The Balancing Act – Business Woman and Caregiver
The day had finally come. Over fifty women sat in a large circle at the inaugural event of our group, Conscious Exchanges. In addition to opportunities for networking and showcasing their products and services, they were able to engage in a discussion on the theme, “Women Can’t Have it All?” It was during this session that I realized that women of all ages, and different circumstances, all strive to achieve that balance between family and work, whilst remaining true to their own sense of self.
Being part of the conceptualization of Conscious Exchanges, I was grateful to contribute to something that aims to economically empower women and, at the same time, recognizes that earning money is not the only priority. In our preparations for the event, I came face-to-face with my own anxiety around whether I had the strength to fulfil my professional and personal goals. At 30, I am happy to have had many experiences in my professional life, but it is a part of my life that consumes me. Despite the fact that having it all for me includes a husband, children, worldwide travel and business success, I worry whether I will have to choose between profession and family, when the time comes to assume an increased role as caregiver to immediate and extended family. I am concerned as well that I may not be able to financial provide for those under my care.
As a woman, I receive constant messages about who I should be and what I should do in order to be a ‘good woman.’ A good woman keeps a clean house, can cook, takes care of her husband and children and is always well dressed. In recent times, she is required to be smart and charming, able to make her own money and excel in her field. I have been brought up with the promise of the happily ever after, with sitcoms originating from outside of my country promoting the nuclear family model as being the ideal. When I reflect on the Cosby Show, I marvelled at how the character of the mother maintained a successful legal career, a loving and supportive relationship, raised five children without help and was able to miraculously solve any challenges within an episode. Most days I feel like I missed the memo that would offer the secret to that particular version of success.
Kimtara is a wife, mother of three who runs a business with her husband. “My life is extremely hectic.” It is 9pm and she has finally put the three children, ages two, five and six, to bed. Although her family takes priority in her life, she works just as hard as her husband to ensure that their business grows.
The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, in a report in 2012 on female entrepreneurship in developing countries, highlighted the trend for married women, particularly with young children, to be entrepreneurs as opposed to waged laborers. To me the route of entrepreneurship offers the flexibility to better manage the dual roles but often signifies great challenges in the management of time and energy towards making sure that the business stays afloat.
Kimtara enjoys being an entrepreneur and running a business with her husband has had many positives. However, there is the added pressure for the business to work, as it is the bread and butter to provide for the family. Speaking to her it is apparent that her weeks are very structured, with timetables and work schedules built around the activities of the children. She is able to keep on top of her professional obligations with the use of her smart phone. She is fortunate to have a husband that shares work and home responsibilities but stresses the importance of the extended family in offering various forms of support in caring for the children, particularly in times of economic stress. This support, coupled with open communication and inclusion of all family members, have been contributing factors in helping to manage her various roles.
The role of women, and men, in our new societies is a discussion that needs to be explored in greater depth. I find it difficult to encourage economic empowerment and completely ignore the fact that women’s lives include their roles as mothers and caregivers. World Bank statistics highlight that between 1980 and 2008, there has been an increase of 50.2 to 51.8 per cent respectively. Women are slowly but surely gaining access to education and are participating in the economic spheres of many economies. Nonetheless, the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development confirms that there are still barriers to economic opportunities for women, particularly given caregiving responsibilities, amongst other factors. As a Caribbean woman, the figures presented leaves me to ponder on how many of those women are actually married women and how many are in alternative family structures that may place women as the sole provider for the family.
Caribbean societies have historically been characterised by alternative family structures. Sheila Stuart, a Caribbean researcher on gender issues, in 1996 observed that the region has family structures ranging from married, common-law, visiting spouses, single parent, and extended family. The role of women in our society has almost always been that of provider and caregiver. This has been explained to derive from slavery, however since the era of industrialization the increase of alternative family models and the participation of women in the workforce in even developed countries have exhibited similar trends.
A culture of female-headed households
I am often asked when I will start my family. As a single girl, I am advised to go it alone as many older women take a view that being a single mother is a viable option in my society. As a report by the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council in 2007 noted, in Barbados 44 per cent of households and headed by women. Many of these households may, at the same time, include multigenerational or extended families, which increases financial and social obligations for women.
Maria, a proud single mother of a beautiful two-year-old son and a budding entrepreneur, laments not being part of a formal nuclear family unit. She sees the value in what she describes as “building an empire” with a male partner to combine resources and ensure economic growth and assistance in raising children. Building her business over the last year has been a rewarding experience and it has been able to sustain her enough to pay the bills, but not enough to fulfil her desire to own her own home for her and her son. A Report published in 2008 titled, ‘Child Support, Poverty and Gender Equality: Policy Considerations for Reform,’ noted that the existence of female headed households demonstrates that women can have a relative amount of autonomy but at the same time, it discusses the fact that many women in these households have a higher likelihood to experience poverty.
Her extended family plays an important role in providing economic, financial and physical support and she is blessed to have her son’s father play an active role in his life. The agreed visiting agreements she describes as a “double edge sword.” Being an entrepreneur, she is able to use the days that her son is with his father to concentrate solely on her business and can work around her son’s schedule when he is with her. This is not always the case as the 2008 report highlights that, “the care of children necessarily then involves something of a struggle between mothers and non-residential fathers for defining and attaining adequate levels of financial contribution to the care of children.”
Providing care for the elderly
Yet another reality is the fact that, along with Japan, Barbados has one of the highest numbers of centenarians in the world. I have longevity on both sides of my family with my maternal great grandmother living until almost 105, and my paternal grandmother will turn 102, God willing, this year. The main responsibility of care has always fallen on the single woman in the family, with support from other family members. Being the only girl in Barbados, on both sides of the family, I contemplate how I will manage this responsibility when the time comes.
Like Roseann, I would want to be there for my aging relatives, particularly in cases where they fall ill. Roseann had just been called to the bar that would allow her to be a practicing attorney when her mother’s health declined due to her diabetic condition. She made the decision to rent out her home and moved back into her mother’s residence, along with her sister, to ensure that her mother had constant care and attention. Being a former social worker, she did not want her mother to suffer the same neglect that she saw in some of the cases during her previous career.
According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, “The time taken up and the emotional burden created by these dual responsibilities often interfere directly or indirectly with the conduct of business for women in ways that do not apply to the majority of men.” Likewise, Roseann’s journey has been an emotionally, financially and physically challenging one, but she is grateful that she has sisters and brothers that contribute where needed. This support means that she can schedule time to engage in exercise and other activities that enhance her emotional wellbeing to ensure she does not burn out.
The responsibility of care has meant that her professional obligations come secondary to her mother’s needs. Financially, she expresses that having her own business means that she is able to rearrange her schedule but that late payments from clients have an impact on her ability to manage financial obligations. She laments that there is not enough policy and legislative frameworks to support families that are taking care of elderly relatives.
Conceptualizing a new model for greater balance
In most cases, the responsibility for care takes priority in many women’s lives. Though economic independence is a necessity, I cannot ignore the fact that we as women cannot separate our role as caregiver from our professional life. Policy and legislative changes that encourage decent work and allow both men and women the flexibility to handle caregiving duties are essential. However, I have realised that there is a need to rethink the way societies and family structures are viewed to support the fact that women are increasingly becoming part of the economic structure. The inclusion of an extended family has proven to be a source of financial, emotional and physical support with and without a male partner.
I also recognize that we as women have to embrace the men in the society to encourage them to share the economic space and join us in the role of caregivers within the family structure. Roberta Clarke, Regional Program Director of UN Women in the Caribbean, made a powerful statement, “I think that we are recognizing that achieving gender equality is also getting to value each other and breaking the stereotypes, that say this is what a man should do, and this is what a woman should do. In fact, achieving gender equality is creating the opportunities for all of us to realize who we are and who we want to be without expectations that keep us confined”.
I view Conscious Exchange as being essential to creating the space for women to share perspectives on issues relating to family life and other social challenges they face, whilst also expanding their social and professional network. This will prove to be invaluable in these challenging economic times.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.