The great balancing act

A trainee of the second Brunei National Service Scheme Programme with her mother. For some mothers, dividing their time between work, life and their children is a never-ending struggle. Picture: BT file

Sunday, July 8, 2012

FRIDAY was my four-year-old daughter's last day of kindergarten. The teachers had organised a pirate-themed end-of-term party to celebrate. Early that morning, this working mother, who has not sorted out her daughter's pirate outfit, grabbed a black scarf from her drawer and tied it on her daughter's head for some pirate pizzazz.

Unable to attend the party due to work, I received reports that some of her classmates came to school sporting pirate vests, swords and eye-patches. My daughter brought "Pirate Pizzas" that had been made by the helpers (as opposed to sandwiches and sushi lovingly made by the maternal kitchen goddess that all mothers are supposed to aspire to).

I try, you know, and I am gutted that I missed my daughter's last day of kindergarten. That, unfortunately, is the price to be paid by a working mother.

The challenge of being a working mother got Cherie Blair, wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a bit of hot soup last week.

Speaking at Fortune Magazine's "Most Powerful Women" Event at Claridges, she said "yummy mummies" who give up work and put all their effort into their children are making a dangerous mistake. Mrs Blair, a barrister and mother-of-four, urged all women to remain self-sufficient.

She further said: "Every woman needs to be self-sufficient and in that way you really don't have a choice for your own satisfaction; you hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me."

Incidentally, the term "yummy mummy" conjures an image of a design-obsessed woman; thin, coiffed and be-heeled, carting her brand-attired toddler to endless expensive lunches.

I should say this though; most yummy mummies are stay-at-home mums, but not all stay-at-home mums are yummy mummies.

Stay-at-home mummies all around the UK (and the world) saw red over their chai lattes and a slew of responses from all and sundry on on-line newspaper articles and their comment boxes denounced the elitist Cherie and sought to provide their views on this oft-debated issue for women should women put their children before their career?

Before getting everyone's knickers into a twist, I think the message Cherie was trying to get across is that young girls shouldn't grow up thinking the only option in life is to look good in order to ensnare Prince Charming, who will then take care of them until the end of days.

To put it simply, what Cherie was trying to say is: how can we expect our daughters to aspire to a good education and a career if we, as mothers, have opted out and chosen to stay at home?

Then there was the article written by Anne Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic Magazine that sought to expose the lie that women can "have it all".

An intellectual giant a Princeton Professor of Law no less who has served as senior aide to Hillary Clinton, Slaughter says that only if you are boss of your own schedule can you really achieve any meaningful life-work balance.

For most women and men, it's not so easy to close the shop when the school nurse rings to tell you your child has a temperature. Slaughter resigned at the high point of her career as Clinton's aide in order to spend more time with her teenage sons. The message she is sending young women is clear: that a career is an asset, but motherhood is an imperative.

I do sympathise with this; I also imagine most working mothers who have fulfilling careers can't wait to rush home at the end of the working day. It is also a matter of personal choice, circumstances and seeking balance.

In Brunei, it is heartening to see figures indicating our lady folks' preference to work as a means of being self-sufficient.

Deputy Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports YB Datin Paduka Hjh Adina Othman was in the news recently on how Bruneian women now earn, on average, the third highest income in the world. Since 1971, the participation of women in the labour force has jumped from 20 per cent to 58 per cent in 2010. Women make up about 50.4 per cent of the civil service.

Admittedly, life in Brunei is not the same as life in the UK; given the cost of living here, it is perhaps easier for a woman in Brunei to pursue a career as well as to have a family life.

YB Datin Hjh Adina added that with the increase in working women, men would also need to adjust their expectations and also learn new skills. And that parenting responsibilities should be shared by both mother and father. Well said, YB.

While Anne Marie Slaughter's tale struck a chord in many working mothers, perhaps Cherie was a little harsh on the young women of this generation.

It can also be said that the young men of this generation recognise that bringing up children nowadays is not solely the responsibility of the wife. At least in Brunei, most women I know are yummy mummies, working or otherwise, and are very much aware of living a balanced and fulfilled life. It may not be easy, but perhaps we should all, both men and women, view a work-life balance as imperative. The Brunei Times