Can women who work create a balance between their careers and their young children’s needs?
Based on the year 2000 census figures, 22 per cent of Egyptian households are headed by women bread-winners, and with over 33% of the population below the poverty line, it is taken for granted that both parents have to work to make ends meet.
Months before pregnant working women give birth, the question of whether and when they will go back to work full-time is one that they are constantly asked by both themselves and others. While Egyptian law entitles women to up to two years unpaid maternity leave in addition to the initial three months paid maternity leave, many women have no choice but to go back to work immediately once the three months are up for financial reasons:
Mothers who can afford to take more time off, however, are faced with choices that range from finding other ways of balancing between work and motherhood, to leaving work altogether and becoming a stay-at-home mother (SAHM), to going back to work full-time.
There is no end to the debates, arguments and outright insults that have been exchanged between SAHM of young children and working mothers. One working woman tells the story of the time she entered a discussion group for SAHM on the Internet and was made to feel that because of her decision to continue working, her children would suffer from her absence and grow up to be deranged mass-murders.
Working mothers, on the other hand, insist that the benefits of the workplace — the stimulation, adult company, financial independence, and sense of accomplishment — gives them a sense of self-worth that their children pick up on and appreciate. They claim that the frustration and boredom a full-time mother can feel may even create a less than ideal family environment, putting stress on both the parent-child and husband-wife relationships. The main issue, working mothers argue, is not whether a mother works in the home or in the work force, but the kind of mother she is that matters. Working in and of itself usually has very little effect on children – more importantly, it is the mother’s state of mind as she raises her children that most profoundly affects them.
Dina Abdel-Wahab ‘93, mother of a 5-year old boy and managing director of a daycare center in Heliopolis says that the majority of mothers start bringing their children to the center when they are two years old, and that about 60% of these women then start to work full-time, while the rest either work part-time, freelance, or stay at home and send their child to daycare so that he/she can start to socialize with other children. In general, an informal survey reveal that most Egyptian mothers who can afford to do so usually compromise by staying at home full-time with their first child until he/she is at least a year-and-a-half old before returning to work full-time. With second and third children, most mothers usually return to work full-time within the first six months.
But while journalism allows the luxury of freelancing, some professions do not. Dina Kadry, mother of a one-and-a-half year old girl, was a SAHM for a year before returning to the work-force full-time. She admits that whereas as a SAHM she felt “bored and worthless”, as a working mother she now has a sense of self-worth and is more financially independent. On the other hand, she adds, working full-time has made her more irritable and exhausted. “If I could find a way of working part-time or from home, I would,” she says, “but as an accountant, my field is limited to working full-time in an office.”
Would more SAHM consider going back to work if society and the government introduced support systems for families, such as subsidized day care and more flexible working hours for new mothers? Last year, the government introduced a new scheme which allowed women to work half-time for half-pay. Reda Abdel-Moneim, an engineer who used to work under this scheme, says that realistically, “it ended up being half-time for quarter-pay after all the insurance costs and so on were deducted from your salary.” A few months after trying the scheme out, she had no choice but to go back to work full-time.
Soha Taher, who works in the tourism business, also had no choice but to go back to work 30 days after her son was born. “In tourism, there is no such thing as unpaid leave,” she says. “I either had to go back to work or resign, and I really didn’t want to resign and start all over again a year or two later.”
Howayda Sharabash ‘91, on the other hand, had no problem giving up work to take care of her daughter, now almost 5. “It’s very hard to bring up a child on a part-time basis when you come home from work and at weekends” she says. “How can you teach your child right from wrong and guide their development when you’re not there to see what they’re doing for most of the day?” she wonders.
Editor Thaneya Mahmoud points out that its not how much time you spend with your child, but what you do with that time that matters. Mother of a four-and-a half year old girl, Mahmoud went back to work when her daughter was 20 days old, leaving the baby with her parents. “I started feeling bored and worthless,” she says. “I needed to go out and be productive and meet other adults. I love my work as much as I love my family. Now when I come home from work, the time I spend with my daughter is extra special. It’s not just me bored and frustrated and watching TV and cooking and cleaning all day with her whining for attention.” Mahmoud does admit, however, that if her parents had not been available to take care of her daughter she would have thought twice about going back to work so soon and leaving her daughter with a nanny.
As young children themselves, today’s generation of mothers were usually left with their grandparents or other family members when their mothers worked. But with more and more of these women now leaving their own children at daycare centers or with nannies, how the next generation turns should definitely give us an idea of the positive and negative effects of today’s working mothers. What’s important to remember, however, as the debate between SAHM and working mothers rages, is that most employed and at-home mothers, have far more in common than they have differences…. Whether they’ve decided to be at work or at home, they’re doing what they feel is best for their children and themselves.