"If women return to work, the benefits are easy to quantify ... The benefits of staying at home are rarely defined, either in dollars or cultural capital" ... Victoria Birch

"If women return to work, the benefits are easy to quantify ... The benefits of staying at home are rarely defined, either in dollars or cultural capital" ... Victoria Birch

Federal Sex Discrimination Officer Elizabeth Broderick recently issued a call to arms for all slack-jawed, dead-eyed mums who overdose on Playschool and one too many conversations about bowel movements. “Your brain isn’t delivered with the placenta,” she lectured. In other words, tell your grey matter to get out of parenting hell and back to work.

Has Broderick ever met a mother? Heavens above – we’re the most tiresome over-thinkers. Modern mothers don’t drift through parenthood in a cloud of Bex and stunted emotions: we think the hell out of it. Whether it’s gender stereotyping, cognitive developmental theories or educational advancements, some mother somewhere is delivering an impassioned treatise on it in the local playground. It’s not that we don’t use our brains, it’s just that Gina Rinehart can’t attach a drill to our heads and mine our thoughts for shiny new coins. And that’s what bothers Broderick.

Rhetoric around getting mothers back to work en masse, or positioning parenting as an intellectual dead-end, risks devaluing the role of stay-at-home parents  

Not that Broderick is shaking her fists at mums’ failure to contribute to the collective money-pit; she’s actually concerned that as a full-time, or even part-time, stay-at-home parent, mums compromise their earning potential and financial autonomy. In a few decades, if Mum ends up on the wrong side of a divorce statistic, she may find herself empathising rather than sympathising with her student offspring’s eat-or-pay-rent dilemma.

Broderick’s desire to see more mums back in the workforce does have merit. But the flip side is that to do so, mums would need to exit their children’s lives to a certain extent, and that separation can provoke anxiety. But should it?

In 2006, the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development in the US published its research on the developmental outcomes of children in quality childcare, compared to children cared at home by a parent. They found that “children who were cared for by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others”.

Still, this doesn’t seem to stop mothers from either staying at home completely or arranging their lives so that at least part of the working week is spent with their children. Research undertaken by The Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2008 showed that part-time employment peaks for women during child-rearing years, and while some women do return to full-time employment later on, over 40 per cent of women continue to work part-time.

If we have access to quality childcare, and when even part-time work can have a detrimental impact on women’s lifetime earnings (current forecasts estimate women will earn 40 per cent less than men over a 40 year period), why do we persist in trying to stay at home?

Clinical psychologist Vera Auerbach says that innate instinct is an important factor, and she says that the desire to be with our children is “a natural and healthy response. Their survival is the survival of the family”. While we’re not necessarily warding off hungry wild animals, Auerbach says we want to be with our children because ultimately “you know you will probably look after your child better than another caregiver”.

Even into the school years, parents still want the flexibility that allows them to be available to their children. As Auerbach says, “Children have to hold it together emotionally, lots of things happen at school, and parents help them process their relationships.” After-school care is a safe environment, but not necessarily one where children can receive the same emotional support as at home.

Tara Dayle is a full-time stay-at-home mum to two children under five. Dayle has no immediate plans to re-enter the workforce and recognises that her skill-set diminishes the longer she is at home. However, she wants to spend as much time with her children as she can.

“I don’t think I do a better job as a stay-at-home mum, but I want to be with them while they are young,” she says. “I have two children that struggle to thrive in childcare, so it’s right for our family.”

The need to take time out of the workforce (often beyond the first 12 months of a child’s life) is very real for many women, but this is often trivialised as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Indeed, Dayle says she is almost ashamed about her status as a full-time parent. “So much of the discussion revolves around getting mothers back to work,” she says. “There’s very little airtime given to the value of being at home.”

If women return to work, the benefits are easy to quantify: continued career, independent finances, a contribution to the economy. The benefits of staying at home are rarely defined, either in dollars or cultural capital. It would be interesting to know what communities would look like if most parents – including mothers – worked full-time. What would the pressure on childcare places be like? How would public transportation cope? How would public schools deal with reduced volunteer support? How would families’ collective mental health be affected?

If stay-at-home parenting didn’t predominately concern women we might have more discussions about its value. There are sensitivities about promoting home care because it’s still strongly aligned to the 1950s domestic ideal. But for too long, women have been fighting to undertake productive work and enjoy healthy careers – so why look backwards to a time when those things weren’t so readily available? 

A reluctance to recognise the value of staying at home makes it harder to redress the gender balance. Saying men need to do less paid work (that has an inherent and obvious value to society) and do more of something that’s often framed as a luxury is hardly a great enticement for more men to pick up the parenting mantle.

With the advent of paid parental leave, Australia has taken steps to give parenthood tangible value. Still, we lag behind countries such as Norway, whose Pappapermisjon scheme provides 46-56 weeks paid parental leave that can be taken up to three years after a child’s birth. It apportions more than two months solely to the father, and provides the opportunity for both parents to take a second year of leave unpaid. Between them, a couple could stay at home with a child until school age. Rather than a retrogressive throwback, staying at home with the children suddenly seems progressive and somewhat radical.

Elizabeth Broderick is right to worry about inequities in women’s finances, but rhetoric around getting mothers back to work en masse, or positioning parenting as an intellectual dead-end, risks devaluing the role of stay-at-home parents.

Encouraging parents to spend more hours away from their children isn’t the best – or only – solution. Dividing responsibilities equally between genders, organising family finances to recognise the contribution made by stay-at-home parents, and extending government support schemes are other ways to help. That is, of course, unless we truly believe stay-at-home parents really don’t have anything to offer beyond the daily school run and the next bake-off.