VICTORIA WHITE: It hits home too much to mention the job women enjoy the most - staying home with their children

You will hear about International Women’s Day all day today, writes Victoria White

You’ll hear about the first female airline pilot and about Mary Robinson and Madame Curie and Sheryl Sandberg and Countess Markievicz and about the first female rugby player to score a goal for Ireland.

You will hear nothing about the women who do the job that makes female workers happiest: Staying home with their children.

It’s true, you know: Mothers at home with their children are among the UK’s happiest workers. They are the workers who feel their jobs are most worthwhile.

Ah, so it’s the UK! That explains it! We all know how different British women are from Irish women. Don’t we?

It doesn’t look like we’re going to find out if Irish women differ from Britishers, on this issue, because our CSO does not yet provide such a detailed break-down of happiness, in particular jobs or callings, as does the UK.

That’s a shame. The Happiness Index is a very well-established idea, supported by the UN as a legitimate, alternative measure of social progress, rather than the traditional measures of GNP and GDP.

Even the OECD has promised to “refine the growth narrative and put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts”. What a radical idea!

The CSO has piloted research into happiness and has established that Irish workers are the happiest in Europe and the fourth-happiest in the world.

If we are anything like the Brits, then, Irish stay-home mothers are among the happiest workers in the country that has the happiest workers in Europe.

Only pensioners score better, with students and artists coming close, which shows that people don’t like working very much for other people.

Sheryl Sandberg.
Sheryl Sandberg.

You wouldn’t think that from the commentary, would you?

The stereotype of the bored housewife is so ingrained I almost have to remind myself that I never married a house and I was at my happiest when I was at home full-time with small children.

Last year, Amárach Research found that two out of three Irish mothers would like to stay home, if they could afford it.

Yet, all day long, today, we will hear earnest pleas to spring mothers out of the “trap” that is their home and to narrow the gender pay gap by making childcare cheap or free and by
introducing gender quotas.

The OECD called stay-home mothers “a waste of human capital” in their Babies and Bosses
report. Which shows how much the OECD knows about women and how much it prioritises their happiness.

The last thing any of the official economic organisations cares about is what women really want.

In Ireland, we rightly credit the EU with such advancements for women as equal pay (1975), maternity leave (1981), and (grudgingly) parental leave (1998).

However, this same EU gave us targets, under the Lisbon and Barcelona strategies, of 60% of women in paid employment by the turn of the millennium, plus a third of U3s and 90% of over-threes in formal childcare by 2010.

They never asked European women what they wanted. Not once.

Instead, they worked out what was needed to grow the European economy and they imposed it on women and children.

Perhaps they didn’t ask women what women wanted because they feared women would ask for flexible workdays and paid leave.

Countess Markievicz.
Countess Markievicz.

Why not start with three years’ full leave on the birth of a child, as in Germany, Spain, Poland, Slovakia, Finland and Austria (though Austria’s leave was criticised by our happiness-focussed OECD as impacting on women’s commitment to the workplace)?

Why privilege parents in this way?

Fair point. I would have flexible working conditions, or even the security of a guaranteed basic income for all citizens.

Parents are in a different zone, however, because of the massive impact that their presence or absence has on the development of their children.

However unwillingly, the US psychotherapist, Erica Komisar, is currently providing click-bait to Fox News to the Daily Mail for saying that mothers who return to work too soon after giving birth risk damaging their babies’ mental health.

In fairness, her new book, Being There: Why Prioritising Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, doesn’t blame mothers, but, rather, the way we have structured society (and the book does offer practical tips for mothers of small children working full-time, such as keeping the children up later in the evening).

Komisar says fathers are not important to their babies in the same way in the first three years. I would be lying if I said she doesn’t strike a painful chord with me when she says: “A mother is more emotionally invested in her child and, from an evolutionary point of view, more committed to their safety and survival.”

There is, however, massive variation within the genders.

There are also different opportunities at different times — it’s not going to serve a family well if their mother is a leading scientist who destroys her career by staying home, so her partner can go out and wash the neighbours’ cars on a day rate.

All leave past six months, for recovery from birth and the minimum breast-feeding, should be open to either parent.

Any gender-specific suggestion would seem like an episode from The Handmaid’s Tale. However, I think mothers will always take any extended parental leave offered in far greater numbers than fathers. We should not have a problem with this.

We should not consider a woman at home with her children a problem to be solved. She is not a problem. She does have a problem, however.

Even if she and her family have enough money to keep going on one salary, as 42% of mothers do, or if she is lucky enough to pin down part-time work, like another 32.7% of mothers, her service to her family and community today will impoverish her tomorrow.

The gender pay gap is, in truth, a very complex calculation, given that many of the world’s most well-resourced societies, like Austria, have wide gaps, because the leave provided to women is willingly taken.

The gender pensions gap between men and women, which is roughly 40% in Ireland, involves no willingness at all. Nobody opts to be poor when they’re old.

Few young women think about these implications when they’re sallying out into the sunshine with their buggies. We’re selected by evolution to choose happiness.

The problem is that we’re living in a society that devalues the work which many women would choose if they got the chance.

We celebrate an International Women’s Day that silences women and which ignores their happiness.


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