Flannery Dean is a writer and editor based in Hamilton, Ont.
Liberal MP Karina Gould’s decision to breastfeed her baby in the House of Commons last week was a landmark moment, although if public response is any indication, I’m not sure we as yet understand its full significance.
Some hailed the Democratic Institutions Minister’s act as a victory for working mothers; others pegged it as a workplace nadir: the end of professionalism as we know it. Death by maternal instinct.
The non-sexual appearance of a woman’s breast – even in silhouette – can always be counted on to garner curious disapproval. Culturally, meanwhile, we seem only too happy to see them sexualized just about anywhere and anytime.
The culture’s sexual issues aside, the point that seemed lost as both parties claimed certain triumph or defeat was the universally obvious one: Ms. Gould’s multitasking was a vivid emblem of the Way We Work Now. Today’s invasive work culture has no tidy divisions between the personal and the professional – there is only one oddly energizing yet utterly enervating fusion.
Breastfeeding and working, being a mother and a minister simultaneously – Ms. Gould was just doing two jobs while being paid for one. You don’t need to suckle a child to relate to that working reality.
Celebrate or lament the contemporary blending of work and life, it’s dumb to continue denying it for the opportunistic convenience of employers and to the detriment of employees’ well-being. We don’t 9 to 5, we 24/7. We get e-mails at night and on the weekend and in the early hours of the morning. Worse still: We send them, and with a kind of compulsiveness that passes for urgency.
Thanks to smartphones that “sync” the professional and the personal, we now simply set a place for work at the dinner table, weekend brunch and the emergency-room cafeteria. On the rare occasion we leave our devices, we can’t help but find ourselves wondering: What fresh hell am I missing at work?
If our work days are extended, so too are our working lives. An estimated one in five Canadians over the age of 65 is still working – a number that has almost doubled since 1995.
Contract workers accept the unstable yet demanding reality of the modern workplace without the formerly stabilizing forces of job security and benefits (thank you, gig economy). A contract writer and editor when I got pregnant, I didn’t take a maternity leave (the idea of starving on a fraction of my already meagre earnings was not that appealing), but chose to grit it out. I had to work and have a baby all at once and that was that. (That included filing edits on a story from the maternity ward after an emergency C-section, and three years of round-the-clock work-nurture-collapse that I struggle to remember.)
The unforgiving selfishness of the contemporary workplace becomes glaringly apparent when you’re pregnant, want to be, or have kids. Employers may have radically altered their relationship with employees – they’re less paternalistic and more predatory – but few have overhauled in-house ideas about what “professionalism” ought to include in the modern era.
That no one publicly chides employers for their cheek – their habitual breach of decorum when it comes to work hours, vacation days, etc. – is meaningful. We’re not holding employers to anachronistic definitions of professionalism because we’re all too aware of our vulnerability – the very real risk of being laid off or automated out of existence. Or perhaps those who invoke it understand just how it privileges a certain kind of employee: the kind that doesn’t have babies. So, instead of advocating for ourselves and each other, we break our brains trying to figure out how to “balance” our work and personal lives while ignoring the fact that work is insisting on the imbalance in the first place.
By being a mother and a minister in the very same moment, Ms. Gould struck a blow against the tyranny of an imbalanced work culture for women. Instead of hiding her maternity in a cloak of invisibility – one that both harms mother and child – she kindly but firmly told the workplace to set a table for her and her child.
She asked work to shove over and make a little room for life. That’s work-life balance, folks. And that is significant. Taken further, it may even represent something of a victory for all working Canadians. Should they ever hope to enjoy the benefit of a fair work culture and not just the corporate-friendly delusion, men would be wise to support this vigorous, progressive and, yes, even grown-up definition of professionalism, too. As a bonus, that includes getting over the sight of breasts.