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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


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

Impatientismymiddlename Thu 27-Feb-14 07:54:42

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?

The point in the thread is that feminism has caused this change. It therefore wouldn't have been an issue in the old days.
In the old days it was perfectly acceptable (and probably expected) that the mother would stay home and look after the children and the man would go to work and earn a living. There have been times in the old days where women did go to work in their droves as women were seen as a reserve labour force. When the men folk were out fighting wars or when there was a significant labour shortage women were expected to pick up the slack in employment. However, at other times it was expected that the menfolk would be the bread winners and women would be housewives.

I think the point raised upthread about men also having little choice is a good point. Men have always been expected to go out to work to earn a living door the family. A man staying at home with the children is still seen as worse than a woman doing the same by many people (particularly the older generation). Men are frowned upon if they take on certain jobs; nursery nurses, nannies, childminders, midwives.
Society is still by gender specific in its expectations.

I do still think that most SAHP's are women and the discussion is about whether feminism has limited their choices and I believe that whilst it hasn't limited their choices, it has changed the way some sectors of society view the SAHM. Even the govt continually pump money into getting mothers into employment and discourage mothers from staying at home with their children.

Happygolucky2014 Thu 27-Feb-14 08:08:03

I'm so bored of alleged 'femist' gobblewobbleclaptrap. I fell across this article in error. I've heard of Mumsnet - everybody has - but I always refused to go near it. I've never posted on a forum ever - not my style. But I think I've been so wound up of late - to hear women whinging every which way I look. It's ridiculous! What a load of nonsense. Maybe women could just stop feeling sorry for themselves and enjoy things - stop whinging like women ....for a while. I'm a stay home Mum. I love my job. I miss my old corporate world. But I like my 'Mum' job much much more. I had the amazing luck and opportunity of choice which most women around the world do not. My peers (of course I speak personally) that work and complain they can't afford otherwise in most cases have the option of downsizing, finding a smaller house but choose not to.
We rarely hear men complain about how dreadfully hard and exhausting their lives are with so many crucial decisions to make. So perhaps let's try being a little less girly, prevent our over-anxious complaining being passed on to our children (2 dds in my case) toughen up and get on with our lives. What sort of an example are we setting for our children moaning all the time about how hard done by we all are. Life is short. Let's just enjoy the good times. Really.

Impatientismymiddlename Thu 27-Feb-14 08:16:52

Happygolucky - it is possible to have a discussion without complaining.
I am a SAHM and I am very happy to be a SAHM, I enjoy being a SAHM. I know that my husband would happily trade places and be a SAHD.

However, that doesn't change the fact that many people see me as lazy for not having a paid job. I have been asked many times when I am going to get a job and what sort of job do I intend to do. Many people expect both parents to work and many people see SAHMs as being too dependent in their families. Feminism is partly responsible for that idea.

My contentment at being a SAHM doesn't change the fact that house prices are so high that many families have no choice but to have both parents working. I do believe that if far more families didn't have two working parents house prices would be lower (due to affordability and supply and demand).
Govt policies are geared towards getting mothers working whether they want to or not.
The thread is about whether feminism has restricted womens choices, not whether women want to work.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 08:23:42

but realistically the govt is telling people who are DYING of cancer that they are just lazy and need to go get a job.

it is telling single mothers whose children are five, don't drive, live in deprived areas and funnily enough can't find jobs in a recession full stop let alone in that area and within school hours, that they are lazy and will be sent on workfare or have their benefits stopped leaving them to starve.

really to be navel gazing about whether people appreciate women privileged enough to be able to choose to be sahms work hard is rather self indulgent.

anklebitersmum Thu 27-Feb-14 09:36:30

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.

This is the issue. The choice to parent is being insidiously removed.

Feminism, as I understand it, didn't set out to force women out of the home and into the workplace it wanted to gain equality in the workplace for those who chose to be there.

As regards the SAHM v WOHM debarcle, well it comes down to the fact that people judge each other. Be it car, clothes, house, hair, figure, accent, height, colour, religion, washing machine, curtains, carpets or how you choose to raise your child. It's just how it is.

Both choices are valid and I'd like to continue to have a choice.

anklebitersmum Thu 27-Feb-14 09:38:45

missed important *of how after choice in 2nd sentence post quote...blush

CocoCha Thu 27-Feb-14 09:42:18

"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."

This is the post of the year I believe. I want MP's to see it and read it and realise that we know exactly what their game is.

diamondlizard Thu 27-Feb-14 09:47:08

the way i see it is, whatever you do, sahm wohm, or part time, whatever

whatever you do, some fucker will try and have a pop a you and try and make you feel your in the wrong

so you might as well just do what makes you happy,if your lucky enough to actually choose

MilkyChopsKid Thu 27-Feb-14 09:56:50

The Govt want mothers to work as it increases tax paid to the Govt more than a single person coming off benefits, and more tax for the Govt means they can reduce tax rates which is supposed to make us all happy!

Mothers who work may pay a bit less tax because of childcare vouchers but then all (or almost all) of their pay goes to employ somebody else (childminder, nursery worker etc). This person looking after the children then pays tax (and the nursery tax on profits if it makes them) so the Govt gets two lots of tax from a working mother rather than none from a SAHM.

If somebody on benefits gets a job the Govt doesn't have to pay benefits but it won't require another person to be employed and most of the money this person spends will be with big companies that avoid tax and plastic stuff from China!

wordfactory Thu 27-Feb-14 10:19:14

It is a child's parents who have the responsibilty to raise him/her. It is expected that we do it as well as we can.

How we do it, is none of the state's business and it doesn't and shouldn't place value on the methodology we use.

If a mother or father decideds to SAH because they believe that is the best way for them to raise their DC, then that's fine but I'm not sure that they should expect the state to dance around cheering.

In fact I'd go so far as to say I've never met a SAHD that did expect it! It seems to be women who have given up careers to SAH that want the state to recognise them as they were previously recognised by their employer.


Why can't they just be happy in the knowledge that their private choice is the best for their individual circumstances? Why do they need society to recognise it as best?

chocoluvva Thu 27-Feb-14 10:45:53

On the other hand, why should my DH's taxes be used to subsidise child care costs for other people's children? I know that some couples have no choice - they both need to work. That's different. I accept that.

I work one day a week - consequently we can't afford lots of things we'd be able to have if I worked more. I never complain about it though. That's my choice (and I'm grateful to have it). But I don't appreciate people who both work full time complaining about being too busy.

It gets my goat that SAHMs are often classed as lacking a work-ethic while it would be outrageous to suggest that parents who are working full-time through choice are greedy.

Sorry, I know that's simplistic, but it really annoys me.

anklebitersmum Thu 27-Feb-14 10:46:43

SAH doesn't to be recognised as best, just equal.

Personally I don't expect the state to cheer but similarly I don't expect them to sneer.

chocoluvva Thu 27-Feb-14 11:00:31

Indeed. And to recognise that if all parents worked full-time there would be no slack in the system for the times that children have to go home from school unexpectedly when they're not well, parents are called on to help with school activities, to help run play-groups etc.

MerryMarigold Thu 27-Feb-14 11:13:04

Very good point about WOHM's paying/ contributing to 2 sets of taxes. No wonder the government encourage it. Doesn't mean we have to as well though.

Also have to agree a little with HappyGoLucky. A lot of SAHM's (Ok, I speak for myself here!) are their own enemies in terms of downgrading their importance and constantly self doubting. Today is parents' evening, and I realised that really parents' evening is for my dh. I already know what my kids do. I spend 15 mins every day in their class (they are in YR), I talk to the teachers nearly every day, I go on school trips, I have a very close level of involvement even with my Y3 child. I remembered why I have chosen to live life this way (and make the necessary sacrifices too).

Impatientismymiddlename Thu 27-Feb-14 11:35:41

The Govt want mothers to work as it increases tax paid to the Govt more than a single person coming off benefits, and more tax for the Govt means they can reduce tax rates which is supposed to make us all happy

But it only reduces the benefit bill IF the person goes into a job which pays enough for them to be ineligible for help with the cost of childcare. Childcare tax credits cover up to 70% of childcare costs, which can mean that the person is eligible for a couple of hundred pounds a week in childcare tax credits. If one parent works full time at minimum wage and the other parent works 16 hours at minimum wage then they will be able to get the full 70% of their childcare costs paid! which will be a damn sight more than what they pay in income tax. So there is no reduction in income tax for the whole public.
Working doesn't always pay, nor does it always benefit the public coffers. But people are still encouraged to have 2 parents working because society tells us that it is the morally right thing to do and the govt forces it on people to make their unemployment figures look fantastic.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 11:49:45

in reality single mothers working is often more expensive than being on benefits for the state. minimum wage worker will qualify for loads in working tax credit and 70% of the childcare costs being paid to another minimum wage mother who again is claiming tax credits.

this is ideological rather than financial i think.

if i say worked 16hrs a week and had one child, using 20hrs a week childcare (travel time obviously) and got £200 ctc and wtc plus £70 childcare element that's £270pw the government is paying out for me to do that job. in reality if i am on minimum wage i will still get housing benefit also. so in reality i will be more expensive than just paying me income support and housing benefit and i'll be taking a job that someone else could take without it being a gateway to a load of tax credits being paid out. bear in mind also that the above is cheap because i'm saying one child - imagine the bill if i had three?

so no i don't think in the majority of cases wanting mothers to work is about tax revenue bar wealthy women or women whose husbands are already higher rate tax payers.

i honestly think actually this is about discouraging single motherhood - it's about social engineering and they don't give a toss if some of 'good women' (re:wives and sahms) get denigrated a bit more in the process.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 11:51:47

this is why really we can't afford to divide up into wohm, sahm, married mums, single mums, young mums, old mums etc. it's all joined up and we all have to avoid the divide and rule and see that it's all joined up.

merrymouse Thu 27-Feb-14 13:00:19

From the government's point of view I don't think the economic benefit is supposed to come from keeping somebody in work while you pay them WTC. The benefit is supposed to be realised over their entire working life.

The cost of taking a career break is not just the years when you aren't working, but your reduced salary earning potential after you no longer need to care for children.

(Not making an argument for or against working parents, just pointing out the economic argument.)

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 13:14:26

except vast masses of the population never go onto earn enough to not need wtc.

Newpencilcase Thu 27-Feb-14 13:17:59

Merrymouse, I agree. However I do think the 'career break' stigma is largely artificial. The skills and talents of people don't change. They might need to update their knowledge but if you are a good manager, you still will be, and if you are good at sales, you still will be.

People who have taken a career break are often stigmatised unnecessarily and it's this attitude that needs to be challenged. This will make parents both comfortable making a choice to take a break for a few years, and more inclined to go back to work at a later date. Now there is often the perception that they'll have to go back down to the bottom.

lainiekazan Thu 27-Feb-14 13:20:15

Whenever this argument crops up (all the time) it's always trotted out that women need family-friendly hours, policies etc. Sigh. Can these people not appreciate that not everyone works in an office? And neither does everyone work in the public sector/for large company.

I read that although more women than men train to be doctors now, there is a recruitment crisis in certain areas - those areas where night working or unpredictable hours are required. Why should men only man (no pun intended) casualty departments? Or perform heart transplants?

It's just so unhelpful when all the talk of women in the workplace is limited to an office experience.

merrymouse Thu 27-Feb-14 14:13:40

The problem is not that women need more family friendly hours, but that the issue of family friendly working hours always seems to focus on mothers, not fathers. Childcare (and caring for children with SN and elderly parents) should not be a female problem.

TheFowlAndThePussycat Thu 27-Feb-14 15:38:27

I think it would be helpful if we stopped framing the debate as the choice to mother or the choice to work. I cuddle, nurture and watch my children grow and I go to work too.

Being a mother is not a job, any more than being a daughter or a sister is a job. It is a role and an identity, of which we all have many. No-one thinks that a father chooses between being a father and going to work. Or is it that SAHMs are Mothers with a capital M?

BTW it absolutely is possible to have a great career, wonderful marriage and thriving kids. What a load of nonsense to suggest it isn't.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 27-Feb-14 15:56:20

it's possible - that's true. i wonder if you realise how few people actually have a 'thriving career' as opposed to jobs though?

ormirian Thu 27-Feb-14 16:03:16

This seems to suggest that it isn't 'society' that is ambivalent about SAHMs, it's some SAHMs that are.

The goverment just wants everyone to work regardless of whether they are also parents or not.

'Society' (if by that you mean Joe Public) doesn't tend to give a stuff IME.

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