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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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 06-Mar-14 21:50:30

bereaved? husband killed on active duty leaving you with two small children? laura has a nice spot in the workhouse for you and serves you right for expecting the state to support you.

been hit by a drunk driver on your way to the nursery after work and been left majorly disabled with young children? off you go - you can all share a room in a shared house with whatever other undeserving bastards need state support.

nice one.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 06-Mar-14 21:48:02

i wouldn't worry about laura's opinion too much given she wants women and children to be forced to move in with any tom, dick or harry if they are single and become to ill to work. presumably she'll round up all the disabled and elderly too and shove them in too.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 06-Mar-14 20:10:11


Its certainly benefitted my dc having a parent at home, maybe you are incapable of looking after your children, but don't tar us all with the same brush.
"Does them no good" my ass.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 06-Mar-14 20:05:39

I also disagree about sexist men being the reason some women don't continue to work/have a career.
Some women have very supportive husbands who are happy for them to do as they like and make their own choices.
Just because a woman decides to be a sahm doesn't mean her husband is sexist. What utter rubbish!

merrymouse Thu 06-Mar-14 14:25:15

"If they want the state to provide them with everything whether they are 38 or 18 I don't see why they cannot house share." - leaving aside the issue of possibly being unpleasant, the reason is child protection issues and lack of stability.

"Many men I know leave at before the kids get up & are home at 7. How is that supposed to work if that's required of both parents."

Agree - many working patterns are dependent on a wife being at home. My hope would be that men really taking advantage of their rights and take on their responsibilities so that women aren't trapped by being overly responsible for their own children while having to work with people who take no responsibility for their children whatsoever.

Kirkegaard Thu 06-Mar-14 12:02:14

Absolutely spot on, this post. Care cannot easily be converted into currency, it is literally priceless. It's like the utter dislocation between 'analogue' and 'digital' technologies.

But because care cannot be 'quantified', since its very existence depends on its 'quality', care is inverted into an economically worthless activity.

'Care' at its most fundamental level is love, presence, trust and faith (an oddly religious activity -- caritas).

Tasks around care can of course be broken down into discrete elements, like nappy changes, or administering medication, or the school run, or the food shop. But these are adjuncts to what care is, not its essence.

All government can do is administrate frameworks which will either promote or inhibit care, which, as a human passion and duty, flows across such frameworks, making a nonsense of ratios, free nursery hours for 3 and 4 year olds, lengthening the school day and cutting holidays.

What needs to change are employer attitudes, the attitudes of partners towards what counts as work in the home, the inflated housing market which in effect mortgages our economy.

And where women need to be strong is in finding ways to resist the constant denigration of their work, wherever they do it, and to stop themselves internalising such negative messages -- especially when they from other women.

impty Thu 06-Mar-14 11:40:41

pay gap widens

female graduates earn less

pay inequality

I'm not sure where you get your facts from Laura

I disagree sexist men decide women should stay at home. Usually a couple come to the decision together, based on what they both want to do, and what it is possible to do financially.

Throw in a few curve balls like illness, disability and outside pressures and it's easy to come to the conclusion that someone needs to take a lesser employment role, whether its part time or at home.

However, if women have the same earning power, and the same earning power potential, then at least we can start to make more equal decisions. Despite your claims otherwise, it simply isn't the case for the majority of women, the majority of the time.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 06-Mar-14 11:34:32

i would be curious to know if you examined working class graduates and upper class private educated graduates pre and post 30 whether you would find a similar cut off point - re: competing on their own merits up to a certain level then the 'class ceiling' kicks in once you get to senior stream

TheHoneyBadger Thu 06-Mar-14 11:32:07

that's always presented as a pretty unexamined 'fact' imo.

we assume that this is because women then take time out for children which is i'm sure involved BUT you need to also take into account that other factors come into play such as at around 30 is when you may be looking at moving into more senior positions, positions with more power and clout and potentially more 'does your face fit' type stuff and a real 'choosing' of who to progress. it seems entirely possible that that would be a point where senior men are sorting out who they want to move up and into their club and sexism comes into play there. like promotes like - it's well know and even where there is not overt discrimination going on people pick people like them, they warm to them most etc.

with a male heavy senior post demographic in companies, politics, schools etc (re: everywhere) then of course it is going to tend to reproduce itself as they will promote their own kind either through subtle bias or through more overt discrimination.

that 'women are ahead till they're thirty' will not only be because they have children but can be seen as women are ahead until the stakes are higher, the pay starts to rocket, actual power and advancement really takes place at which point suddenly sexism is still applying.

LauraBridges Thu 06-Mar-14 11:10:09

At the moment girls to better in all exams and 60% of graduates are female and women on average earn more than men up to age of 30 in the UK and more women than men are millionaires at under 40. So if we are talking about starting on an equal footing women are currently ahead up to age 30 in the UK.

Then more fool them.... they marry sexist men and go part time - well that's silly of them. Make the men clean the house. Lean in. Don't be seduced by the pull of staying at home. If Mr Husband thinks children need a parent at home show him the studies that show it does not good and if thati s not enough for him hand him the baby and the loo brush and go off to your full time work without a thought. Staying home is a poisoned chalice that will suck you in, bleed you dry and not even benefit your children. Avoid it.

YouAreMyFavouriteWasteOfTime Thu 06-Mar-14 10:42:45

I agree but don't know how it can be achieved other than very slowly.

impty Thu 06-Mar-14 10:39:20

Yes, but until women start on an equal footing then nothing will be equal afterwards.

impty Thu 06-Mar-14 10:37:18


YouAreMyFavouriteWasteOfTime Thu 06-Mar-14 10:18:28

impty - an action which then ensures her pay continues to fall behind his.

impty Thu 06-Mar-14 10:04:32

As most women are still paid less than their male counterparts, for many families it falls to the women to take the secondary working role within the family.

If a basic right of equal pay cannot and currently isn't fully implemented across the genders, then women stand very little chance of equality, or respect elsewhere.

YouAreMyFavouriteWasteOfTime Thu 06-Mar-14 09:42:43

newpencil in which case there needs to be more incentive for employers to take on people returning to work

as an employer, someone out of the workplace for some time does nor look attractive because I would assume they have the least important career out of their household so will always take time off if the DCs are ill. whereas if someone has had little time off it indicates their household is more likely to share emergency leave.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 06-Mar-14 09:21:59

righto laura if you end up as a single parent with no money and a disability we'll try to remember you don't mind you and your children being forced to live with any old tom, dick or harry.

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