Mother and child at laptopn

‘Mummy has to go to work’ – what message are we giving our daughters?

The pervasive line that parents – particularly mothers – go to work only because they have to is damaging for feminism.

There’s a book at my local library called ‘Mummy goes to work’. It was one of those I wanted to read for myself before sharing it with my daughter (at two and a half, she can’t read yet, so I can sometimes adapt what is really going on in a story).

Perhaps it was about what Mummy does at work? I’d pictured a series of different mothers in different workplaces: ‘My mummy goes to work in a laboratory’ ‘My mummy goes to work on a film set’, ‘My mummy goes to work in a bakery’.

Or maybe a silly fantasy story? ‘My mummy goes to work in a unicorn factory; her job is to glue the horns on’.

Sadly, this was not the case.

‘My mummy goes to work,’ it read ‘But she doesn’t really want to.’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly because I can’t refind the book.)

Have we seen this kind of book about a Daddy? I doubt it – but that’s not my point – today.

It got me thinking about how we talk to our children about work – all children, but I think girls are probably more affected by the problem.

We tell our children the same story we’re told as a society – that we don’t want to go to work. We go to work because we have to.

Now, this is undoubtedly true in many ways. If I were in a position financially to take a career break at the moment, I would – because of my daughter, because of my mother (who lives with us due to ill health), and because of my own health problems.

But what’s also true is that I enjoy my job. If I did take a career break, I would probably still ‘work’. I’d volunteer to run websites for charities; I’d take on bits of freelance editing work from time to time.

I should stop to acknowledge that I’m speaking from a place of privilege here. Enjoying your job is often a result of having had a choice in your career path – which is so often a privilege borne out of financial freedom.

Even so, telling your children that Mummy (in particular) doesn’t *want* to go to work, that she *has* to because she needs to pay the bills, gives three messages I worry about:

  1. Women should ideally stay at home (having a working mother is a result of some level of poverty).
  2. Work is something to be tolerated, not enjoyed.
  3. Your mother wants to be with you, doing your bidding, 24/7

So I try and avoid the ‘Mummy has to go to work’ line. I have explained to her how work works – that we make a promise we’ll be there at certain times and do certain things in exchange for money – but that it’s also in exchange for learning things, getting a chance to do things we wouldn’t do at home, and seeing different people.

I liken it to nursery – we miss each other when she’s at nursery, but I’m not allowed to go with her because that’s her chance to see different people and do different things – perhaps things I don’t like doing.

Of course, I have seen inside her nursery, and I try to make sure she sees both her mothers working, too. My wife works in the building of an old medical school, and there are elephant skeletons by the entrance as she goes in. Our daughter has seen these and tells everyone ‘Mummy’s gone to work with the elephants’; it’s a bit more interesting for a 2-year-old than ‘Mummy’s in comms.’ I work from home a lot and have showed her my computer to see what I’m working on. As she gets older, we’ll give her a more rounded and accurate impression of what we really do in this nebulous land called Work.

My hope is that this will help build a positive impression of her own working life – building herself up to a rewarding career, or at the very least being able to enjoy chatting with colleagues in a different environment.

In the meantime, if you want to write the unicorn story, I’ll fund you on Kickstarter.

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