Mother and baby.

Last week a story appeared in Essential Kids which questioned the assumption that working women ought to feel guilty about using childcare. In response, we present this piece from the perspective of a stay-at-home mother - Ed.

Apparently I am both a martyr and a bully.  A woman who shelves personal fulfillment to hand rear her children on a diet of wholegrain piety and no TV.  I belong to a self-righteous brigade that stands in moral judgment over any woman with a career, a child and a vomit free pressed shirt.  I think I’m better than you. I am a stay-at-home-mum.

Funnily enough I consider the last four years to be the most intensive working period of my life.  

That’s right. A-stay-at-home-mum. You don’t hear from us very often. Unlike our working sisters, who regularly speak out about the trials of balancing children and a career, we stay in the shadows. Our choice is unfashionable. We have no battles to fight, no deadlines to meet, no guilt to feel. We’re just those dags with the intellectually stifling routines and inane playtime chatter.

Working mothers talk about how they are unfavorably judged for pursuing a career, but stay-at-home-mums are equally stigmatised. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to justify my decision to stay at home. People ask in an innocuous kind of way “how on earth do you do it”? It always feels like a euphemism for, “how could you undermine the feminist charge with your archaic approach to motherhood”?

I’m never very confident in my response. I mumble how I don’t just look after the children. I study, I write, I watch Four Corners. As if to prove that I’m still a fully functioning, intellectually engaged human being - albeit one with day-old dried Weetbix on my jeans and a secret penchant for The View.  The truth is the vast majority of my time is spent just looking after the children.

I’m not ashamed exactly, but certainly a little embarrassed.  It might have something to do with dismissive attitudes towards mothers at home, “those feckless homebound leaches” as a colleague of mine once described them as.  It might also have something to do with the fact that all my friends have returned to work.  Although they are supportive of my choice, I’m conscious of the differences in our lives. I’m often left with little to contribute when conversation turns to the machinations of life in the workforce. I feel marginalised and isolated.

Funnily enough I consider the last four years to be the most intensive working period of my life. And it is work. The maternal bond should not be mistaken for fairy dust. It doesn’t turn the dirty nappies and the sleeplessness and the tantrums and the tiredness into small joyful happenings. It makes them just about endurable. Stay-at-home-mums are working mums. They have chosen to work from home looking after children. The fact they gave birth to those children is neither here nor there.

Like other working mothers we experience our fair share of guilt. We’re not paid nannies who can devote all our time to childcare. We also have competing responsibilities. Bills, cleaning, washing, ironing, errands, grocery shopping and cooking all need to be dealt with while maintaining a stimulating and nurturing environment for our children.  Being at home doesn’t mean my family enjoys a Mary Poppins/Martha Stewart hybrid (with a bit of Nigella thrown in for dad).   There’s been many an occasion where television has ticked the ‘stimulating’ and ‘nurturing’ boxes or I’ve used lollies as a bribe to buy me an extra half hour to clean the bath. I bet they don’t do that at your local daycare centre.

Stay-at-home-mums work as hard as anyone I know.  By caring for our children at home we alleviate the pressure on childcare places, provide a safe and supportive environment with an exemplary carer to child ratio. We educate, feed and play so our children can be responsible citizens who will make a positive contribution to future society.  Yet we continue to be undervalued and taken for granted.

Over the last ten years, political rhetoric has focused on helping mums return to work.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there has been a steady increase in the number of working mothers during that period. Over half of all mothers with young children now participate in the workforce.  Undoubtedly, those figures are a result of more women returning to work through choice, assisted by initiatives such as the Child Care Rebate and Fair Work Act.

But what about those who have to return to work under financial duress, even if there’s a strong preference to stay at home? Policies such as the Baby Bonus and the Family Tax Benefit certainly provide support to low-to-middle income families, however, it’s debatable these are enough to allow many mums to remain at home for the long-term.  Without specific policies that provide support beyond the first six to twelve months of a child’s life, staying at home just isn’t an option for a large number of women. 

Even if it is feasible, future prospects can be worrying. Lack of superannuation contributions, extended periods away from the workforce and the absence of an independent income stream can mean hardship for mothers who opted to care for children in the home, particularly those women who go on to experience divorce or separation.

Is it any wonder we are a dying breed?

As for the thorny issue of stay-at-home-mums vs. working mums, statisticians and psychologists can provide a mountain of data to support the pros and cons of both positions.  In reality, as long as there is access to quality childcare, how a family chooses to structure its priorities is determined by a very specific alchemy of needs and desires. It cannot be dictated by dogmatic ideologies.

Our society needs mothers in the workplace and needs mothers at home. Staying at home isn’t the easy option though. It’s not a cop out. It’s a tough job that yields important benefits for us all.  It’s a role I’ve chosen and one that’s right for my family.  I just wish it was a decision that society encouraged me to feel proud of.

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