In many societies, it still seems natural that the man works and supports the family and the woman stays home and raises the children.
“Women are trying to change this situation and to satisfy their needs. One such need – to work, fulfil their potential and have professional ambitions – is just as important to them as it is for men. We live in a neoliberal environment, where the greatest declared value is success, often understood as career success,” Dr Eglė Kačkutė of the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University (VU), who is researching representations of motherhood in literature, said.
According to the researcher, the way we speak about motherhood in the public domain, what the status of motherhood is and how women themselves reflect on this role also depend on how women behave and accept this role after becoming mothers.
Functions attributed to mothers
Dr Kačkutė says that although mothers, like fathers, usually manage to reconcile their careers or at least a job and motherhood, the more important question is whether all women find it more difficult to do it than men do and why. This can be determined by the place and image of women in society.
“The image of mothers in our culture is historically constructed as the image of those responsible for raising children, and this is understood much more widely than the physical care of children. In Lithuania, mothers have long been depicted as guardians of the Lithuanian language, they are also responsible for the transfer of culture to their children in a broader sense. Often that is exactly how they see themselves,” the researcher noted.
According to Dr Kačkutė, the image of motherhood that Lithuanian women across the world are aware of is the discourse that actively encourages them to preserve the Lithuanian language, which poses many difficult challenges. This may even make Lithuanian women feel like bad mothers, if the transfer of culture fails.
The transfer of language and culture, just like motherhood itself, is not a natural effortless process as is often suggested in Western literature on migration. It is hard work and a great emotional load borne by mothers.
The essay The Silence of Mothers by the Lithuanian writer Dalia Staponkutė who lives in Cyprus manages to depict these problems. It describes two female characters, two migrant mothers. One of the characters is based on the life of the writer herself – a multilingual mother who is very committed to passing the Lithuanian language on to her children, but who understands that her children will not be purely Lithuanians. She finds it difficult to witness the decline of the Lithuanian language on her daughter’s lips because they speak English and Greek better. The other mother does not speak Lithuanian with her children and she does not consider it to be a tragedy, but she is also depicted as traumatized, unhappy, cut off from her children, lonely, and incapable of establishing emotional contact with them.
Portraits of emigrant/expatriate mothers revealed
According to Dr Kačkutė, the topic of the role of motherhood, especially in international families, is important because today, to be more precise, before the quarantine, we lived in an age of hypermobility. “People travel a lot and this leads to building multi-ethnic relationships from which children are born. Raising children in such transnational families has its own specifics, which is interesting to explore and understand.”
“The research on highly educated mothers living and working in Geneva revealed quite an obvious fact that the mothers who came to Geneva because of their own prestigious, well-paid job and had children while working, all retained their jobs and returned to their jobs after their maternity leave, because they had the financial possibilities to hire nannies for their children. However, for women who came to Geneva because of their partner’s or husband’s career, it was very difficult or practically impossible to reconcile professional life and motherhood,” the researcher said.
According to the researcher, the most interesting part of such stories starts from the question what happens when one member of the family continues his/her career and the other does not. Although these are very intimate decisions taken by two people, it is very important to understand how such decisions are made. We often hear answers that this happened naturally – a career did not work out, so I became a mother or my husband did not have a job at the time when we had children, so he naturally took over the major burden of caring for the children.
However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that a decision was in fact taken at some stage. Often the women whose careers did not work out regret that they were not able to follow a career, or get a job because their husbands would not pay a nanny to look after their children.
“The women caring for their children whom I interviewed experience difficult internal conflicts, they say that they had been learning a lot, had worked and were happy throughout their lives, but when they came to Geneva, they realized that they could not work, because they no longer had a professional identity,” Dr Kačkutė explained.
Decision – to take turns in being vulnerable
In addition, there are strong cultural structures in Geneva – the bourgeois family values are highly respected there.
Dr Kačkutė explains that the bourgeois family means a family model where the man’s duty is to earn a living and to support the family, while the woman’s duty is to care for the family. The concept of “care” includes not only the physical care of the child, but also cultural and educational training, so that they can continue to belong to the bourgeois class when they grow up. Such family models exist almost everywhere in Western Europe and they are further enforced by the state system. “In Geneva, for example, the tax system is structured so that for a family with children it is more worthwhile for one person to work and for the other to take care of the children. The education system is also well adapted to this family model, where one person must not work or must be able to afford a nanny in order to take care of the children of primary school age,” Dr Kačkutė explained.
However, the researcher is convinced that a couple can find many and even very creative ways of combining a career and raising a child. There are cases where the partners discuss how they will live, so that both can work and have children before they get married and have children. For example, they may agree that they will alternate their careers (EU public companies often have contracts of this duration). As a result, for the first three years, the whole family lives where the wife has a contract, then the next three years – where the husband gets a job. Of course, such plans do not always work, because they can be influenced by many external circumstances. The researcher, however, found this model interesting, because it is based on an ethical (fair) decision.
“If one person sacrifices his/her career, s/he finds himself/herself in a very vulnerable position, and not only financially. When both people agree that they will alternate being vulnerable, they will assume an ethical position that obliges them to understand what a vulnerable person feels like, how to create a sense of security and trust each other at the time.”
When asked how women could more easily reconcile motherhood, career and mobility, the researcher claims that, first of all we must realize that these processes do not occur naturally; we must make decisions about them. No one naturally loses his/her career and starts taking care of children.
In addition, national programmes must be in place to help expatriate families to adapt in a foreign country and its labour market. This should also be done by international companies that employ people from different countries.
“Large multinational companies need to change their attitudes toward employees more quickly and realize that they are not just employing one person, but a family. If people who wish to work for an international company must move from country to country when they are of reproductive age, companies need to consider not only the employee, but also of his/her family – to create conditions for both parents to work – live or remotely”, the researcher believes.
"Developing a New Network of Researchers on Contemporary European Motherhood MotherNet” is a project that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 952366.