We're coming up on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, on Dec. 10, 1948, affirmed recognition of the dignity and inherent freedom of all people around the world — regardless of gender. We're also approaching the 40th anniversary of the Dec. 18, 1979 adoption by the UN General Assembly of a treaty calling for the "elimination of all forms of discrimination against women."
Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do.
For example, I was part of a group of women who gathered at a private social function in Winnipeg when the conversation turned to managing their hectic schedules between career and child care.
"What do you do?" one woman asked a young mother.
"I'm just a mom," she muttered, with bowed head and downcast eyes.
I have heard this troubling response more than once. It exposes the glaring meaning of the word "just," along with its gestures.
It speaks volumes about how hard-working mothers see themselves and their value relative to employed moms. And what they see and feel mirrors society's attitudes toward them — that what they do is not important because caring for children does not contribute to the economy.
This couldn't be further from the truth but perception becomes truth — the one that matters.
Mothering still viewed as secondary role
In the 1950s, the women's liberation movement rightfully sought gender equality from family life to the workplace, setting up a storm of "mommy wars." Historically and biologically driven, the role and responsibility of mothers has been, and to a large extent still is, primarily fulfilled by the biological mother, whether employed outside the home or not.
Unfortunately, self-sacrificing moms have absorbed the same negative attitudes, as seen too often in the lack of pride and self-worth in their role.
In our busy world, mothering is viewed as a secondary role we must fit in with the more "important" facets of our lives. The result creates social and economic pressures in terms of child care, and a personal conflict for many employed mothers as well, who may feel a gnawing sense of guilt.
As Andrea Mrozek, family program director at Cardus — a Canadian public policy think tank — wrote in a recent Winnipeg Free Press opinion piece, "the plight of the North American woman is that she can be all she wants to be, just don't bring motherhood into the picture."
A poll released in May 2013 by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada found that 76 per cent of Canadians believe it is best for children under six to be at home with at least one parent. These results were consistent regardless of income, gender or working arrangements, and to a lesser extent, regional lines.
If parents cannot be home, they prefer options closest to the home environment — starting with relatives, then a neighbourhood home daycare, followed by other arrangements. The last choice for their children is centre-based daycare.
So what is the underlying problem?
Economic double standard
It lies in our value system. There is an assumption it is women's main responsibility to care for children due to biology and caregiving, in general. Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, noted in a 2012 piece for The Atlantic that "If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal."
And in her 2007 book The Real Wealth of Nations, Riane Eisler — a social scientist, activist and attorney — argues our values are distorted by the economic double standard that devalues anything associated with women and femininity. She characterizes the present system as not only outdated, but the foundation for our current problems, such as pay disparity favouring men, and limited career choices for women.
There are solutions on the horizon. Eisler suggests society's leaders change the economic rules in terms of structures from families to schools to businesses and governments, with caring as a core cultural value.
For example, businesses like the SAS Institute — the world's largest privately-held software company — demonstrate "corporate responsibility to enduring commitment to employees, environment and communities." It reaps the benefits of caring policies and practices in dollars and cents.
Although one can see some movement toward equality in the home and workplace in some segments of society, attitudes are difficult and slow to change. Finding a balance is essential so no family member becomes collateral damage.
As Slaughter says, if we truly valued breadwinning and caregiving equally, we would value male caregivers as much as we value female breadwinners, and every permutation and combination in between.
That would move us a step closer to "the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women" the UN has called for, nearly 70 years after it declared "the inherent dignity and … equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family."
And then maybe no one would have to feel like they were "just a mom."
The anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be recognized around the world on Dec. 10.