KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 26-Feb-14 11:27:30

Guest post: Why is society so ambivalent about stay-at-home mums?

Rising childcare costs and stagnant salaries mean that more women are becoming stay-at-home mums. But society seems conflicted about those who look after their children full-time, especially those who do so by choice rather than necessity.

In this guest post, MN blogger Louise Dillon navigates the guilt and the stigmas, as well as accusations of 'not pulling their weight', and questions whether women's work in the home will ever be properly valued.

Louise Dillon

New Pencil Case

Posted on: Wed 26-Feb-14 11:27:30

(607 comments )

Lead photo

Will caring ever be deemed as important as providing?

Historically women (and children) have always worked. The poor would either take their children to work with them, or leave them with extended families. At the other end of the scale, rich women would leave their children in the care of a nanny while they managed household staff and organised events - long before these activities became viable career choices.

What's changed is that there is now an expectation - or illusion - of choice in the matter. When I was growing up, we had a female prime minister, and Alexis Carrington was the most famous woman on TV. We were told that we could have it all – glittering career, thriving children and a happy marriage.

It was a lie. As adults, we discover that economic necessity, the needs of children and our own aspirations all pull us in different directions. Rather than 'having it all', we choose our path and passionately defend our decisions against the different choices, opinions and expectations of others. Someone, somewhere will always disagree.

Obviously, there's a tension for those who would love to make a different choice, but can't. For some, working just isn't worth it. Salaries can't compete with the crippling cost of formal childcare, and for many of us, family aren't on hand to help. For others, rocketing property prices and rents mean that often both parents must work to afford the roof over their heads and an acceptable standard of living. With the prospect of meagre pensions, tuition fees, care homes and future property prices, there's a strong chance my children might, at 25, wish I'd traded those extra games of Scrabble for a decent deposit on a flat.

Over the past eight years I've worked part-time, freelanced, stayed at home and run my own business. I gave up my “glittering” corporate TV career and moved out of London, back to the village I grew up in, after the birth of son number 2. Not one of those solutions has been perfect, none of them have been easy and I have beaten myself up over each and every decision.

But the decision to stay at home was the one that I struggled with most. Like squabbling siblings, what I wanted for my children, my own identity and my relationship constantly clashed. Enduring stereotypes are of either the dull but worthy women, who were relieved that finally nothing more was expected of them in terms of their career - or the wealthy, well-groomed types who rule the PTA with an iron fist. The woman who actively chooses to stay at home seems to stir a wealth of confused emotions in all of us.

Enduring stereotypes are of either the dull but worthy women, who were relieved that finally nothing more was expected of them in terms of their career - or the wealthy, well-groomed types who rule the PTA with an iron fist. The woman who actively chooses to stay at home seems to stir a wealth of confused emotions in all of us.


And as a feminist, I couldn't help feeling that I was letting the side down. By the time I had children I was successful, financially independent and viewed my marriage as a partnership of equals. The notion that I could give it all up in favour of singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ and sorting the laundry seemed extraordinary. I was uncomfortable with being financially dependent on my husband and I didn't like what it did to our relationship (there was an argument about aubergines I shan't forget). I had grown up with my mother laying out my father's clothes in the morning, but had expected something different for myself: this was not what feminism had fought for; this was not my place. How could I bring my sons up to respect women and treat them as equals if I wasn't an equal partner in my own house?

And yet, I wanted to be at home with my children. I wanted to be the one that cuddled them, read them stories and watched them grow. I wanted to make them toast when they came home from school. I felt my children needed me - and for many women, no job is more important.

And what about the state's position on all this? It seems to be ambivalent at best; fundamentally, it views you in terms of economic worth. We have an ageing population and we need people of working age to pay for them. The fact that children need nurturing, educating, and caring for is overlooked. That future generation of voters is not important right now. Politicians might pay lip service to the value of carers, but the welfare system reveals the truth – they are a burden; they've made a ‘lifestyle choice’ and they aren't ‘pulling their weight’.

The government's answer is to institutionalise childcare; to lengthen school days and cut holidays. They seem to be arguing simultaneously that looking after children is worthless, and yet too important to be left to mere parents. This benefits no one, except employers who no longer have the hassle of negotiating flexibility. It certainly doesn't benefit children or families.

The result is that we all feel confused and a little resentful. Working women will label stay at home mothers as ‘lazy’ or ‘lucky’, and stay at home mothers will accuse working mothers of being ‘selfish’. Both sides feel guilt and resentment over the choices they feel they should have had but didn't - the nagging doubt that we should be providing more, either emotionally or financially. Round and round we go, constantly striving to do better and tying ourselves up in knots.

There are simple, albeit naive, solutions. Cheaper housing and childcare would make staying at home or working a genuine choice rather than a necessity, as would a working culture that is not defined by the hours you work but by the quality of the work that you do - enabling mothers and fathers to do their bit at home and away.

Maybe this is feminism's next task: to redefine how society views the role of caring, and to challenge the notion that ‘progress’ is always moving in the same direction. A stage on from 'women competing in a man's world' would be to elevate caring to a level at which it can also be seen as successful - equal to the providing bit. Then we could, perhaps, put down our defensiveness, and acknowledge that we're all just doing our best with the circumstances we have - and that, most of the time, that's good enough.

We may never see the day when all we're competing over is who raises the most emotionally stable and contented children - but it's a nice thought.

By Louise Dillon

Twitter: @louloudillon

OTheHugeManatee Wed 26-Feb-14 12:22:38

Maybe this is feminism's next task: to redefine how society views the role of caring, and to challenge the notion that ‘progress’ is always moving in the same direction. A stage on from 'women competing in a man's world' would be to elevate caring to a level at which it can also be seen as successful - equal to the providing bit. Then we could, perhaps, put down our defensiveness, and acknowledge that we're all just doing our best with the circumstances we have - and that, most of the time, that's good enough.

I agree. We also need to work on getting the world as a whole to view 'caring' as not just the preserve of women - ie pushing for the part-time/SAHP route to be just as accepted and normal for men as for women. In other words it needs to stop being a feminist debate as such and become one about respect and equalities generally. As long as caring, childcare, family continues to be seen as a 'women's issue' the world will continue to expect fathers to carry on working unaffected by parenthood while people head-tilt at mothers and ask rude questions about their choices.

idlevice Wed 26-Feb-14 14:02:02

I would go as far to say the workplace is discriminatory against parents (& thus women, more so) by not ensuring there are decent childcare arrangements/practicable working arrangements available to employees who become a parent, eg flexible hours, in-house or associated crèche, financial contributions, etc This sounds like a utopian ideal but I do know of a handful of places in my (former) industry that do this & the waiting list for the crèche is naturally in the order of years. For me, I would have been back to work like a shot, albeit part-time, after 6mths if my workplace seemed supportive in any way.

ProfondoRosso Wed 26-Feb-14 14:12:38

Totally agree with OtheHuge - the idea of caring as 'women's work' is still so deeply ingrained in our society.

I would also highlight this from the OP:

What's changed is that there is now an expectation - or illusion - of choice in the matter. When I was growing up, we had a female prime minister, and Alexis Carrington was the most famous woman on TV. We were told that we could have it all – glittering career, thriving children and a happy marriage

As a society we NEED to re-examine how we assign 'value' to occupations and to how we live our lives. Of course I am deeply thankful that women can be CEOs, that they can earn as much (often more) than men, that we have the right to work, have our own money and homes. But we live in a society where competition is always emphasised: who can stay latest at work, who can get promoted quickest, who does the most unpaid overtime and doesn't complain about it? That's not choice, that's fighting a losing battle.

The media encourages us to feel inadequate. Constantly. I can't read magazines like Marie Claire or Elle, because I know I'll put them down feeling I've failed at something. Achievement and 'winning' aren't everything and we need to learn to view life with the capitalist spectacles off sometimes, because while we still have them on, SAHMs look like they're not achieving because they're not earning. Which is bullshit.

MannishBoy Wed 26-Feb-14 14:33:10

To me, the attitude of "if you're not at work then you're shirking" is still far too prevalent. Flexible / mobile / working from home is often just as productive, if not more so, than sitting in an office but management only see bums on seats.
Every manager I have ever worked for has seen working from home as the same as time off.
Attitudes in this country are stuck in the dark ages, for so many things.

MerryMarigold Wed 26-Feb-14 15:12:22

We may never see the day when all we're competing over is who raises the most emotionally stable and contented children - but it's a nice thought.

It's an awful thought. As a SAHM, I am constantly (and unwisely) assessing myself by how happy they are, how well they're doing in school, how kind they are to others, how well behaved they are. If they kick someone in the school playground, I feel like a failure. If my eldest son doesn't eat because he's suffering from anxiety, I really feel like a failure. If my daughter's reading is behind, I feel like a failure. If my ds is too thin, it's my fault.

My SIL is a bit of a basket case. She works a lot, uses tons of different childcare (this is unlinked to the fact she is a basket case!). Anyway, her kids are lovely. They seem (currently) emotionally stable and contented.

My ds is a very anxious child. I hope that's not my 'fault'. My others are not. But it's not helpful to start assessing yourself on ANY criteria that relates to your kids.

Hello, Louise here. Thank you for all your comments.

I agree with you totally Marigold and that was kind of the point I was making. It would be lovely we could move away from the idea of 'achievement' and 'excelling' and towards contentment. Happiness in the moment does not necessarily make for emotional stability later on - in fact probably the opposite.

Many parents, working or not, project their own ambitions and goals on their children which is sometimes a downside to staying at home. Some need to justify the choice through their child's behaviour or achievements. I think that goes across all groups.

I remember very definitely thinking once that I never want to look at my children and think 'I gave up all this for you and you still didn't pass!"

I agree with a lot of the points you raise. I would really like the role of caring to be more valued generally whether for children, those with SN or the elderly. I care for all three groups within my family and paid work is simply not an option for me at the moment. I know what I do has value and I think most people if they took the time to understand my circumstances would agree but generally my efforts are invisible - unless of course something goes wrong then I am solely accountable!

I agree with Marigold in terms of feeling even more judged on the outcomes of my children as a SAHM. As I haven't shared the load with anyone else apart from their father there is no-one else to blame for any shortcomings - I can't use juggling work and family as an excuse!

Wanksock Wed 26-Feb-14 16:25:16

I work for one of those companies idlevice, I went back to work 3 days per week when DS was 7 mo and he was in the on site nursery which was brilliant. It's subsidised by the company and we also get childcare vouchers. Now that DS is older and starting school in the summer I have flexible working in place so that between DH and I we won't have to use any childcare while DH works FT and me 80% of FT. I think this is the way that companies should be going.

ovaryandout Wed 26-Feb-14 16:52:54

I have always believed that feminism is all about women having a choice, stay at home or go to work. Society should not dictate which one, not all work is paid but it doesn't make it any less worthwhile.

This also applies to many more vocations than just 'stay at home' mum or dad...

Impatientismymiddlename Wed 26-Feb-14 16:54:35

Even on parenting forums SAHM's are sometimes told that they should go and get a career because they need financial independence in case their partner leaves and takes the household income with him. They are also sometimes told that they need to get a paid job in order to give their children a good work ethic.

The govt doesn't help because some of its recent policies have been punitive to SAHM's. Childcare tax credits cost a fortune, but are encouraged because they enable mums to go to work (whether they want to or not), even if the govt isn't saving any money by the mum going to work.
Parent carers of disabled children are the most undervalued because they do a fantastic, often around the clock job and save the govt billions each year, yet they get less than job seekers get in 'benefits' for their caring role.
Rant over!

IceNoSlice Wed 26-Feb-14 17:50:25

Your article is well written but (sorry) I'm not sure it raises anything new. I liked your pen picture of the SAHM stereotypes but would be interested to hear more of how you have placed yourself in that world and whether the stereotypes hold true at all - IYE do some women feel the need to become these stereotypes, or pretend to be?

I also feel, for this debate to move on, we need to focus less on the female side of things- feminism, motherhood, SAHM... And more on parent. Why do so many men feel they cannot even ask for flexible working? Why do they feel employers would immediately consider them less committed, less capable even?

maggiemight Wed 26-Feb-14 18:00:22

I would like to see research which proves that DCs of SAHMs are 'better' people in the end, than DCs of WOHM in the hope that the results appease the guilt of working mothers. (I think there was some research in Scandinavia recently which asserted that DCs attending nursery early had better social skills but don't know of much more than that.)

I was a SAHM for much of the DCs childhood, DH worked away a lot with no consistency, no family anywhere near and I hadn't really liked my job that much (so prob would have strived to get back to it if I had).

I worked hard at being a good DM. But let's face it, I am no perfect being, had some difficulties in childhood myself, so without doubt passed on some of my insecurities to my DCs. So I suspect that a mix of childcare might have been better. However was convinced at the time that I was doing what was best for them (as most SAHMs seem to be).

They are all well adjusted and career successful adults now, so I must have done something right. But then again perhaps it was in the genes, DH and I have done ok in life, but of course we are of an age when it was the norm for our own DMs to SAH.

A comparison with boarding school children might be interesting.

I suspect in the end it is the quality that decides - good SAHM as good as a good boarding school.

merrymouse Wed 26-Feb-14 18:25:12

There is an answer to this - Parents sharing the childcare burden. Legislative obstacles being removed, now men just need to take up the slack.

WidowWadman Wed 26-Feb-14 19:16:20

"We may never see the day when all we're competing over is who raises the most emotionally stable and contented children - but it's a nice thought."

As I see it that competition is there already big time and the big stick with which SAHMs and WOHMs keep hitting each other over the head with, seeking to validate their own choice (for want of a better word) by making the other one out to be worse.

As it is, both SAHMs and WOHMs are equally capable of raising emotionally stable and contented children. There is no need for this competition.

muminsuburbia Wed 26-Feb-14 20:12:02

I agree with merrymouse - the way to move this debate on is to make it less about SAHMs v WOHMs but as an issue that affects all parents. I think its a bit of red herring to say that feminism should be all about choice for mothers - what about fathers? Someone has to pay the bills and many dads want to spend time more with their children as well.

RonaldMcDonald Wed 26-Feb-14 20:28:13

I think it's because it is all so blardy repetitive and boring.
TBH we really don't value anyone in lowly paid, repetitive jobs. Our society is now only interested in extreme acts not tradition - unless the tradition is lept upon by hipsters

That is how to change the perception of SAHM, get hipsters to adopt it and do it ironically

Bonsoir Wed 26-Feb-14 21:04:09

Obviously many SAHMs believe that their DC are benefiting from having more parental presence and input than DC who have two FT WOHPs - or else they wouldn't do it! People are motivated by choices they believe are important. And when welfare and taxation systems penalise SAHMs for their beliefs they - unsurprisingly - get angry.

I am a great believer in the value of a SAHP. My DSSs, who are now almost grown-up, have a WOHM who has always worked, so they have experience both sorts of family. They are quite insightful!

Bonsoir Wed 26-Feb-14 21:15:49

And, in answer to the question in the OP: I think society is ambivalent about all mothers. Whatever you do, large swathes of the population think you are doing it all wrong and that is because the ridiculous ideal to which modern woman is held is impossible to achieve. We are doomed to failure.

LimeMiniPumpkin Wed 26-Feb-14 21:37:35

I think my opinion on this has been influenced by my grandma's recent death. She had been living with my parents for a while, then went into hospital for a week, was diagnosed with cancer and came home to die. Shewas cared for at home by family, and had three generations around her as she died. That is pretty much impossible for most people if everyone works full time. I am not saying everyone should be a sahp, but i do think that working life has to leave more time for families than the UK currently does. I feel we need to value caring more, and looking after the people we love.While paid work is rewarding, i don't want to see my parents in a nursing home in years to come. I also think that if we are leaving care of children, the elderly and vulnerable adults to those outside of the family, we have to pay a lot more for it as a society, so that it is of the highest quality.

morethanpotatoprints Wed 26-Feb-14 21:39:38

I think it would help if people didn't see looking after their own children as a burden. some of us don't feel like that and are happy to be a sahp.
I do agree that fathers should be encouraged and supported to share responsibility for raising their children.
Some of us also don't see ourselves as being successful in terms of our economic worth, don't want institutionalised childcare and the present school system, so opt out.
At the other end of the spectrum are career parents who work full time and don't want to spend more than an hour a day with their children and the thought fills them with dread. Then there are many variations in between this.
There is no right or wrong unless it is harming your children and just because something works for one family doesn't mean it is right for the next family.

BrennanHasAMangina Wed 26-Feb-14 22:11:35

Ronald grin. That's it! Brilliant.

TheArticFunky Wed 26-Feb-14 23:00:58

Did other people have a view on mothers working in the old days or did they just let them get on with it and mind their own business?

There is so much "judging" that goes on these days. I suffered jealousy from male colleagues because in their view I was having time off on my part time days and that option was not available to them. I was told by an in law that I didn't love my children because I was working. When I was a SAHM I was judged by other people (mainly women).

A stronger person would have thought stuff em and just got on with it but my emotions were all over the place when I had my babies. Hence a lot of the decisions that I made regarding working were based on other people's views rather than what was right for our family and my career.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 06:11:04

a) the mainstream discourse of our society doesn't really appreciate anyone now

b) single parents are being forced into work, workfare if they're too sluggish at finding work that fits in school hours/with available childcare) from when their children start school. the necessary climate to do this is one that doesn't value children, childcare or the realities of mothers

c) women are judged for whatever they do - if they work they're wrong, if they don't they're wrong, if they're mothers they're wrong if they're not they're wrong. to look at sahm status in isolation is missing the point imo.

d) if we genuinely valued the work and expense involved in raising children we'd have to actually make it illegal to financially abandon your children, make child support a more realistic amount and criminalise absent parents (mostly men) who don't pay and make it as easily enforced as tax - we certainly couldn't make it something mothers have to pay to try and get

and so forth.

i'm sorry we don't value sahm more but in the wider context it's hardly surprising and if sahms want their status to change they need to focus on bigger issues rather than just expect somehow their groups perception can change without major overhaul to the view of women, the sick, disabled and children, the responsibility of men to their own children (and sick and disabled) etc they will be missing the point and the way forward.

if sahms don't want to see the value of mothering totally undermined then they should concern themselves with single mothers imo as that's where it is being truly eroded and sahms will be casualties of that attack on mothers without husbands.

BeaHive Thu 27-Feb-14 07:20:57

"We may never see the day when all we're competing over is who raises the most emotionally stable and contented children - but it's a nice thought."

Not a nice thought at all; utterly depressing I would think. And it already happens constantly on MN.

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