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When my husband and I leave for work together every morning, we have completely different experiences. I keep thinking that I am making a choice to go to work and leave my child. My husband walks out with the satisfying knowledge that he is fulfilling his duty as a father and husband by going out to provide for his family.
I am guilt-stricken that I’m not living up to the standards of ideal motherhood, and I’ll once again spend the day with half my mind at home. My husband has never displayed signs of having any similar qualms about working. His choices are broadly supported by our community, and unlike me, he is never asked at social gatherings if he is “still working,” or questioned about who cares for his son, cooks meals, or cleans the house.
While my experiences as a working mother in America are in many ways similar to those of other American women, the frustration I feel is strongly tied to my identity as an American Muslim. I had not realized, and I think most young Muslim American women do not know, that while our community has progressed enough to encourage women’s education, it has not made similar strides in supporting women’s careers. Instead, the standards we seek to impose come from a tangled mix of cultural, religious, and social perceptions which are impossible for working women to satisfy. The result is the kind of guilt that I battle daily, and the kind of pressure that leads so many educated Muslim American women to forego their careers. The same progressiveness that led to the current support for women’s education must guide us to a new thinking about working mothers. The paradigm of gender roles in the modern Muslim American family must shift to accommodate the realities of life in this time and country, and to ensure that Muslim American women have the chance to flourish both personally and professionally.
We must begin by reassessing our narrow views about motherhood and maternal love. Among the most important sources of our perceptions about maternal excellence is the Quran, which has several examples of mothers we venerate. Each of these women exhibited certain characteristics which have come to define what we consider an excellent mother. There is Mariam (Mary), the mother of Prophet Isa (Jesus) who faced the condemnation of her community to give birth to her child, and steadfastly supported him through terrible tribulations. There is Hajira (Hagar), the mother of Prophet Ishmael, who ran frantically between the hills of Safa and Marwah to seek water for her dying child. Her devotion and selflessness are celebrated by Muslims to this day as they follow her footsteps to traverse between those same hills. There is Aasiya, the adoptive mother of Prophet Moses, who turned away from worldly goods and faced the wrath of a king to protect and support her child.
These mothers loved their children fiercely, took great chances to protect them, and above all, put their children before themselves. It seems that our community expects to see the true reflection of these ideals in the parenting of stay-at-home mothers (the other source of our perceptions about ideal motherhood). Mothers are expected to express their love through clean homes, homemade dinners, and constant vigilance over playmates, exam schedules, and extra-curricular activities. More importantly, they are expected to express their selflessness by choosing to dedicate their daily lives to their children. If they choose to work and entrust others with the care of their children, they automatically fall short.
This is an impractical standard and fails to take into account the benefits working mothers provide to the family. Because working mothers have more limited time, they are more motivated to maximize the quality of the time they spend with their children. They manifest their maternal selflessness by sacrificing precious time with their children for the entire family’s current and future financial security. They provide examples of strong and independent Muslim women who are making a difference, and using the skills they accrue in their professional capacities to be better mothers, wives, and managers of their homes. The sons of working mothers are less likely to assume that girls are inferior to and dependent upon boys, or that girls should be treated differently because of their gender. A professional mother’s children will know the tangible and intangible rewards of hard work and a good education, and hopefully will encourage their own daughters to pursue their dreams.
Another aspect of this skewed concept of maternal selflessness is our community’s belief that women should not have to work except when absolutely necessary to financially sustain the family unit. The Quran provides that while women should breastfeed their children for two years, the duty to financially provide for them rests on their husbands. If they are divorced, they may even receive compensation by their husbands for breastfeeding the children. (Surah al-Baqarah 2:233) This delineation of financial responsibilities in the family leads many in our community to conclude that middle class women who work are doing so out of choice. This is out of sync with the economic reality of raising middle-class families in America, of women who often have educational debts, and who are co-signers of everything from family credit cards to home mortgages. This also ignores the fact that leaving the profession for the years it takes to get the children old enough to be in school full time is impractical for many in competitive professions. Though the advice is commonly given to women (never men), the reality is that American employers don’t just sit around waiting for employees to return after a six year hiatus. Further, changes in technology and regulation require many professionals to maintain a constant engagement in their professions or risk greatly reducing any chances of future employment in the field.
A further problem for educated women is that our approach to marriage is outmoded. In even the most liberal families, women are pressured to marry as soon as they finish their degrees. If they are already married, they are pressured to have children. And, once the children arrive on the scene, all the reassurances that “beta, you are the same as any boy!” fade into a distant memory. It becomes clear then that gender roles within marriage are indeed very different, and while both men and women may have been encouraged to pursue high-stress, high-powered professions, only men receive the family and the community’s backing to continue in their pursuit of professional excellence. Women, in contrast, are expected to pursue their “real” careers as mothers, and to channel their educations into raising pious and professionally successful children. Also problematic is the community’s apparent attitude that the highest measure of a woman’s success is the husband she manages to nab because of her degree, not the career she pursues.
As a result, families with two working parents are expected to always put a premium on the man’s job. He is never expected to curtail his hours or relocate for the sake of the woman’s job. She may make more money or have a more prominent position, but he’s always considered the real bread-winner. Even in situations where it makes more financial sense for him to remain home with the children, there is the implicit understanding that the community and family would find such a situation unacceptable.
Though all of these attitudes exist in greater American society, there is an emergent acceptance of alternative working arrangements which seems missing from our community. To progress as a community, we have to focus on this problem, and realize that our present attitude will continue to lead professional women to forgo their careers and deter future generations of women from even bothering to consider higher education.