Women in the '50s stayed home to be good housewives and mothers. In the '60s, they dumped bras and other constricting underwear in a trash bin to protest the Miss America contest. In the '70s, they championed feminism and a woman's right to be at the workplace. Women in the '80s, well, they grappled with the question that plagues many mothers today: Should a mom work or stay home?
Not even Pinays, who enjoy the benefits of having a yaya, are spared the battle scars in what has been described as the "Mommy Wars," a conflict that has been ongoing for about 40 years now. Apparently, the answer to the question has not been settled. Renowned relationship expert Dr. Phil McGraw himself devoted a whole show pitting stay-at-home moms against moms who work. Dr. Phil's quick fix? "Make the choice that brings you closest to fulfilling your hopes and dreams."
It sounds nice but is the choice really that easy to make? Are Pinays able to just drop everything and "follow their hearts," so to speak? "The talk of choice also tends to downplay the fact that no personal choice is made in a cultural vacuum," says Cathy Young, author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve Political Equality. "The belief that women who stay home are better mothers is definitely in the cultural bloodstream." Feminism aside, men are still expected to bring home the bacon, and women are supposed to raise the children.
Some are lucky, and are able to do both. "It's not easy," admits Helen, 28, a personnel officer in a multinational company and a single mother to her 6-year-old son, Derek. When she gave birth six years ago, Helen resumed working after her maternity leave and has continued working since. One of the main reasons, she admits, was that she needed the money to support her son. "My then boyfriend had stopped providing me an allowance, and I had no one to rely on but myself."
But it wasn't just that. "I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom," she reveals. "I was happy with my kid, but being naturally ambitious, I wanted a career as well. And feeling ko, kaya ko."
It was a continuous struggle. Even with her sales and marketing background, she'd reject job offers that required her to travel or do out of town work. "I became very particular about time and salary," she confides. "Hindi pwede 'yung basta-basta lang. If I felt I needed a raise, I would really ask for it. If I had to be home for my son's foundation day, I would really tell my boss about it."
It was a good thing that Helen worked an eight to five gig. "I'm punching out by five or five-thirty--I need to rush home to tutor my son, play with him, and tuck him to bed. That's already quality time for us."
The Best Of Both Worlds
Emily Abrera, Director of Bank of the Philippine Islands and Chairperson of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, used to bring her daughter Joanna to her father's photography studio where Emily apprenticed, starting when Joanna was just a few weeks old. She'd work in the studio from 10AM to 4PM.
"I simply accepted that I needed to look after Joanna and I did, in the best way I could," Emily narrates. "I was lucky that my circumstances allowed me to do that and work at the same time."
Through the years, Emily would become the first woman president of one of the country's biggest advertising agencies, balancing motherhood and a career quite comfortably. But not all moms can do this, although Emily is an example of what is possible. Thus, the dilemma still exists.
Even if the choice to stay home was an option, many women don't feel comfortable with that choice either. Emily's daughter Joanna Abrera-Prado, former stay-at-home mom, and now marketing director of a multimedia company, says that, during these difficult times, the benefit of a two-income household could weigh heavily on a stay-at-home mom's conscience. "During the periods I was staying home, I sometimes felt I was putting a heavier burden on my husband to earn enough for our needs as a family," she says. "I know, traditionally, that's how society views our roles, but I was raised in a family where both parents contributed because they could, so I always felt that's how it would be with my own family--that both my husband and I would share in the responsibility because we both could."
The Housewife Fantasy
In contrast, lawyer Maricel Santos, 36, says that despite graduating at the top five of her class from the country's top law school, and being partner of the law firm she works for, all she really wants to do is...(drum roll, please) be a stay-at-home mom to her three young children. And, though she and her husband, who's also a lawyer, live comfortably, they both feel she still has to contribute to the family's income if they want their children to study in good schools, live comfortably, and plan for retirement.
"We keep telling ourselves that, at least one of us--and that would be me just because I'm the woman, or maybe just because I have the lesser income--would be able to ‘retire' in a couple of years to watch the kids, but it's not happening," she says thoughtfully. "We've been telling each other that line for the past five years!"
What has been happening, Maricel says, is life: the kids have started to go to school, one of her children needed speech therapy, birthday parties, and others--all of which needed a somewhat hefty income to support.
If one is able to make the choice, given circumstances not necessarily just economic, it is a choice a mom makes together with her husband, or other caregivers if you're a single mom (perhaps your own parents). "I think how that's best achieved (raising kids as a stay-at-home vis-a-vis a career mom) depends on the sort of values each person has, and the dynamics of the couple raising the kids," says Joanna. "I've been fortunate that my spouse believes in being just as hands-on in raising the kids and seeing to their daily needs as he would expect me to be. It helps when your husband's just as willing to literally cook the bacon he brings home and help get the kids fed as he is to go to work to bring home that bacon."
It's Your Choice
And whatever the choice, the key to living with that choice is not to feel guilty about it, says Joanna. "Believe that it's possible to make your children feel just as loved and attended to as the kids of mothers who stay at home and not work so long as you strive to strike a balance. The kids will appreciate seeing the totality of your person--an individual who can incorporate work and home with joy."
All things said, there is a brighter side to this female dilemma and, according to Young, it is this: "When it comes to work-life balance, women have far more options than men, including more freedom to choose lower-paying but more flexible and fulfilling jobs. Men, by contrast, are often trapped by more rigid social expectations and economic pressures." This, perhaps, is the "answer" to the question that is the cause of the Mommy Wars: The options are there, and every day, technology has given women more and more choices. Mommies just have to...dare we say it? Choose.