July 14th, 2014

Support parents rather than romanticise parenthood

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, Association of Women for Action and Research

Last Friday’s commentary (“For many, parenthood is one part blessing and one part trauma”) was refreshingly honest about the experience of parenthood.

familyToo often, new parents feel unable to openly discuss the difficulties they face in coping with the enormous transformation in their lives. There is tremendous social pressure to express only positive sentiments about having children.

Parents may see negative feelings as reasons for guilt and shame, as well as fear of judgment about not loving their children enough.

However, it is ordinary for any parent to sometimes feel ambivalent about parenthood, and to experience unhappiness, boredom or frustration from time to time. These feelings reflect the fact that parenting, like all caregiving, is hard work.

Women face especially intense and potentially damaging societal expectations to be “perfect mothers”, who sacrifice without complaint.

An Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) survey of more than 1,300 individuals found that most people – especially male respondents – see childcare as primarily the responsibility of women.

According to Manpower Ministry statistics, 43 per cent of women who are economically inactive cite domestic responsibilities as the main reason for not being formally employed, compared with only 1.8 per cent of men.

Ironically, placing the idea of motherhood on a pedestal can undermine the actual needs of real mothers for practical support. Other people may assume that women “naturally” know how to take care of children. This puts undue pressure on new mothers to automatically “get it right” through “maternal instinct”.

In fact, childcare, like all labour, involves a learning curve and the acquisition of skills and knowledge with experience. All caregivers, regardless of gender, go through this process, and need the material and emotional support of family, friends and society in general.

Unrealistic romanticism about motherhood also pressures women to deny that they have needs and aspirations that can conflict with the demands of caregiving. Women may feel guilty about the desire to have time and energy for other pursuits, including their own relaxation and hobbies.

We support the call for greater kindness and understanding towards caregivers. Society needs to recognise that caregiving work is not just for mothers – it should be shared. Policies can encourage this by expanding gender-neutral parental leave entitlements, doing more to financially support caregivers, and recognising the need for all employees to access flexible work arrangements.

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 11 July 2014.

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