Kiliza turns five! I cannot think of a better way to mark this moment than to publish an article by a former colleague I particularly admire, Wairu Kinyori. Based in Nairobi, Wairu talks about one of the most challenging choices she’s had to make in her life: taking a break from her highly successful career to raise her children. The freedom to choose this path is for Wairu a more authentic expression of feminism than trying to have it all, all the time.
Recently I made a “bold” and perhaps one of the most feminist decisions in my life. I left a senior leadership role in one of the top International development organisations – what many would consider a dream job – to take care of my 3 young girls and rebuild the foundations of my marriage. To the casual feminist this perhaps looks like the most anti-feminist thing I could ever have done. In fact, if my younger feminist self was there at that moment, she would have been screaming and carrying placards calling me all sorts of names – including being a sell-out. This decision has made me reflect a lot on feminism; especially what it means to me – being an ambitious young woman wanting so much from herself, wanting to conquer the world, to contribute and bring her whole self into making the world a better place. My interrogation and striping down of feminism has brought me to several conclusions (which I will delve deeper into below).
However, at the root of it all, the pertinent conclusion was that my choice of family over career at this specific time in my life, is indeed the most feminist decision I could ever have taken. In this journey of unearthing the complexities of being an ambitious, career-driven, feminist, Christian, young African woman with a young family; I have reflected on the following three concepts that shaped my decision.
For a long time in the feminist discourse, public life has been esteemed over private life. This is reinforced by capitalism, where rewards to the contribution in the publics (control of resources and capital, power and recognition) appear to be more valued than those in the private. Therefore, women have and continue to clamour to be part of public life, be it in the boardroom, leadership in organisations or in politics. Feminism seems to have become about women working and scaling up the corporate ladder. Previously, this was important and continues to be, since there is still such little representation of women in leadership and decision-making spaces. Yes, of course we must have women in all spheres of decision-making because, after all, we are half of the world’s population. However, this is only one part of what feminism is. Feminism should also be the freedom for a woman to choose to contribute her time, energy and knowledge in the private. The private should be valued even perhaps more than the public because after all it is the centre and the genesis of the society. A woman’s choice to be at home and raise her family should be recognised as a meaningful and valuable contribution to her family and the society.
While growing up, making a choice to stay home and raise my family was not an option – I was literally groomed to enter the workforce. The mantra was “read hard in school, get a good job, earn lots of money and be independent”. There’s actually an old Kiswahili song that speaks about this philosophy. Basically, all I had known for 30 odd years was this mantra – and I did believe in it.
The irony though was at some point, as I approached my 30s, a new expectation emerged where I was miraculously supposed to now get a husband to marry me and start procreating.
It was also assumed that I would automatically and inherently know how to be a mother and a wife, yet I had not really been adequately groomed for these roles. I did eventually get a husband to “marry me” and did get children; concurrently, I did ascend the “corporate” ladder but ultimately there was a price to pay. You see, the thing is there are only 24 hours a day and in those 24 hours we presumably sleep 7 – 8 hours; work for another 8 – 10 hours (on a good day), commute to work and if we are lucky spend 2 to 3 hours with our children. Of these 2 – 3 hours we spend with our children (if at all we do), we are so tired from work or are distracted because we have so much work that it is a race to the finish line – which is bedtime.
As a working mum, you learn to live with guilt – which is something the feminist discourse does not tell you about.
Because as a working mum it’s you will miss all the small stuff – first step, first words, you are unlikely to be the one to potty train; basically you outsource parts of your parenting. All this crushes you and makes you so guilty – so there is ultimately a price and that price is family. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my family at the alter of career and so I made the choice to prioritise my family. I have realised that, to be truly feminist, a woman has to be able to experience and live the full version of herself, this is important. Whether this is work or family or both.
A woman should be able to choose the life she wants and it should be ok. Many women do not have this choice – they have to work to fend for their families, they have to leave their children to be cared for by others and whilst many enjoy the thrill of work, many times it crushes them to leave their children behind and miss significant parts of their children’s growth. Career women have learnt to live with the guilt, to accept it as part of their being and hope that when all is said and done their children will be ok; their marriages will be fine. I count myself as lucky that I have had this privilege to choose, meaning that this choice for me is a true manifestation of feminism.
My second reflection was whether – as women we can have it all? I’ve read so many articles on this – of course some argue that of course we can, others call having it all hogwash. My perspective is that women can have it all but not at the same time. I remember distinctly when the concept of scaling up and scaling down was introduced to me. It was one warm evening in 2017, I was having drinks with two of my accomplished friends (who are also mothers) while overlooking a busy street in Hanoi, Vietnam. We were quizzing the more accomplished one how she manages to keep it all together and still be able to achieve so much in her career at the same time.
She spewed wisdom – wisdom that blew my mind. Our careers are a journey and at different points in your journey you can scale up your career, scale down or remain at the same place, all depending on the demands in your life. Our careers are a journey and not a staircase.
So, for instance, if your personal life is demanding, e.g. you have young children or perhaps have to take care of an ailing loved one, you can choose to take on a less time demanding role/job to free up your time to meet the demands in your personal life. When those demands ease up and you have more capacity, you can opt to scale up and take on a more demanding role/job.
Sometimes we can also decide to stay in a role for longer because it helps us have the balance with the other demands in our lives. Of course, there are so many women who do not have the option to scale up or down due to their circumstances. This is why my next point on building feminist organisations is so crucial.
This idea of scaling up and scaling down was so liberating for me because it made me look at career in a different way – to look at it as a journey. A journey which I could navigate on my terms; where career was just another element of my life and not the only thing defining me. Just as I have had the opportunity to spend time building my career – reading hard etc; it is now my opportunity scale down and put in my 10,000 hours (apparently, the magic number for expertise) in raising my children (3 under 5 years) and figuring out my relatively young marriage.
To mention a related conversation, I once discussed with a professional colleague my decision to scale down, which he was totally against, and I argued that people take a sabbatical to teach, write books, reflect etc – I was taking a sabbatical for family, and that should count for something.
My final reflection on feminism brought me to the idea of building feminist organisations. I worked for an organisation where feminism emerged as a buzz word – together with southern voices, localisation of aid, shifting the power. All fantastic concepts, which if put into practice would be truly transformative, but sadly in many cases remained just as empty words in strategies, documents and Skype calls. What does a truly feminist organisation look like – I tried to envision what such an organisation would be.
This would be an organisation that fosters and rewards a collaborative environment where the collective is more important than the individual. An organisation that recognised that all its employees and partners had a uniqueness they contributed to the organisation. An organisation that looked after its women, be it period leave, having sanitary towels or tampons available or at least 6 months maternity leave and job security, and having flexible working hours for parents. An organisation that understand that there must be boundaries between work and life, as well both being well integrated.
This organisation will require a different type of leadership, a different mindset and different policies. A feminist organisation recognises that a woman does not have to make a choice between work and family; that she can integrate her family life whilst having a fulfilling career life – and even where she chooses her family, that there is space for re-entry into the organisation. Something as simple as having a creche at work, a breastfeeding room or a working from home option can make the world of a difference.
I believe governments must also play a role in ensuring women (and indeed men) can have well integrated lives and this starts with having enabling policies.
Covid 19 has been devastating to many. However, one thing it has allowed us is to see that at the end of it all we are human – with crazy spouses walking in their underwear, children barging into our calls and cats strolling on our keyboards – that we do have other lives other than work and those lives matter as well.
Even as I remain hopeful that more women will have better choices for their lives and that more organisations will adopt feminist principles, I realise that we are far off from realising these things, but I am hopeful that if more people advocate for better, then perhaps this will be realised in time for my daughters to enjoy that world.
Photo credit: dailylife.com