The Working Mother and Her Homeless Children

There is an ongoing debate whether nurture or nature is more dominant in the formation (or existence) of gender roles. In other words, do we “teach” our daughters to be feminine by dressing them up in pink and buying them dolls or are they biologically programmed that way? If we did not “socially construct” gender roles, would boys still prefer playing with trucks instead of dollhouses and become engineers instead of nurses? Feminists argue that femininity is less biological than socially constructed by patriarchal societies. I used to agree…

I was brought up in a rather traditional household where my parents assumed conventional gender roles; however, my father raised me more “progressive” and prioritized my education to become a successful businesswoman. Moreover, the positivist education I received reinforced by subtle media propaganda made me into a hardcore feminist as early as middle school. I did not even know the philosophical underpinnings of the feminist movement then, but I was determined not be oppressed by men!

This attitude made the first years of my marriage miserable. I was so brainwashed into thinking that all men oppress all women that I was out to get my husband, interpreting his every move as an attack on the women species! This war (though it was largely one-sided) continued full-fledged for three years until I became pregnant with our daughter. It was only then that I began to question the point of my struggle with my role as a person, a wife, and now, as a mother. It took me another three years of fighting with my role as a mother to figure out the underlying reason of my unrest: I was in denial of my very nature. I am a woman and my husband is a man. We are created differently to fulfill different, yet equally essential roles, in our family and in society. He can never be a mother and I can never be a father to our daughter. And our daughter needs both a mother and a father. Pushing my husband to act like a mother and forcing myself to act like a man was shaking the very foundations of what God intends a family to be. I am infinitely thankful to God that I was finally able to come to terms with who I am and find peace in being a mother and a wife. It was exhausting to try to be someone else…

In retrospect, I see that feminism has been gradually destroying the nature of humanity. Although it is an unintended consequence, it led women to act, talk, and dress like men. It led women into “wanna-be men,” which is very insulting to women and suggests that the ideal role model is man. The most important problem with feminism is that it forces women to go against their nature, causing inner-tension. It created a paradigm wherein women had to sacrifice motherhood for being successful outside the home. Unfortunately today motherhood and pregnancy are viewed as oppressive “chores” that take away our independence. I believe that this attitude is one of the major contributing factors to postpartum depression.

To see working as a prideful privilege, while viewing being a home-maker and a mother as primitive is nothing short of ridiculous! In relating the signs of the end of time, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) noted that values will be upside down, good will be viewed as bad and vice versa. What we see today is precisely this. Being pregnant, being a home-maker is seen as less worthy than working outside. The women’s movement of the 1960s fought for the right to work for the white, upper-class women, yet ironically, black women have been in the work force for a long time and their privilege was staying home to take care of their own children. The pendulum went from one extreme to the other, from depriving women of the right to work to forcing women into the workforce by shifting the economic and value structure of society. The ideal ought to be having the choice to work or not. Choice means not being forced by our male relatives to stay home and not being forced by a demeaning social paradigm and a cruel economic system to work.

While the first devastating impact of feminism is on women’s psychology, the second is on the family, especially the children. It is an indisputable fact that someone has to be pulling together the family and raise the children. This is a more difficult and more important responsibility than working outside the home. It is indispensable. When we leave our children for the sake of earning money, we are sacrificing our children’s lives. It is for this reason that I strongly prefer the word home-maker to housewife, since home-maker reflects all that it entails. To have a family, you need a home-maker. When the mother and the father are at work and the children are at day care, which family are we talking about. None of us are super human beings who can give sufficient energy and devotion to our home, our kids, our husbands, and our jobs. It is a zero-sum game and giving to one means taking away from the others. I am particularly referring to children between 0 and 6 years old since their personality and psychology as healthy human beings is shaped in these years.

Unless there is a pressing financial need for a mother to work, sacrificing our children to work 8 to 10 hours a day, where someone else will make money off of us, does not make any sense. We spend all day at work, complain about our jobs, come home exhausted and not have any energy or patience for our children. If society has the right attitude towards motherhood, the economy can, and should, accommodate part-time, well-paid jobs with benefits for high and low skilled men and women. When a mother wishes to work for any reason, the economic system should accommodate this without forcing her to sacrifice her family life.

Why do we want to have children if we are going to leave them with strangers 10 hours a day? A toddler sleeps about 10 hours a day. If the mother works full-time, the kid has to spend 10 hours at day care. It leaves us 4 hours with our children! Every time I have to leave my three year old daughter at day care, it literally feels like a part of me is being ripped off. I cannot imagine what pain she experiences! We are their entire world and they need parental compassion to flourish as “normal” human beings. The devastating effects of being deprived of parental love for extended periods on an infant or toddler’s psychology must be tremendous.

In setting our priorities straight, we must realize that worship is not limited to ritual prayer or fasting…etc. We struggle to submit to God’s will and follow the examples of His Prophets (peace be upon them all) in our daily life. Parenting becomes a form of worship when we cherish our children as trusts from God and strive to be God-conscious parents and raise God-conscious children. We learn that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) loved children greatly, treated them as individuals, and showed them affection by kissing and playing with them. He would allow his grandsons to ride his shoulders even during his prayers. There is not an account of a single incident where he scolded a child for anything. This is the pristine example we aspire to become.

The arguments we are bombarded with today take us further from his example and distort reality. Many of the “excuses” we find are there to appease the guilt we feel, as our soul screams that there is something wrong with this picture…

Myth #1: There are two ironies about the “having to work for money” claim. People often argue that they have to work to provide a “better life” for their children. What they essentially mean is that they need the money to buy things for their children, to send them to more prestigious schools…etc. However, children need their parents, not all the expensive toys and tutors we offer. Furthermore, these “things” cannot substitute parental love, and they spoil children into people who seek more and more material things yet who cannot find satisfaction in anything.

Myth #2: The other irony is that do we really “need” all this stuff for a “better life”? We are made to believe that we need all this. Yet, we can live with quarter of what we have in our homes and probably be happier spending more time with each other than with things. The economic system revolves and those few wealthy people keep getting rich off of our overconsumption at the expense of our inner peace and family life.

Myth #3: “It is good for children to go to school early to learn independence, skills, socialization…etc.” A three year old does not learn calculus at day care! Kids can learn to socialize and say the alphabet song while they are with their parents. If we do not smother them and are involved, caring parents, they would become strong and loving individuals without the psychological damage of separation. However, TV is not a substitute for parenting. If you become a home-maker, you have to give your children what they need: you, your time, your love and your undivided attention. TV is as bad, if not worse than, leaving them at daycare. It is the most influential tool poisoning our children’s minds, values, feelings, and actions.

Myth #4: “TV is not all that bad; kids can learn good things from it too.” The truth is that an overwhelming majority of what kids see on TV is bad. Moreover, the addictive behavior of being hypnotized in front of the TV is even more dangerous. Once you have the TV at home, it becomes a daily challenge to control yourself and the children not to turn it on impulsively. So not having a TV at home and selectively letting your children watch educational shows from a computer, while you are with them, is the safe option.

Myth #5: “You cannot guard them forever. They need to know the real world.” It is true that you cannot guard them forever but you try to guard them as long as you can. Especially when they are young, they do not have any shields (an established value system to judge between right and wrong), and they are like sponges taking in everything without a filter.

What is the solution?

I am not suggesting that women should not work at all. But we need to set our priorities straight. Our relationship with God comes before all else, and thus, we should prioritize our responsibilities towards our children for the sake of God. Once we realize the importance of fulfilling our roles as mothers and wives, we should make the necessary arrangements accordingly. At times, we move from one end of the world to the other just to take up a better job. We should be able to make similar sacrifices for our children’s upbringing. Here are a few suggestions that might help parents to balance their family life and work.

1. Living close to grandparents and other close relatives: It is essential for our children’s well-being to be loved by relatives. Friends are essential but they cannot fulfill the role of relatives. If grandparents can care for our children for short periods of time when we are at work, it is the second-best option to parental love.

2. Structuring our lives so that both parents are involved with their children’s lives: For instance, we cannot invite guests and stress over cooking, yell at the kids because they are messing up the house (!) before the guests arrive, ignore our kids to host the guests… We cannot sacrifice our relationship with our children at the expense of other, trivial engagements. Likewise, a full-time working father must minimize meetings outside of work hours to be available for his family in the evenings and on the weekends. Since God commands us in the Qur’an to begin our tabligh (informing and teaching) with our family first, service for the sake of God cannot come at the expense of our spouse and children.

3. Men must be diligent in choosing careers and jobs: They should prefer jobs that require maximum of 8 to 10 hour commitments. They should be home for dinner every night and be full-time parents on the weekends. They should not bring their work-stress home and allow work-related things to negatively affect their family life. After all, they work to provide for their family. If work starts to have the opposite effect on their family, it signals that something is wrong. We do not live to work; we work to live. When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s wife Aisha was asked what he used to do at home, she replied “He used to work for his family, and when he heard the Adhan (call for the prayer), he would go out” (Narrated Al-Aswad bin Yazid, Volume 7, Book 64, Number 276).

4. Women should plan ahead when choosing careers: There are certain professions that allow women to balance their work and family life much better than others. For instance, being a teacher (preschool to college) and ideally working in your children’s school would have tremendous positive impact on your children. Yet if you teach 10 hours a day, you would be physically and emotionally exhausted to take care of your own family at the end of the day. So you have to negotiate a part-time position or choose a job that allows you to work from home at flexible hours. You can get work done after the kids are asleep or when your husband is back from work and can spend time with the kids.

We found a similar solution for our family. We had our daughter while I was still doing my PhD. My mother spent 6 months with us when our daughter was born, so I did not take a break from school. I purposefully chose to teach at a liberal arts college which emphasizes teaching over research. I concentrate on teaching during the academic year, and work on research over the 4 month summer vacation. My daughter goes to an Islamic day care when I have to be at school for teaching, office hours, and other meetings, but I pick her up as soon as my must-be there work is done. I finish all my course preparation, grading, and other work after she sleeps. I have been very disciplined about putting her to bed by 7.30pm since she was born; she needs the sleep and I need to work. We try to spend most of the summer at our parents so our daughter spends a lot of time with the extended family and we get research done with a serene heart that she is being nurtured by love.

Throughout graduate school, my female professors have provided remarkable support, which testifies to the significance of having women in all walks of life. I could connect with them much easier than my male professors. I could chat with them about being pregnant and raising a child while being an academic. I did not have to justify myself when I asked them for permission to take my qualifying exams at home because my 5 month old was still nursing (they then implemented a policy for all female students in the same situation to have this option). They knew what it was to do field work in London with a 2 year old! Even by not doing anything, they were role models exemplifying that it is feasible to raise great kids and be outstanding professors. When introducing herself, one of my professors told the class: “I am first and foremost a mother to my two kids and a wife to my husband!” She was rejecting the very notion that upon entering the workplace, you need to leave your family life at the door and act as if it did not exist.

So, God willing, the pendulum is gradually balancing out and many women find the happy medium to fulfill their intellectual and spiritual needs by being productive members of society in the house as mothers and wives as well as outside. A mother is not a fish to be constrained in the water; she is not a bird to be forced to fly in the sky; but she is much like a duck that flies when need be but is happy smoothly sailing on the water, diving in and out…