Many of the things I think about are informed by conversations I have with my children. Their lives are new, many aspects of them are ones they encounter for the first time, and their chatter helps me reexamine the set patterns of thought most of us have already developed. During one of these chats, my eldest mentioned talking about what everyone’s parents did at school, and somehow everyone ended up describing what their father’s jobs were. It was a mixed bag- architect, writer, economist, artist and so on. Didn’t anyone say what their Ammis did? I asked, knowing that many of the mums of children in my daughter’s classroom do work. Turns out none of them, including my own child, thought it fit to mention their mother’s jobs (mine sheepishly added that I didn’t write this column at the time, so it was all right), mostly because in their minds it didn’t register as a real thing mothers do- their primary job is, quite simply, being Ammi.

Predictably, this perturbed me. I work from home, and to my children I do something mysterious on my computer for a few hours when they aren’t allowed near my desk. Their grandmother teaches, so they understand that she has class. But somehow Abba going to the office trumps all of that. Going To The Office is the thing that fathers do and is imbued with a gravity that none of Mama’s jobs ever seem to have. I’m not sure why. Maybe because men are expected to work, and mothers doing so is a kind of indulgent bonus? Men aren’t keeping busy by working, they are supporting their families (which they undoubtedly do), but many women work equally hard and contribute to said family finances and yet aren’t taken seriously as People Who Work. Perhaps juggling children and a job takes away from one’s image as a career person- a child with a stomach flu has no impact on a man’s work schedule, but when the throwing up begins it’s mama who is late because she was bathing and medicating and then rushing out the door, guilt stricken but also tardy, and also the one having to bear the ignominious explanation of how vomit made her miss the first half of the morning meeting.

I was reading recently about Shonda Rhimes, the creator of several very successful television shows. She writes about how women can never have it all- if you’re at your child’s school play, you’re missing something crucial at work. If you’re in the middle of a groundbreaking work moment, you aren’t there for your toddler’s first step. It’s a constant state of flux, a constant series of choice-making that men either don’t have to face or are seldom made to feel guilty about. Our societies are forgiving of men missing parent-teacher meetings and birthday parties, but woe betide the mother who follows suit. In a way, mothers working becomes something even more important to do, much like anything women do that goes off the beaten track. Societies are resistant to change, particularly change that implies a weakened control over women. But the more women (or anyone) do something, the more it normalizes that behaviour, and space begins to open up.

It is heartening though that in our society many women work, and continue to work after having children. The more women in working environments, the more flexible working environments will have to become, willy-nilly. Working women shouldn’t be made to feel apologetic for having genuine issues such as needing childcare support, having female health concerns or newborns that need to be nursed. It is part and parcel of being a woman- particularly one in a patriarchal system where the onus of child rearing and the management of family life falls upon women. Equally important is recognizing the cult of the superwoman, and knowing how to resist. Rhimes is right- you can’t have it all, but that’s all right. All too often women face the weird post-feminist conundrum of having, technically, the right and the opportunity to do whatever they like, but without any flexibility of their gender expectations. On the one hand women can have it all, but there is no dialogue or space for negotiation regarding their ‘real’ or ‘other’ role. Here, work if you like, but you still have to do the dishes, organize dinner, go to the gym and take care of the children. The conversation then veers toward the superwoman, who necessarily cannot do it all, but is now expected to. Instead of the father who does the parent-teacher meetings and stomach flu mornings, women are now having to juggle twice as many expectations with half the facilitation needed to do it.

Working women should take themselves seriously, because it’s all too easy for everyone else to pooh-pooh their efforts, whatever it is that they do, whether managing tailors for a home based stitching enterprise, painting or running banks. Equally important is to be aware of what you want, and being fearless about having it, whatever that may be. A pithy meme recently made the rounds on social media, and it rings true: ‘what will people say’ has killed more dreams than any other phrase, ever. So be a stay at home dad. Be a career woman. Climb your personal Everest and plant your flag, because you never know who will see that flag as a light guiding them, and use it to find their own way.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.