negative consequences for any decision we make, but for most of us there are ups and downs to all possible choices, rather than overwhelmingly determined 'normal/good' or 'deviant/bad' choices. Rather than listening to our families or a general social consensus, we must weigh up what we see as ups and downs of all possible choices, and it is this process that we might call understanding risk.

So my thinking might go something like this: if I stay home with my kids instead of working I might help them to feel more secure, more loved, and I might improve their development and capabilities. I might also really value the mothering role and feel real satisfaction from knowing how I have shaped them and how they have bonded with me. I might also believe that staying home is the right thing to do. I might think the option of formal childcare is cold and dangerous, with kids more likely to be aggressive and miss out on all the love they would get if they were home with family. On the other hand, not working means as a family we will have less, we are more economically vulneable (what if my partner loses his job?) and my partner and I go from being equal contributers to the domestic/paid work split to have typical gender specialisations. If ever we split up (although it seems unlikely because we love each other, I know at least 50% of couples do end up splitting) it might be really hard for me to get back into the workforce and I'll have no retirement savings, and we might end up being really poor (like lots of single mothers are).

On the other hand, what is at stake if I go to work? I love working and using the skills I worked so hard to accumulate, so I may well be happier. I'll have more money and more importantly to me I'll have financial independence. Because as a family we will have two incomes we are less likely to have a major setback and I'll be able to give my kids the things I think are really important like a good education, the opportunity to travel and the chance to participate in all the things they might love (music lessons, sports teams, their own bikes etc). I might also feel it's important for me as a woman to be equal to my partner. I might have read a recent study that said children who spend some time in formal childcare develop better social and learning skills. But I might also feel like I'm missing out, like they are missing out and like people will judge me for being a bad mother. I might feel like money isn't what's really important to me and feel confident that even if my partner and I broke up, he'd be fair in providing for me and our kids.

Of course all these things are largely unknown. There's a lot of maybes and mights in there so what I am really doing is working out which risks I'm prepared to take, not which consequences I'm prepared to live with. And what's the trouble with that? Well for a start we tend to over emphasis and avoid risks which are immediate and short term, and down play or disregard risks which are further away, regardless of the liklihood of them happening. In other words we worry about what's happening right now and think the future can look after itself. Secondly, we often don't really know much about the odds on the risks we're taking, we base our thinking on the things we feel, the things we've seen in the past, or the things people have told us based on their experience. The result of this is that for many people there comes a time when those longer term risks come back to haunt them and they find themselves in places in their lives they wish they weren't.

So what got me thinking about all this? I'll start close to home and say next week is my twenty week scan. I'm trying to work out whether to take my daughter, who would so love the experience, but what if there's something wrong? Once before I have had the experience of sitting in front of the ultrasound monitor and seeing my worst fears realised and I couldn't put her through that too. When I was pregnant 5 years ago I didn't worry so much - and for good reason. Back then for example, based on my age alone, my risk for having a Downs baby was one in many thousands. This time it's one in 117. We've ruled out Downs this time around, but not one of the many major problems influenced by my age that can be picked up at 20 weeks. And I really wish I wasn't so old and the risk wasn't so great. But back when I might have been popping out babies with really low risk, the risk of job insecurity, financial instability and general immaturity drove us to wait before having children. We didn't worry so much about what it might be like to lose a baby rather than a job, to face a major diability instead of a few lean years. I can't say whether we made the wrong deicison, we don't know what might have happened the other way around, but I do know we didn't think enough about what might happen.

The other thing that got me thinking about this was seeing a number of my friends experiencing trouble over the choices they made long ago. Friends who have been unable to have babies at all, who have remained single against their wishes, who have spent those life savings they so desperately wanted to have in place before having a baby to pay for fertility treatments. Friends whose dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant because they left it too late, whose careers have led them to deadends or 60 hour a week burnt out exhaustion. Friends whose partnerships ended in acrimony with drawn out financial and custody disputes. And it is so much harder to bear the misfortunes you suspect are in part of your own doing than those thrust randomly upon you with no warning and no reason. Should I have done things differently is a haunting refrain.

And all this sounds very dark, and of course in truth risks can also pay off, as any gambler will tell you, and they often do. In so many ways I feel incredibly fortunate that I have so many things right in my life. That I have a loving and engaged partner, a healthy and vibrant girl, an extended family close around me, a nice place to live, good food to eat and time to be creative. I am thankful and relieved and more happy and content than at any other time in my life. But I am also aware that as we get older we see more and more of those chickens coming home to roost and it strikes me how sad it is that we make so many significant decisions early on without an appreciation of what they may bring.

And when I read this incredibly powerful and brave post one of the things that really stayed with me was the author's dilemma about what to do with the wisdom she had gained from her experience. Do you tell people about what it's like when the risks don't pay off? Do you warn them off taking such a risk with the idea that maybe they don't know, don't understand what they are making themselves vulnerable to and if they knew they might make different choices? Or do you accept that the risks play out differently for everyone and try to show how things can turn out OK, regardless of the costs you might have to pay? Do we need to all learn for ourselves what it means to live with our choices? Do we risk being seen as just another nagging doomsdayer trying to tell other people what the 'right' choice is, even though this isn't what we meant?

I don't know if there are answers to any of those questions. I do know that when I did my research I was completely bowled over by a number of the things I read. Some of the stats about how people's lives play out surprised me. Some stats scared me. Like what happens to women who withdraw from the workforce, like what happens to families headed by single mothers, like what happens to fathers and mothers and children in families where there is a polarisation of gender roles, like what happens when partnerships end, like what happens to kids who grow up in houses where they don't see their parents much and income is used to buy the work of parenting, like how little young women understand about agining and fertility. I know stats don't tell every story -there are so very many exceptions to every rule - but the stats still tell an important story when it comes to understanding the risks we're taking.


Anonymous Jo said...

Thank you for such a thought provoking and wonderful piece. Yes, where to start. I often regret decisions made. Not in a soul destroying way, but I often stop and think "if only I hadn't have ..." or "why did I do that?". And not just about little things, about major life decisions. It would take me too long to spell all of these out, but suffice to say, all of them have a down and an up side. I try to focus on the up side. And often when I find myself contemplating decisions, I find that if I had have made the alternate decision, I may not have married my husband or had the two wonderful little girls we have today. So there is definitely an up side. Even in this day and age, it really is a struggle for me to have what I do recognsed as being important, whether that be mothering, home making, trying to start my own little fledgling business doing something that I enjoy. I am to old and wise to go back to working without passion. These thoughts constantly play in my head. It has been good for me to sit and read and know that there are many others feeling the same "identity crisis" and wondering if what they do and decide will ever be right? Not just for ourselves, but for our children?

2:41 pm  
Anonymous rebecca said...

Yes that was a thought provoking post. I have 3 kids, and have worked my way from working full time, to part time, to freelancing, to finally giving it all up to enjoy my second childs infant years. I never expected that 5 years later, my freelance skills are out of date and working and paying for daycare cancel each other out. I often think about the choices I have made and the choices in front of me now.

I did kind of shutter when you wrote "What happens to woman who withdraw from the workforce", in your last paragraph, regarding stats. What does happen to these woman? If you get a moment, and I do understand that it is only a stat.

5:07 am  
Anonymous Kate said...

I'm not sure whether I'm sad or pensive or empathetic after reading these posts/comments/links... I do know that I am incredibly grateful for my 3 beautiful children, thankful also that we started our family soon after we married so that the last child we start school while we are still in our thirties, and philosophical about the physical effects having babies has had on my body - pelvic floor risks were something I didn't take into account before the first one. I am lucky that I haven't had cancer diagnoses (like my SIL and my best friend) affect my choices. I had one miscarriage after baby2, but it was so early on, and the ultrasound showed so clearly why it wasn't working, that I have accepted my 1-in-4 as a fact of life and been able to move on.
I still struggle some days with the totally different needs of children of 6yrs, 3yrs and 3months - how do I feed, clean them, do stories, play games, show interest in their lego, cuddle the baby enough, make meals, do enough washing, find ways to share time with my husband, and still retain part of my day for me? Some days it's easy - the sun shines, we play, talk, eat lunch together, share baby cuddles, find quiet time... this weekend it's raining, hubby was laid low with a virus yesterday & this morning, I'm tired, the washing is piling up, and all I want to do is eat too much chocolate and go to sleep - neither of which is an option. We've taken risks by moving to a new state recently, we don't know what work I will find next year, we are house-hunting - sometimes it feels a bit much.
I've tried working nearly full time (baby 1), part-time (baby 2), and staying home a little longer this time. I do know that I missed out on some things with baby 1, which makes me sad, but I also know that part-time work was the answer that gave the best of both worlds to everyone in our family. Each family has to make those decisions themselves, and none of us on the outside should judge the right or wrong of those decisions.

4:44 pm  
Blogger sooz said...

Great to read such detailed responses!

Rebecca's question is worthy of a whole post, which I hope I can get to soon, but in the meantime I'll briefly say that women who withdraw from the workforce face significant economic risks.

The major one being divorce/separation (about 50%-60% depending on how you work this out). This is a significant entry into poverty for many women and the children who remain in their care. The closer they get to retirement the greater this risk becomes.

But even for women who remain partnered, the loss of retirement savings and other work related benefits has an impact on the family as a whole in safe-guarding against the obstacles of life (which seem like the might not happent o us, but almost certainly will at some point). This is particularly true in an age where many men lose jobs and find it difficult to re enter work. It is also true upon the death or disability of their bread winning partner.

There are also a lot of studies related to mental health and satisfaction for women - not BECAUSE they work, but because they feel they have CHOICES. Long term withdrawal from work tends to limit the options open to women and at a certain point many feel trapped by that, or (as children grow and need less parenting) increasingly redundant. This leads to a much greater risk of depression and psychosis as well as general anxiety and lack of satisfaction in life.

I hope no one interprets what I say as a call for all women to work - this is not my point. This is about risk and the risks you take in the choices you make. There are many risks on the other side too! But from a social perspective it is clear that in the last 50 years we have moved from a world in which families were the basic unit - economically in particular - to a world in which individuals are the basis for most forms of exchange. In not working, women become marginalised in this society and they have fewer rights, choices and avenues open to them. This makes them more vulnerable.

6:21 pm  
Anonymous rebecca said...

Oh, wow, thank you sooz! (I think). That was a bit tough to read, but in all honesty, it hit home.

To explain a bit about myself, I have not had a job that I liked, ever, and I know many people may go through life like that. But in my past jobs, I have become bitter, always daydreaming I could be home creating ART. *sigh* So why did I not create ART the last 5 years.....I did sort of, small amounts, a few small shows, a few small sales. But certainly not enough to warrant filling all the time I had.

Now I am very close to having all the kids in school. I can feel the freedom, yet there is a weight there too. A new stage of my life is about to begin, and embracing it has been more frightful than I imagined. What to do with the time? Get a job, make the curtains you meant to 3 years ago, paint the living room, illustrate the children's book you wrote 8 years ago. When you haven't had this kind of time consistently or at all in years, 7 hours a week becomes daunting.

But as my husband and I sit here, budgeting out for the holidays, it has come abundantly all too clear, that I could use a job. I am torn, because I don't want to take some on meanial task that is going to leave me bitter, when we have been "getting by' financially. On the other hand, I could finally make those who ask me "so, what do you do?" more comfortable with a response, "Oh, I work part time at the local Mart". In some small way, I hate to go to work, (when it is not a job a hold close to my heart), just to bring in small fries, when my husband's hourly brings in big, or at least bigger fries. It starts to get so complicated, and then of course I cry.

But what I have come to realize, that stings, is how much I am worth an hour. I can't offer graphic services anymore, and illustrating jobs just aren't available when you need them. So your reply was scarey. But I think I am realizing it before it is too late. You know, being a stay home mom, isn't easy on SO MANY LEVELS.

10:47 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home