Post 284.

How to explain the exhaustion a mother feels? As I try to keep up with Ziya’s various school projects, and all the items that have to be printed, collected, bought or recycled in addition to completing revision and homework, I wonder how other mothers keep up. I especially wonder how working mothers manage. Families are collective projects, with all having to pull their weight, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

For example, the International Labour Organisation’s report on Women at Work Trends 2016 shows that in twenty-nine countries surveyed, women spent more time on household care than men. In many countries, except for the UK, Norway and Sweden, it was double or triple the time spent.

The Nielsen Global Home-Care Survey, which covers sixty-one countries, also found that women do the majority of cleaning. Men are increasingly putting in care and cleaning time as well as shopping and driving children to and from activities and school. However, for almost all regions surveyed, except for North America, the percentage of women doing the majority of household cleaning is higher than men doing the majority or it being shared when both those figures are added together.

Such women are also working for wages outside the home. Here, in the Caribbean, where women’s employment numbers are lower than men’s, those women may be working informally, in self-employment or part-time, hence their greater responsibility for the home.

Nonetheless, even when women are working full-time or are the breadwinners, they put more time to management and care of household members and to household cleaning anyway.

In Trinidad and Tobago, according to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, between 24% and 45% of households are female headed. So, on average, two out of three households in the country are headed by men. It is likely that women are also in these households, and that responsibility for families is more greatly shared.

It is unlikely that in the households which are female-headed, which are about one third of those in the country, fair share of care takes place. It is also unlikely that fair share of the costs of raising children also takes place.

Indeed, the caseload related to child maintenance, as mediated by the Family Court for example, points to the challenges of equal care and equal financial contribution for children, particularly among middle and lower-income families, who are not only more likely to end up in the court, but also more likely to experience economic insecurity.

This problem of women’s unequal burden won’t change quickly or dramatically. As Caribbean women of all classes continue to pursue higher education in numbers vastly exceeding men, they will increasingly become primary breadwinners even in households where men are seen to be the head, for headship may be based on the status of manhood, not income-contribution.

At this point, it is mainly in energy, manufacturing and construction sectors that men can provide higher incomes on lower levels of qualifications, but outside of those and illegal activities, we can expect lower-income and less-well educated men’s earnings to be less stable and less able to equally meet women’s over time.

It is also reasonable to expect that, at least in the short term of the next decade, many men will not take up the majority of housework, elder- and childcare, even when they earn less. First, globally, this has been delegated to other women, especially domestic workers, aunts and grandmothers.

Second, even where time-use studies indicated the reverse, in a 2015 survey of eight countries from Brazil to Rwanda, between 36% and 70% of men reported a role “equal to” or “greater than” their partner in childcare. In other words, women’s unequal contribution remained invisible, uncounted and undervalued.

The picture of women working full-time, contributing more financially as well as putting in more hours of care, cleaning, cooking and management at home is the near future. It will affect women in married, common-law and visiting relationships, and those that are without partners.

This is one explanation for the exhaustion that mothers feel, and its toll on their emotions and health. If there are any women out there for whom this sounds familiar, know that, my sister, it’s not just you.

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Post 211.

This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.

I was a speaker at  ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.

‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.

I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.

Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.

Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?

Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.

It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?

My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.