Stay-at-home mums are not 'freeloaders'

Kelly Yang says decisions about how to juggle work and child-rearing are for each woman to make, and no one answer is right for all

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 4:23am

Two years ago, I was doing research for my TEDxWomen talk and I asked a 17-year-old student whether he thought his future wife would work. Having been raised by a strong, successful single mother, he replied "yes" without skipping a beat. His next words have stuck with me: "Of course women should work. No one likes a freeloader."

I was astounded by the word "freeloader". Is this how our children really feel about stay-at-home mums? The very mothers who gave up their careers so they could spend more time with their children?

In a city where only 53 per cent of women work, this word has haunted me. I think about it when I pick up my son from school and see the other mums happily taking their children home while I drag mine back to my office.

My student would shake his head at these women. Yet, they are irreplaceable assets in their children's lives. These are the mums whose children I marvel at - wonderful, well-adjusted and happy. Why is not working a bad thing if it produces wonderful kids?

Because the world would be a better place if more women worked, says Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the forthcoming book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a call for action for women to get more aggressive about their careers. Her main point is not entirely different from my student's - don't stop working, not even a little bit.

That's easy for Sandberg to say, who, in addition to making US$30 million a year at Facebook, is also married to a successful entrepreneur. But what about the rest of us and, more specifically, what about the children? What's going to happen to them if we're all too busy leaning in?

In fact, there's been a lot of disagreement with Sandberg. Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an essay last summer titled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", outlining the toll her job at the US State Department took on her teenage sons' lives, a disruption so great she eventually quit her job.

There's no right or wrong answer. Sandberg has every right to her opinions but she also happens to have a lot of money, a job where she calls the shots, and small children. Will she feel the same when her kids hit their teens?

I'm sure that Sandberg, if she ever came to Hong Kong, would point to our relatively cheap and plentiful domestic help workforce and say that there's no excuse for a woman here not to work. But as Slaughter reminds us, at the end of the day, nothing comes close to a parent's love and participation. And no matter how successful one's career is, nothing hurts more than the knowledge that your child needed you but you weren't around. That's something no bonus can repair.

As I type this from home, I know I'll be returning to the office once my maternity leave is over. Yes, I will lean in, not because of Sandberg, but because I want to. And that's a decision every woman should make for herself without any pressure or judgment.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.