It turns out that the strongest weapon in the fight to give girls equal rights is … a working mother.
Years ago, when I was 36, I fell over, dropped like a dead weight for no reason at all. BOOM.
At the hospital, they checked for everything (including HIV, as I had been working as a scientist on the body fluids of Australia’s first AIDS patient), advised me to wean my baby as a precaution, and guess what? It turned out I was just exhausted.
Just exhausted. Just. Exhausted. Like every working mother.
Now, having crawled to the rock of perspective and rest, after 25 years of child-rearing, I look back through the corridor of time and those years seem like a whirling frenzy, barely glimpsed through a haze of fatigue. Like every working mother.
Fatigue, we can do. It’s our reality, whether we work at home or in the workforce. But if we work outside the home—as two-thirds of us do—what cuts through the exhaustion, interrupts our sleep in sharp pangs, and lays a quiet hand of burden across the breadth of our lives is guilt. How much does our absence, our displacement of infants and children to the care of others, impact their delicate little psyches?
Is our quest for fulfilment, of equal rights to autonomy and financial independence, or our need to pay the bills, at the expense of our children’s healthy mental and emotional development?
Well, in a major miracle, a stroke of entire good fortune, a finding that amazingly was not splashed as banner headlines across all (male-owned and dominated) media around the globe, it turns out that the strongest weapon in the fight to give girls equal rights is … a working mother.
Harvard Business School (not well-known as a feminist activist enclave) has found the children of working mothers do better. From a study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, they report daughters of women who work do remarkably better in the workplace. They complete more years of education, earn higher wages, and have higher positions than the daughters of women who stay at home.
These results aren’t because mothers in the workforce get more education and training, mix with upwardly mobile people, or earn more money, and so drag the family up with them. That does help, but the study’s chief author, Kathleen L McGinn, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business, allowed for these factors, and the impact of being raised by a working mother is stark; it is a clear and significant benefit to girls.
Win-win! Our guilt was for nought!
More than that, the sneaking suspicion that what was right for us must be right for our children has been vindicated, against the steady stream of subliminal criticism that we were selfish.
And—relief—these daughters aren’t higher-achieving but emotionally blighted. The study found their mental and emotional health is just as robust as that of girls whose mothers stayed home. In fact, in other guilt-relieving, 69 studies from the past 50 years say the same thing: Kids of working mothers have less depression and anxiety.
In case you’re now struggling with a creeping sense of “Well, what was the point of me then? I might just as well have never come home,” drag yourself out of that rabbit hole of self-effacement. It is our presence, not our absence, that helps our daughters. McGinn and her research team say it is our role modeling, our example, our mentoring that makes the difference.
Well, isn’t that a relief. I thought that some nights, when I got home, spread myself into 753 different particles to attend lovingly to each branch of need in the home simultaneously for the next six hours, only to trip over the cat at midnight and go beserk, I was a lousy role model. But apparently it’s the before-cat stuff that matters. When our girls see us enter the external world, make decisions, survey challenges, find ways through and over obstacles, they learn that difficulties can be surmounted and that they are as good as boys and men.
And that’s a very good thing, according to McGinn, because the other clear message kids get from home is the opposite; that men rule. Or, as a (male) commentator put it when analyzing the latest statistics on who does what unpaid work at home, “men come off looking like a bunch of lazy, couch-lying, TV-watching sloths.”
Her work is on gender inequality, and she reckons there’s no point in looking at inequality in the workplace when attitudes start at home. If there’s inequality between men and women at home, that’s what the kids will pick up and enact. McGinn is worried inequality at home is entrenched, and the global stats back her up. Despite the percentage of women in the workforce soaring, they do the same amount of work at home as they always have, more than twice that of men. Men have not picked up the slack.
Worse, when a woman is the breadwinner, she still does more—44 hours a week compared to his 30. What does that teach kids? That men have an inalienable right to be above the sh*t-work? Because he has a penis, he only has to do half as much?
All these decades of struggling for more equity at home so we can get equity at work … and this is where we are. But here, in the Harvard study, we have a glimmer of hope; no, it’s a beacon. A huge great lighthouse of a thing. Because the study doesn’t just show that our working benefits our daughters, it intriguingly shows a benefit to our sons. A benefit that will contribute to gender equity over time.
The sons of working women, while performing equally well in the workforce as those whose mothers were at home, do better at home. They are significantly more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members. So these grown sons provide more support to their working partners, and are more egalitarian role models to their children.
To quote McGinn, there are very few things that have such a clear effect on gender equality than being raised by a working mother.
The fog of fatigue was worth it.
Gael Jennings is a regular contributor to Debrief Daily.
This originally appeared on Debrief Daily. Republished here with permission.