Selves and the world of work

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In chapt er 1 the compl exities of deb ates arou nd the self were highlight ed

and the difficulty of treading a path between essentialism and engaging

with ‘fleshy , sensat e bod ies’ acknowl edged ( Jackson and Sco tt, 2001 :9).

The se theor etical debates will be revis ited in chapt er 7, but the empi rical

data presented here illustrate the ways in which tenuous selves are experienced

and presented through a period of transition. According to Lawler,

‘most Euroamericans incorporate various forms of understanding of the

self into an overa ll schema of self unde rstandin g’ (2000:57– 8). The

narratives produced by the women in this study show the complexities

and fluidity of these schemas of self-understanding. Such understandings

are grounded in a sense of a recognisable and practiced self, and it is these

dimensions of a self that are fundamentally challenged for many women

when they become mothers. This is because when childbirth and doing

mothering are experienced as different from expectations and found not

to be instinctive or natural, a social self – rather than an essentialist,

instinctive self – as a mother has to be developed, worked on and practised.

Different locations enabled women to reflect on and make sense of

this confusing period. For example, a return to paid employment, involving

movement in and out of different worlds, provided opportunities for

the women to be their (old) selves again. By the time of the final interviews

all but three of the women had returned to paid work outside the

home. Interestingly, it was those who had not who drew a particular

distinction between the different worlds of home and work. In the following

extract Sheila talks of not having any ‘out life’:

My outlook on life is totally different. I still don’t have any out life, any life of my

own really . . . I miss the conversation, that’s the major thing . . . I mean I love them

dearly but I do miss . . . I mean not just normal conversation, I miss the office life.

Her decision not to seek work outside the home draws on ideas of doing

mothering in a particular way:

I really want to be there for them, the old-fashioned style, isn’t it?

Sheila then goes on to assert her happiness in her current situation:

I’m quite happy at home, I’m my own person now since I’ve got these

[twins] . . . but I still want my. . .my independence.

Yet contradictions are woven throughout these extracts, as Sheila asserts

that she’s her ‘own person’, implying autonomy and independence, but

talking also of wanting her ‘independence’. Faye also rationalises her

decision not to seek work outside the home, which results in her feeling

a ‘bit out of the world’:

I wouldn’t earn very much and I don’t know whether . . . I know it would be for my

sanity, but I don’t really want to work to pay someone else to look after her . . . I

sometimes feel a bit guilty about not going to work . . . you . . . sort of you feel a bit

out of the world in a way because you’re not getting up every day and going into

work and the normal things you do.

Work outside the home offers the possibility of ‘normal things’, helping to

maintain ‘sanity’. Ironically, and in contrast to the women who have

returned to work, Faye experiences guilt because she is not also working

outside the home. The social negotiations in which women engage

between motherhood and paid work have been explored in previous

researc h (Dunc an and E dwards, 1999; Branne n and Moss , 1988) .

Interestingly, in research which focused on lone mothers, Duncan and

Edwards found that ‘lone mothers’ agency in deciding whether or not to

take up paid work is essentially concerned with what is best and morally

right for themse lves as mothe rs an d for their childr en’ (1999:109) .

Perhaps not surprisingly, these are the very same concerns that this group

of partnered women weigh up in these late postnatal narratives. For those

who have returned to work, contradictory feelings are also experienced.

As Diana says:

The mixed feelings I had about going back to work – on the one hand I did want to

go because I . . . I did miss the sort of wideness of the world, you know, the world

becomes very small when you’re at home with a baby because it’s a baby, isn’t it,

and other mothers and it’s not really . . . you don’t have much to talk about.

And . . . but on the other hand I felt that, you know, should I be leaving this baby

who probably needs its mother more than anyone? Very mixed. But then I was

lucky to be in a position to go back part-time, so you feel you can balance it a bit.

You’ve got some work and some time with Sonia, but then the downside to that is

that you . . . as I say, you just feel you’re not doing anything . . . constantly feeling

guilty, under achieving . . . under achieving mother, under achieving

employee . . . I’m very organised and like to be in control and it’s just never

. . . you’re never going to be in control again.

Returning to the world of work provides a temporary diversion from

the otherwise all-consuming world of intensive mothering. It also offers

the possibility to regain and be a different – old, enduring – self again. The

ways in which different selves can be practised, performed and maintained

in the different locations of home and work are apparent in the following

extracts. In these the women draw on ideas of ‘ideal types of mother and/or

worker’, what Duncan and Edwards have termed ‘gendered moral rationalities’,

to narrate and locate their selves and their experiences (1999:109).

Abigail explains her readiness to rejoin the other world:

I do like being a professional person and myself . . . I really felt by the end of my

maternity leave that I was treading water and the whole world was getting on with

their lives and mine was on hold . . . Even if I was achieving something with him,

I didn’t feel it was enough for me. That might sound selfish, I don’t know? . . . I felt

so trapped by the end of my maternity leave, I felt so isolated.

Abigail tentatively voices her experiences of motherhood, yet recognises

that this might not be perceived as a culturally or morally acceptable way

for a mother to narrate her mothering experiences, and adds, ‘that might

sound selfish’. Other mothers also spoke of mothering not being ‘enough’

for them, of needing something more:

I kind of thought I’ll go back, never really kind of found myself like a real role as a

mother, like a role just me and Georgia in the house together, we were fine, but

I just . . . that wasn’t enough for me, obviously. I mean I needed to see other

people, I needed to make new friends, and I haven’t really done that so I haven’t

really established myself as a kind of a social being outside the house, you know.

And I was starting to think, you know, this is not enough for me really and I need

more stimulation and adult company and things. (Philippa)

I still sort of want to get a part of my life back and not just talk nappies . . . it wasn’t

really me going to parent–toddler groups all the time . . . I mean when I’m at

[work] I’m more my old self. (Clare)

I felt as though if I had a job I was doing something, whereas if I didn’t, if I was just

at home with baby, ‘oh you’re just a mother and a housewife’. And I know that’s

the wrong thing to think but you still can’t help thinking it. (Rebecca)

The ways in which mothering work is (under) valued in Western societies

and the pervasiveness of the contradictory messages which surround and

shape women’s lives, are clear in the ways these women narrate their

experiences, reflecting on how mothering and work fits into their lives.

For most, to be ‘just a mother’ and ‘just at home with baby’ is not

perceived to be enough and Rebecca acknowledges that her feelings are

linked to the ‘status thing’. Others have not established themselves as

‘social beings’ outside the home as mothers, have not wanted to become

subsumed within an identity of full-time mother. The (inaccurate) perceptions

of what other mothers are like, and do, are not challenged by

these women, but rather help to confirm their decisions to return to work

where other dimensions of selves, beyond the maternal, can be experienced.

The women spoke of meeting and interacting with other mothers,

but they saw their selves differently, although at risk of becoming like

them if they followed similar patterns of intensive mothering. For

example, Wendy talks ofmeeting other mothers who do not work outside

the home:

. . . and you talk to them . . . they are so boring, they’ve got nothing to talk about.

I mean, God, I don’t want to become one of them . . . I don’t want to end up

like that.

Clare and Abigail also talk of mothers’ needs to meet together and talk,

but distance themselves from such activities:

I mean being at home all the time you want to get out and meet people and

you . . . So, I can understand why people do, but it wasn’t me. (Clare)

I only ever palled up with one other [mother] and so once a fortnight, once a

week, we’d have a coffee morning, but it was so focused on our children. How

many teeth have you got? How many farts does he do, anything, oh for God’s sake,

what texture is . . . for God’s sake, I don’t want to know. So it’s nice to have got

away from that. (Abigail)

The narratives here draw on perceptions of work outside the home being

more highly valued. A return to paid work, the ‘out world’, offers women

the opportunity to re-enter a familiar world. This is a world where their

competencies are measured according to criteria not usually as invidious as

those operating around mothering. For these women who were fortunate

enough to have a choice, a return to work offered an escape route from the

responsibilities and more isolating and mundane aspects of mothering and

an opportunity to be their (old) selves. Paid work was regarded by some as

the easier option, as the extracts below show:

I mean, I admit this to you and it’ll be on the tape, but at the end of the weekend

I’m thinking, phew! thank goodness somebody else has got part of the day, which

is an awful thing to say, maybe?. (Kathryn)

I do enjoy being a mother, I am enjoying it a lot, although I find it incredibly hard

work. Having said that I do like being at work. (Diana)

I just sit there all day, like you’ve got a computer in front of you and it’s . . . we’re

on a good section so . . . it’s just good. Yes, I get away from the babies and I

appreciate them more when I pick them up. Got my life back. (Wendy, mother

of twins)

I think it . . . it is nice to go and do some work but the thing is at the moment, I’m

not happy with where I am. I don’t know if it’s just temporarily, you know, that it’s

not a very nice atmosphere, but I still think it’s good, you know, to do something.


I think . . . again, when I was at home with her for a long time I did feel that my

identity was being a little bit kind of subsumed into this kind of fluffy thing that

included her and me and . . . that I didn’t really have a life of my own other than my

role as a carer for Georgia . . . Actually a lot of the time I don’t feel as much like a

mum as I . . . as I used to as well, you know, because I do genuinely forget

about . . . it’s awful, but I forget about her when I’m at work. (Philippa)

The privatised and often isolating gendered practices that characterise

childrearing in the West are implicit in these extracts. It is interesting too

that Philippa censors herself with the words, ‘it’s awful’ when she talks of

forgetting about her daughter when she is at work. Over time, the women

gradually develop aspects of social selves as mothers as expectations

grounded in essentialist ideas of instinctive and natural abilities are

re-evaluated. But for most, experiences of mothering do not resonate with

dominant constructions of motherhood and the women differentiate

themselves from other women they meet who are involved in full-time

mothering. Most of the women actively resist becoming completely

subsumed in full-time, intensive mothering.