Why Do We Punish Mothers Who Want Careers?

One of my favourite Korean feminist novels is Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. Written by Cho Nam-Ju, it explores issues like financial independence, the difficulty Korean women encounter as they search for jobs, the way women are expected to provide for the education of their brothers and also the manner in which women’s household labour as stay home moms goes unappreciated.

In the novel, one thing I observed too is how mothers are punished literally for being ambitious and wanting to build their careers in the workplace. Rather than make the workplace more hospitable for mothers, women who wanted children had to choose between a rock and a hard place. They had to decide between being mothers or being career women.

I was reminded of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 when I learned of Allyson Felix, an athlete who was told by Nike to “know her place”. This was in response to her being pregnant and desiring to still be a Nike sports ambassador. Thankfully, she has since gone on to create her own brand of sportswear.

All of this begs the question of why women are raised to see motherhood as what completes us.

It seems one cannot win as a woman. If you decide that you want to work in order to feed your child and have a sense of fulfillment, you will be shamed as being “too ambitious”. 

You may even stand the risk of domestic violence if you refuse to give your hard earned money to your husband to decide on it. This is regardless of if you are the breadwinner or not. 

There are men who earn way higher than their spouses and yet expect these women to hand them their monthly salaries. After which they the men will be the ones to give them transport fare and money for basic objects like soap and sanitary ware.

Furthermore, why are women punished and shamed even when circumstances make them pick motherhood over careers? On a normal day and in a normal world, women should be able to have flourishing careers and be mothers. However it is ironic that the same people who shame mothers for wanting to be career women, will also shame stay at home mothers “for not contributing anything” and “for just chopping her husband’s money like a gold digger”. 

They fail to realise the actual labour that goes into taking care of a home and children. When feminists say that stay home mothers should be paid and that the barriers for women in the workplace must be removed, feminists are shamed as those who are asking for too much.

But why any of this? Why do mothers encounter the pain of choosing between kids and a career? Why is it that women who marry and decide not to have kids still get shamed? 

Why is it that women who don’t want marriage and children encounter incredible amounts of shaming from members of society? Why have we tied women’s worth to how well they can use their bodies to provide children for a man’s legacy and yet never respect the labour that goes into maintaining those children? 

Even more, why is the work of taking care of children seen as a solely female domain such that the concept of a paternity leave is hotly debated?

To understand this better, I spoke to a few women who shared their perspectives with me.

Speaking with Glory, a writer and journalist, she explains using a friend’s story that it is because they don’t want women to amount to anything.

In her words: “I feel like they don’t want women to amount too much. A friend from way back has two kids and is married. 

Got back in touch and in conversation, she told me she wanted to go back to school and study nursing. She said she was dissuaded by family. She had even started WAEC classes so as to get the required grades but had to opt out. She was told to open a business. You could tell its something she really wanted to have a career in nursing. She has a third baby now and I just wonder how they just took her nursing dreams from her. She’s going to raise those children and then what?”

She went on to say: “They saddle women with the burden of childbearing and raising and most women forgo their dreams in that process. The reality is that childbirth slows women down, in terms of career growth and progression and I would advice women to think carefully on this. Women lack the necessary support already.”

For Chioma, a writer, she believes that the punishment is due to the belief that women are default nurturers.

To quote her: “On women getting punished, yes. I think it’s because of this whole women are nurturers argument. Women who decide not to be nurturers are then demonized. Every day they say some women are not supposed to have children and then they see a woman that doesn’t want to have them and they start foaming at the mouth. Omo! Pick a struggle biko. 

Let the women who want to focus on career focus on it. It’s not your business if they regret it, after all, it’s not your life. As for sahm, I find it very annoying when after saying a woman shouldn’t work, you insult her for not contributing anything. The fact that she is staying at home to pick up after you and your kids is already enough contribution. You come back with food on your table and you think she pulled it from some magical pot???

So that one is not a contribution???”

Chioma continued by saying: “As for women who build their entire identities around their kids and husbands, it’s really sad what happens to them. 

Yes, what they do contributes to their sense of loss. Even the Bible says you should not hold your husband and kids higher than God because they can all leave you one day and you will have nothing to hold on to.

The kids will leave the house, your husband will find something else to interest him. That loneliness that people say unmarried older women experience, you will experience it. And it will be worse because you actually have people around you but they’ve all moved on. 

Because you did not create an identity for yourself outside of marriage and family. 

I have a friend who married really young. I’ve tried to warn her about basing her whole life on her husband and kids, but she is adamant, saying that it’s very fulfilling. I just laughed sha. 

This is why some mothers will want to move into their son or daughter’s house when they get married so that they won’t be “lonely”. Ask them their hobbies, them no get.”

When asked to give her opinion, Jennifer, a Russia based writer said this: “I would say the punishment is because childbirth and rearing kids has been long ascribed as innate desires for women. There’s this belief that patriarchy has drummed into the society that a woman is most fulfilled when she’s married and raising kids.

Mothers who want careers are seen as defiant, as selfish, as downplaying womanhood/motherhood because as a woman nothing should supersede your motherhood instinct.

It’s also part to the unwillingness of society to accept that the motherhood instinct isn’t something every woman has and it’s not really that fulfilling for many.”

Jennifer went on to say: “About stay at homes not being fully respected, I would say it’s because despite how much people (read men) exalt motherhood and wife duties, they don’t value it. They don’t see it as real work or valuable. It is only exalted because it’s free labor that women should be glad to give. 

There’s a condescension that men regard for housekeeping duties. And it’s rooted in the ideology that women are lesser beings so condescending work= work for lesser people. Housekeeping is a lot, most times more stressful than career tbh

Men don’t see it as real or valuable work. That’s why no matter how much they praise it, they will collapse before assuming the role of house keeper or stay at home husband. 

At the end of the day, it is left for every woman to look at the two sides and pick her struggle.”

The reality is that women are full people. Much more than that fact, children benefit when their mothers do not hold them in resentment over being the cause of loss of dreams.

For this, we must create child friendly workplaces and work policies. That is the first step in ensuring that society does not lose out on the potential of one half of it.

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