In Nairobi, working mothers are the norm, regardless of social background. I have met many women the world over who like me are working mothers in their thirties who tell me that they are the first women in their family to hold down two jobs (that of being a mother as well as paid employment). I find it hard to fathom because I am a fourth generation working mother.
My mother, both my grandmothers and indeed great-grandmother all worked as well as raised their families, and I think it is an important gift for our children, especially our daughters.
Most studies I have read tend to focus on childcare, who is the next-best person to look after the child(ren) in question, how long the mother should be at home with the child before starting work and so on. These are of course all important factors but I think that they forget one critical factor—in Africa at least, women have always worked while having children. The two were intertwined. In fact the oft-quoted African proverb, “It takes a community to raise a child” is rooted in working motherhood. It was understood that there are times that mothers had things to do, which meant that others contributed to collective child-rearing.
I have friends who worked hard and retired at 40. Their children who were young at the time will never have a memory of their parents working. Whilst my friends enjoy being able to raise their children full-time, they acknowledge that their situation is unique and regularly worry that their children will not build-up a work ethic. As one of them says, “How will they make sense of the need to have a vocation in life and how will they learn how to earn?”
The vast majority of us do not have this particular worry. Instead, as mothers, we tend to be plagued with guilt at having to work as we hire nannies, use daycares, make use of school breakfast clubs and the list goes on to ensure that our children are adequately cared for whilst we work. Many mothers wish that they did not have to work at all. Working can leave us exhausted and feeling like we are not doing anything right: thinking about our children when we are at work and our work when we are with our children.
Yet, on balance, I think that it is best for my daughter that I have carried on my family tradition and am a working mother. I am fortunate that I work from home in a country where children are seen as a blessing and so I can also regularly take my daughter to meetings outside our home. I am also lucky that I come from a country that values holidays and maternity leave.
That said, I think that children globally over benefit from having a mother whose self-esteem is bolstered by her paid occupation. We live in a world where we are considered by what we contribute outside the home. Though I personally feel that raising future generations should be given the highest regard, it often is not. A mother with another occupation can gain confidence from being valued for her other skills.
Children and mothers often do better with ‘breaks’ from each other. They appreciate the time that they spend together more. Conflict can be diffused by removing the tensions of spending every waking minute together, as both bring something new to the table to share of their respective independent experiences.
Working mothers make the world a better place. Apart from the financial benefits both to their own home and their communities at large, working mothers have created a whole new working culture and economy—flex time, working from home, part-time work, not to mention the numerous businesses and indeed industries that have literally started on a kitchen table. Motherhood forever changes the way a woman engages with the world and many women gift the world with this change in viewpoint.
Working mothers inspire their children. I am immensely proud of my mother and both of my grandmothers. Their achievements highlighted for me what was possible in the world as a woman. When I listen to my five-year-old daughter remark that she wants to become a policewoman one week or train driver the next, I know it is due to the fact that she comes from a line of women who believed it was possible for a woman to do whatever she desires.
Children of working mothers learn how to look after themselves. This is sometimes literally but also they discover how to follow their own interests. They learn to create a balance in which all aspects of themselves can be served, without completely sacrificing themselves, as this is exactly what their mothers are doing.
Every family makes the decision that is right for them and all mothers have their place whether they have other paid work or not. Being a working mother, I am biased. But having started out thinking I was going to stay at home when I first gave birth, I am glad I chose instead to carry on with the gift given to me by my mother and earlier generations.