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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

LauraBridges Fri 07-Mar-14 11:32:11

The point is though that plenty who are not in benefits do house share. It is not a workhouse issue. it's the reality for many people working 40 - 50 hour weeks, most 20 somethings etc. I don't see why benefits claimants should be protected and given a better deal than most hard working people are. My daughter shares a room in a house. Others sleep on sofas and floors. This is the real world outside the protected featherbedded existence of those kept by the tax payer.

Hardtothinkofanewname Fri 07-Mar-14 13:47:44

I gave up work 11 years ago, we now have 4 children. I have regularly been offered jobs ever since I gave up work. People can't accept that I don't want to work and am lucky enough to be able not to work.

Part of the reason I don't want to work is two of my children have a chronic illness. I think it's totally ironic that people would accept if I was a paid teaching assistant or some sort of extra carer for my kids. But because I'm their mum I'm supposed to do all that and take on a career.

I have absolutely no problem with other mums working. I think most of my friends find a balance and their kids get plenty attention. The point is correct that these days we should be thinking about the responsibilities and input of both parents or guardians

TheHoneyBadger Fri 07-Mar-14 17:19:29

pfft laura - do try to think about what you are saying. you really want bereaved women, disabled women, women who are victims of domestic abuse etc and their young children forced to live in shared houses with any old person? you don't think they've been through enough?

my point is that the vast majority of single mothers are NOT benefits scroungers or 'expecting the tax payer to pay for everything'. they are people whose life circumstances have gone to shit rather suddenly and who need assistance for a while.

what do you think the chances of the divorced woman getting back on her feet, getting the children settled well and going back to work are if she's thrown in a house with randoms, amongst whom there may be all sorts of issues, and sharing a bedroom with her small children as their entire home? what chance for kids growing up in circumstances like that?

your comments seems based on the idea that single parent family who come to need benefits for a period of time are all dole bludging parasites - they like everybody else get made redundant, have marriage breakdowns, become ill, get hit by the recession etc. the 'did it to get a house' (allegedly) demographic you started by insinuating at are probably 0.5% of single parent families who use some form of benefits.

TheHoneyBadger Fri 07-Mar-14 17:20:55

perhaps you'd get the magdelene laundries up and running again too?

how many children would it take to be sexually abused or forced to live with heroin addicts or suffering ill health from being cooped up in one room before you changed your housing policy?

LauraBridges Fri 07-Mar-14 20:51:59

Well I don't make housing policy so there's not need to worry. It would not be hard to let the mothers double up with a friend rather than a random stranger.

BoffinMum Sat 08-Mar-14 07:43:27

People should never recommend courses of action that they would not be completely happy to endure personally.

TheHoneyBadger Sat 08-Mar-14 10:47:48

which 'friend' would you double up with if your husband ran off with all the money and another woman tomorrow and you got hit by a car and couldn't work for a year laura? do you happen to have another single mother on benefits friend you'd shack up with? or do you suppose women who become single mothers needing benefits are some particular sector of society who all hang out together?

Tweet2tweet Sun 09-Mar-14 20:17:00

I haven't read through all the posts but I wanted to pick up on one specific point in this article. This the fact that some SAHM mums seem to want to attack working mums, burdening them with the guilt of implying their kids will be damaged and they are selfish and some working mums seem to want to say that SAHM are lazy or lucky.

When will women stop doing this to each other? We should be united rather than attacking each other. I personally believe that a quality and loving caring environment with consistency of care is what works best for children. So a loving parent will be fanastic just as a. good quality care provider with low staff turnover and dedicated key workers will be fantastic.

Stop the bitterness and judging I say- live and let live, neither choice is best, just what works for each individual family.

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