Webchat with Melissa Hill
This is an edited transcript of our live online chat with Melissa Hill, author of the controversial new book "The Smart Woman's Guide to Staying at home".
Thanks to all of you who took part.
Kia: Do your ex-colleagues treat you differently now? And if they do, how do you react? How long do you think you'll be able to keep out of the paid workplace?
Melissa: Interestingly, the only colleagues I am still in contact with are parents, and mostly mothers. Former colleagues who are not parents seem to have disappeared into the mist. However, a couple tracked me down recently now that they’re getting married! I don’t mind really, because I have many more friends now than I did when I was working full-time, across a broader range of ages and interests.
In terms of staying out of the workplace, The Smart Woman’s Guide has really sent me back to work, but in a nice, flexible way. I still consider myself an at-home mum, though I suppose by most people’s standards I am now working part-time.
Winnie: Do you really believe that your guide can be applied to families whatever their financial circumstances? Beyond whether as a mother one wants to work or not, many families need two incomes simply to keep a roof over their heads!
What do you propose a single parent does?
Melissa:This is a very good question. The single mothers I have met all tell me that working is best for them. They know they are doing the best they can for their kids and best of all, working creates a more stable environment for their children. This is particularly important if the family has endured a difficult divorce or left a violent partner. Being home with children is emotionally taxing and staying at home without a partner would be very difficult. Most single mothers I have met, working or at home, have some other adult support, such as a grandparent, aunt or neighbour. Raising a child clearly requires more than one adult to be involved!
I am aware that financial dependence on a man is undesirable for women and children in an abusive home, and for this reason half of my personal income from sales of The Smart Woman’s Guide is pledged to The Women’s Aid Federation of England, a charity seeking to help those escaping domestic abuse. For the people that my writing cannot help (and no one book can serve every person), my royalties can.
Lil: How long did it take to get your head around not working anymore? If you are used to working hard and having a career, it's not easy to just 'switch off' and lose all that 'job satisfaction/mental stimulation'.
Melissa: You are so right. I wept every day for three months after handing in my notice. My career was everything to me. Gradually, over several months I began to find ways to enjoy the choice I had made. After I found that life could be good, even without a fully paid-up job title, I worried for other mothers at home who were not making the most of this time. I wrote the Smart Woman’s Guide for women who for whatever reason want to be at home with their children but are worried that their own identity and talents would get lost by leaving work behind.
Bells: I work in the city as an analyst and am in my mid-thirties. I haven't read your book but from your interviews, I can't help but feel that you are giving out advice to women from a very privileged position. Presumably after 15 or so years in the city, you and your husband are in a relatively comfortable position financially. Many city workers look to leave the industry in their mid-late 30's anyway in order to either retire or do something less demanding - I am the oldest in my team.
Surely it is considerably easier to extol the virtues of not working when money isn't a problem and when you have already enjoyed a fulfilling and demanding career which in all likelihood, was beginning to draw to a close? In addition, the skills you have gained leave you well placed to gain an interesting and well paid job once your children are older. None of these things apply to many women. In view of this, I wonder how comfortable you feel in giving advice on stopping work given how dramatically different your personal circumstances are from that of the average woman?
Also, your blithe assumption that the man should be the breadwinner makes me uneasy. One of the reasons I continue to work is because I don't want the financial burden to fall entirely on my husband. I want us both to have a degree of choice over our lives.
I would feel a lot more comfortable with your argument if it was directed at achieving a better balance overall in society between work and family with a focus on both parents taking equal responsibility for the care of their children.
As I said, I haven't read your book so apologies if I have got it wrong!
Melissa: You have a number of questions here. I will try to pick them out, because you raise a lot of very good points.
First, the book is not really about me. That would be dull. In writing The Smart Woman’s Guide I interviewed numerous women who left work for home, asking them how they coped – emotionally and financially, why they did it and would they do it again. They come from every income level. However, all of them found on the financial side that the cost of sending Mum to work was almost equal to the pay cheque they brought home. Childcare, coffees and snacks, special work clothes, retail therapy all ate away at their second income. Most women on below-average income who do go out to work can only do so because they have access to free childcare, usually a relative or a partner who can do shift-work. This is a fact. For those women who literally cannot afford to go to work full time, why should they be sniffed at? Why can’t they enjoy their time at home until the children are school-age?
Second, women, and men for that matter, can do anything they like. I believe most people are perfectly capable of making good decisions about their lives and their families given good information. Unfortunately, there isn’t any good and practical information out there for couples wishing to have one parent at home. Criticism is not information. Simply making mothers feel bad about the choice they have made – working or not - is not progressive. It’s coercive. Emotional blackmail. What one mother chooses for her family is not for anyone outside that family to judge. If a mother wants to work, let her work. If she wants to be at home, let her be at home. Be happy for her. Help her, whatever choice she and her partner make for their family.
Final point, about working towards balance in society. There are many very good books aimed at changing work policy. One that I find to be very profound is Working Fathers (by Levine and Pittinsky, Addison Wesley). Bowling Alone (by Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster) is another insightful and influential book covering this topic. Writing is not the only way to change society, though. I personally am very involved in my community, supporting mothers and disadvantaged young women in a variety of ways. I am a mother at home, but I take my role in society, both as a mother and as a citizen, very seriously. We all have a duty to make society better – society is not them. It is us.
Jbr: Why the smart WOMAN's guide? The idea that men are providers and women aren't is long gone surely?
Melissa: The Smart Woman’s Guide is for women who want to leave work for home. There are books specifically for men who want to be at home, and a wonderful on-line support group for at-home dads in the UK, www.Ukhomedads.co.uk, if that is a choice your family is looking at.
Lisa: Which do you find harder work - the job in the city or staying at home to look after your children? I find many people underestimate the work that a mother does. I find the term 'working mothers' ludicrous, what do they think mothers do all day?
Melissa: I do think working mothers (the ones with paid jobs, I mean) have more work to do. Unless you can afford a cleaner and a cook, the housework and children don’t go away just because you spend the bulk of your day earning a living. For this reason I get very annoyed when I hear people say that working mums are selfish (or disorganised or neglectful or some other outrageous slur). We all make different choices for different reasons. No one decision is generally better or more moral than another. You are quite right, though. I don’t know too many mothers who spend their day dusting their tiaras.
Sml: Melissa, the economic reality is that if most families live on one salary alone, they will be on the poverty line, unable to afford things like holidays, clothes not from charity shops, luxury foods like fresh juice, yoghurt, breakfast cereal etc. Do you think it harms children to be brought up in poverty? If neither partner can earn from home, do you think that a childhood where money is tight is a price worth paying for having a mother at home full time? And from the mother's perspective, is 15-25 years of poverty and constantly juggling the bills a price worth paying to stay at home with her children?
Melissa: As I’ve commented before, it is easy to simply assume you need two salaries to survive when what a family should do is compare the wage earned to how much it costs to send the second parent to work. This is not true of all families, but you need to do the math to find out if it is true for yours. I would never advocate a family do something that is not practical.
Also your issue of money raises a point I have heard from many mothers who have left work: you can only leave work once you accept that you will have to make material sacrifices. If money is important to your family – psychologically or practically - then you work. Once you accept that your family will have less, then you can get your mind around what it means to be at home. What parents gain is time with the children and, often, less stress. For many mothers giving up material possessions and treats to spend time with their children is a price worth paying. And they would do it again. You mention holidays for example. Our summer holiday will be spent at home. We will do day trips to interesting places, but nothing taxing. We have everything we need at home. No hassles, no cost, comfy beds and lots of toys. We’d rather stay home and have a barbecue, invite friends over and share a couple bottles of wine. We have simple tastes, so we live a simple life.
Another point, implicit in your question, is once a woman leaves work, she leaves forever. This is not true. The majority of mothers leaving work eventually return. Some after a year, some after a decade. Some work part time. Some seasonally. It is up to families to decide for themselves what suits them financially, practically and emotionally. So, as to your question when can mothers ‘safely’ go back to work – anytime they and their families are ready. It isn’t up to me, or anyone else, to judge. Wouldn’t you agree?
Finally, role modelling. Mothers can still be great role models at home. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m quite active in my community. I teach pensioners how to use computers and the internet. I write and read voraciously. I’ve taught myself to play the guitar. If my children want to go to a museum, the zoo, the seaside or just ride on the train we open the door and go. I think my children are learning that intelligence and an adventurous spirit can be put to many good uses, not only earning a wage. They also see me living out my values, such as politeness and respect, keeping promises, listening, thrift and seizing opportunities to do interesting things. They see these things because I am there all the time, and believe me, I know they are watching me.
Saying that, I don’t think we should be complaisant about letting children know that all people, regardless of race or gender, should have equal opportunities. My own mother was sacked from her job as a science teacher because she was pregnant with me. Only one generation ago, a pregnant woman was seen to be a bad influence on young people. Today a teacher has to take her clothes off on national television for the head to think maybe she should take a little look at the employment contract. We should not abuse the rights previous generations of women have seized for us, and we should not take them for granted. However, one of the rights achieved is the right to choice, and this is the most precious.
Sml: To expand on the background to my question: Working Families Tax Credit effectively means that practically all two parent families have the option of living on one salary if they are prepared to be no better off than if they were on Income Support, so I don't see working as an issue of no choice for them. The question is, is it sensible to allow your family to be this poor if you can take action to alleviate it? (NB: obviously this isn't possible if you aren't in a position to earn more than the costs of childcare) My mother stayed at home full time, because that is what she wanted to do. She had not grown up in poverty, but as a result of her decision to stay at home, we did. I am therefore contemplating the next 20 years odd from the perspective of having already spent most of my life in poverty. Of course, that is a simplification of the situation, but the point remains that a mother may be happy to make financial sacrifices to be with her children all the time, but are you sure that your children will view the situation in the same light? Isn't it possible that when they are grown up, they might appreciate it if their mother had made some other sort of sacrifices instead? And do you accept that it would be fair if your husband declared that it was his turn to stay at home with the children, so would you please take sole responsibility for the mortgage, food and all bills from now on?
Please don't anyone take this as a personal attack - I only question staying at home because of my own experience of what my mother did, and obviously everyone's circumstances are different!
Melissa: Thanks for elaborating SML.
I want to draw your attention to your worry about 20 years of doing without. You do not have to leave work for 20 years. You, of course, don’t have to ever stop working! Take one year off, or let your husband take a year off if he wants to. No one said that leaving work was a life sentence.
Leaving work is also something that is not decided in a vacuum. I don’t believe anyone here tonight married their husbands because they were quiet, docile money-spinners who didn’t have to be consulted on anything. I hope we all like the guy we married and value their opinions on things.
Jj: I was wondering how old your children were when you began seriously researching, writing and then promoting your book and how the change from being a mother without a paid job to a mother with a paid job changed your perspective on the subject. What things at home had to "give" in order to for you to deal with work? Did you have to hire a cleaner (or maybe you've always had one), make regular childcare arrangements or have someone on call who could look after them for you while you had meetings, did interviews or simply wrote?
Also, when you began working again, did you look back and realise that some parts of staying at home were more difficult than others-- what didn't you miss about it? How have your kids reacted to your going back to having a paid job and not simply being a wife and mother?
Disclaimer: I'm a non-paid mum at home and planning to stay that way until the kids are in college. (Sorry JBR.) Terribly happy, though.
Melissa: I began seriously researching The Smart Woman’s Guide when my first was nearly a year old and pregnant with my second. I was inspired to write in support of women choosing to be at home because I was lucky to meet a community of mothers at home with children at all different ages and stages. They provided so much advice and helped me see that being at home could be an extremely positive and fun time, not just for me but for my whole family – husband included.
Now having an income from writing, my perspective on parents choosing to be at home has not changed one bit. My perspective on how I spend my time has changed a lot, though. My time is much more precious now, and whatever takes my attention away from my girls has got to be very interesting and worthwhile. I do have help now to enable me to meet my deadlines, but I don’t earn much for the work I do, and I give at least half to charity. I do this because I don’t want to be driven by whether a topic is commercial or not. I want to write the truth.
If you assume that my working life now, such as it is, is better than staying at home, a do get attacked a lot for speaking up for life at home, and always by people who have not read my book, obviously. I try to not take it personally because these are important, honest questions. They should be asked and by writing my book I certainly volunteered to answer them! But it would be much easier for me to keep quiet, enjoy my life and my family in peace.
But these issues show that The Guide is necessary. Some one has to speak up about what it is really like to be at home. Thousands of mothers leave work every year. Some are made redundant. Some are ill themselves and some have ill children, partners or elderly parents. People leave work for many reasons. It doesn’t mean that it is easy. I know working mothers don’t like all the myths and stereotypes they face. Neither do at-home mums. The fact is there have been numerous books written for working mothers (the key words ‘working mothers’ alone generates 60 books on Amazon). The Smart Woman’s Guide to Staying at Home is the first and only book written for British mothers who are trying to decide whether they should work or be at home.
As for what my children think, well, they are young for starters and I work from home most of the time. But I don’t think my oldest thinks mummies only stay at home. This evening she told me she had to put tights on Barbie because she was going to work now.
Croppy: Did you think about taking a part time job or switching to a less demanding field before you decided to resign altogether?
Melissa: Great question Croppy.
I was offered the possibility of working part-time, but the position I was in was very competitive. I was part of an award winning team and I felt working only part time would not allow me to hold my end up. Even when I was on maternity leave I would receive rather nasty emails from people complaining that I was inaccessible. Little did they know that I was actually very ill and had to spend a great deal of time in the hospital, but their insensitivity was hurtful. I knew there would be pressure on me to produce more than part-time work.
Changing fields, obviously would have been an alternative solution, and I have met many mothers who did just this with considerable success. I discuss the changes these mothers made in my book. For me, at the time, I was lost. Leaving work for me was awful. It was not a rational time at all. It was very emotional, I was quite ill and feeling pretty isolated. What I had experienced during my maternity leave was that home was the safest place for me to be at the time, but I was not thrilled with the choices before me.
Now that I am writing, obviously I have changed fields, but I keep an eagle eye on the demands placed on my time. I would rather be home with my kids than almost anywhere else – except mentoring young women leaving foster care. I find that incredibly rewarding and it is probably the only time I don’t wish I was with my children.
Catseyes: I haven't read your book (yet) but was wondering what factors contributed in you coming to your conclusion that women are better off staying at home. Were some stronger than others - which ones? Please share... What advice do you have for those who cannot just 'jack it all in'?
Melissa: This is an interesting question, Catseyes.
My first thought was that I don’t assume all women are better off doing one thing over another. However, I do propose that if a mother finds that balancing family and work is making her very unhappy then I would suggest that she consider taking a sabbatical to spend time with just her family. She could just take six months or a year and see how it goes. We have unprecedented levels of employment in the UK now. This is the best point in the economic cycle to take an extended break from work. Some employers are happy to offer unpaid time off. For others, if you explain you want to focus only on your family for a time, they may be willing to help you find another placement in a year’s time if they can’t offer you a job themselves.
The real point is it is easy to dismiss a lifestyle from afar, but it is better to know if a choice suits your family or not when you have actually tried it out. The Smart Woman’s Guide is meant to help women who want to try being at home work through their fears, find resources and encourage them to make the most of being at home. Being at home can be nice, but it’s no movie. You have to make good things happen. It’s the same as work or school. Opportunities don’t just drop in your lap. You need the motivation to go find fun, interesting and worthwhile things to do with your day.
This is important because the most compelling piece of evidence I discovered supporting that women should do what makes them happy (and not just what is supposedly best for the children) is that happy parents make happy kids – not the other way round! A study at Wharton School of Business found that parents (mothers and fathers both) who are content and comfortable with the adult spheres of their life (work, relationships, social life, etc) have children exhibiting fewer behavioural problems, ranging from tantrums to criminal activity. Find the balance between work and family that suits you and your partner – forget what society says you should do – and your family will very simply benefit. Sacrificing yourself for your kids will not work.
For mothers who cannot stop working completely, The Guide works through various flexible work schemes and their pros and cons. The main problem with flexible work, though, is that many employers are sceptical, for whatever reason. The Guide offers suggestions on negotiating with employers if you want to try flexible work for yourself. In the end, take comfort that you are doing the best you can for your family. You don’t need to be ecstatically happy with your life, merely comfortable and confident. I think we can all do that, can’t we?
Moneypenny: I would be interested to see how you adjusted to full time staying at home after such a high powered role. I am just about to cut down from a full time role in the City to three days a week as I want to "raise" my daughter or have much more input/ nurturing time for the majority of the week. I am counting the hours until I have this time with her (she is 11 months). I enjoy my work, but could not stay at home full time as I am sure I would go mad with the monotony. How did you adjust seemingly so well?
Melissa: I’m glad you are looking forward to your time at home. You are starting on better footing than I did. I didn’t actually adjust well at all. I wrote The Smart Woman’s Guide to make sure other women didn’t make the disastrous mistakes I did, like watching too much Jerry Springer and generally feeling sorry for the fat, lonely, unfocused person I thought I had become. I was lucky to meet some very energetic veteran mums at home who nursed my self-esteem and showed me that my talents were still there, waiting to be used.
I actually dedicate my book to two of these mums, Cindy and Shannon. Cindy is just an amazing, upbeat and creative woman who has endured a lot of suffering and loss in her life. Shannon gave me a kick in the pants, though, when one of her paintings won a prestigious competition. I thought to myself, why am I sitting on my duff and Shannon is out there showing off her abilities. I can do that too! And I started getting out of myself that very day, stopped watching rubbish, reading rubbish, eating rubbish and got a life. The Smart Woman’s Guide would not have ever been written without their example.
Tigermoth: More money questions. First: Surely logic dictates that the parent who earns the most money per hour should be the main family breadwinner - as long as they are reasonably happy about this? Like many women I know, I earn more than my husband, and this is the major reason why I am the main breadwinner.
I have not read your book so please set me right if I am misrepresenting you, but if I took your advice and gave up my outside job so the whole family could benefit from my full time attention, my husband would be forced to work impossibly long hours to maintain our pretty basic standard of living. Or else we would be living on income support etc. Either way, he and I - and our children - would by poorer in time or money. If someone is going to give up their job shouldn't this be the parent who earns the least,irrespective of gender?
Second: With university costs rising all the time, aren't you worried your advice may limit children's access to higher education and other opportunities?
Melissa: As I’ve said to SML and Bells above (and so you don’t feel I’m ignoring your point):
1. Most mothers do not leave the workplace for the rest of their lives.
2. Families should make financial decisions appropriate to their circumstances. My book does not dispute that fact.
Weebee: As a former City professional, now full-time mother, I have just found that the job at home got a lot harder, i.e., number 2 baby arrived 7 weeks ago. Despite all my persuasion skills, I am having trouble convincing my firstborn (2.25yrs) that the world is still ok. Splitting my time has made obstinate behaviour and manipulation the new norms from my toddler. She still gets one on one time, but obviously much less. This is more challenging than banking ever was....any advice?
I have been thinking about going back to work part-time in 2 or 3 years when my youngest (now newborn) starts pre-school. I worry that juggling the kids' needs, my husband's needs, the house chores, school demands, and my then-job, whatever it may be, will prove too exhausting. This would be bad for the whole family and leave me no time for myself to boot. On the other hand, how can I sit home alone for 3 hours a day without feeling like a slacker if I don't work? Granted, yoga and a class in something might be greatly satisfying, but I feel guilty that I would not be pulling my weight in the working world - and our home finances -- especially after enjoying the privilege of staying at home with my kids while they were young. I also worry about how to convince my husband that it is the best thing for us all. It irritates me that I feel this way given that I previously earned more than he did and was jointly responsible putting us in a comfortable financial position. Still I worry that he won't be impressed with me as a more permanent stay-at-home mum. Haven't read your book - but clearly I should...
Melissa: Congratulations on your new baby! That is fantastic news. However, I’ve got some bad news for you. The problem is not simply sibling rivalry; it is the fact that you have a two year old! And all the evidence suggests that toddlers get more unreasonable before they get better (around age four, maybe, if you’re lucky).
The good thing with two year-olds is they are starting to understand (vaguely) that their actions bring consequences. When my older daughter has completely lost the plot (like the old scream-at-bedtime-until-the-baby-is-screaming-too trick) I find consistent, unemotional time-outs work a treat. Totally unacceptable behaviour (kicking or pushing the baby, for instance) is an instant 2-minute time out in the corner. If I feel she needs an explanation as to why she got in trouble I will ask her gently at the end of the two minutes why she had to stand in the corner. Believe me, 9 times out of 10 she knows why already. Mildly undesirable behaviour (like just a good old fashioned tantrum) might get a warning; on the third warning (within a short time period mind, not over the whole day!) she gets her two minutes. This system is from the book 1-2-3 Magic (by Thomas Philan, Child Management) and I tell you it works. My at-home Mum network clued me into this book a year ago. No yelling, no smacking, no explaining, no bribery.
Also, don’t require your first baby to grow up too fast. I let my older child ‘play’ baby when she wants, scooping her up and making baby goo goo noises, telling her she’s a good baby, letting her sit in the highchair for her meal, etc. The game always gets boring eventually, and then she wants to be a big girl again. Two years of age is still very young, so don’t pressure them to be little adults before their time.
One other trick a very good friend in her late 60s (mother of four and grandmother of six) told me about jealousy during breast-feeding was to make it special story time for the older child. Feed the baby with one hand and use the other to read a great book (or just tell a classic story, like the three little pigs, that you know off by heart) especially well – pull out all your theatrical skills so that the older child will look forward to when the baby is being fed too.
In terms of keeping your self-respect and the respect of your husband, I hope that he didn’t marry you only for your earning power. You took the vow to stay together for richer or poorer, which means he loves you, not your money. Ask your husband what he loves best about you, and what makes him proud to be married to you. You may be surprised. Maybe he loves you because you are so intelligent and insightful. In that case, do intelligent and insightful things – listen to interesting and challenging radio programmes and then tell him what you thought of the debate. Join or form a book club with other at-home mums and exercise your skills of literary criticism.
Maybe he loves your spontaneity and courage. In that case spring surprises on him, tell him on Saturday morning that you’d like an adventure, then pile the kids in the car and just go somewhere new. Take on a challenge you could never have done working full-time, such as training to run in a marathon or to go on a cycling holiday in six or nine months’ time (get child seats for your bikes, book B&Bs and go). Use your special knowledge to teach others, like how to research and invest in companies, use a computer, or write a good CV. There are even programmes to mentor new young mothers in baby care and nutrition. Now a mother of two you probably have a wealth of advice to offer. Being active in your community also widens your social sphere and broadens your experience of how people live. There is nothing boring about that!
If you want to try working part-time, then try it out. You can always change your mind, begin working full-time, or stop working again altogether. It is not the end of the world, and I’m sure your husband (who thinks you are just splendid anyway) only wants you to be happy so he can stop worrying about you so much! Once we solve our own problems it takes a lot of pressure of our husbands to solve them for us!
Cath: I TOO GAVE UP MY JOB AS A SENIOR CREDIT CONTROLLER TO CARE FOR MY SON, OLIVER. HE IS NOW 2 AND I AM SO GLAD I DO NOT WORK, I HAVE ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT BEING WITH OLIVER. HAVE YOU EVER HAD ANY REGRETS? DO YOU INTEND TO GO BACK TO WORK WHEN YOUR CHILDREN ARE AT SCHOOL? DO YOU MISS SOCIAL EVENTS RELATED TO THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT? I HAVE TO ADMIT I DO NOT MISS IT AT ALL. I ENTERTAIN AT HOME NOW.
Melissa: Entertain at home – I love it! Amazingly, even in my darkest, most depressed days I did not regret leaving work. All the mothers I surveyed for the book who left work feel that at least trying life at home was worth the risk, even the ones who are now on income support or are desperately worried about losing their identity.
Regarding my social life, I have to say my social life is better: more intelligent, less pretentious, more honest, and much more fun – but maybe that says more about who I used to work with! Just today I had a feisty discussion about faith, and we all walked away still very good friends. This evening I had another long conversation about sociological constructs of gender identity (particularly concerning the role of husbands in popular culture). And now I get a special invitation to debate with all these smart, informed women here on Mumsnet. Brilliant!
Hmonty: I was interested to read that you donate a proportion of your profits to The Women's Aid Federation of England. Can you tell me something about what they do and how and why you got involved (if that's not too personal).
Melissa: WAFE is an organisation that networks all the women's shelters across England. They provide a national help line and can direct women to help closest to them. Most shelters don't list themselves in the phonebooks in order to protect the women staying with them.
They also lobby the government to ensure that domestic abuse issues are dealt with. I could have a huge long conversation about how deficient the law is in protecting women and children escaping violence, but WAFE is on-line and you can read more about their work on their website.
Nancy: Your book seems to have lit a touchpaper for many who are quite upset by what you are saying. Why do you think that is?
Melissa: Why are people upset by my book? Because the media make all us poor parents paranoid of making the wrong choice, that's why and it drives me round the bend. Working mums feel I am condemning their choice, but of course they haven't read my book or they don't know me personally. So I try to address their concerns with respect, so that they can see my point, with respect as well.
Bev: I've got a one-year-old son who is looked after during the day by his dad as I work full time. I would desperately love to be a full time mum but because I earn a very good salary I just haven't got the courage to give it all up. I worry that my son will miss out through us not having so much money and I worry that I will be placing too much pressure on his dad to support us all. For these reasons I have been thinking seriously about working from home but I don't know whether this is an unrealistic idea. Is looking after a young child - and hopefully another to follow in the next couple of years - totally incompatible with continuing to work but from home?
Melissa: The Smart Woman's Guide deals with this work arrangement in a bit more detail, but if you are working and your partner is able to still look after the children then I don't think it is unrealistic at all.
What is difficult, but not impossible, is trying to do eight hours work with children demanding your attention at the same time. Most WAHMs have some sort of child-minding help for some portion of the day. I do know of one mother who has no help, but she also lives on about three hours sleep each night and is hyper-organised. I think she has more energy than most people though!
Winnie: Are you working on a next book and if so can you tell us what it is about?
Melissa: I am working on The Smart Woman's Guide to Getting Married, which is turning out to be a lot of fun, but the research (reading all these wedding planning books) makes me hyperventilate sometimes. The idea is to help brides-to-be survive the planning process, like how to deal with your jealous ex-best friend, neurotic parents and evil salespeople telling you that what you want to do is bad luck and will ruin your marriage.
Jraven: Your description of your life as a mum - zoos, trains etc on demand sounds idyllic for your kids. Would you accept, though, that not all women are as cut out for motherhood as you and find the idea of doing the Maisy floor puzzle yet again a touch mind-numbing. Maybe these women and their kids would be better off in full-time employment?
Melissa: Great question. You do not have to do the Maisy puzzle 100 times with your child if you do not want to. My children have learned that they can play on their own while I sit on the sofa and read my paper or work on the computer. They don't seem particularly scarred by playing with each other or on their own.
Believe me, I am no Mother Teresa. We don't listen to nursery tapes. My oldest can identify a Madness or Van Morrison song in five notes or less. When she was a baby we didn't read baby books, I read my books aloud to her. She loved it and she has a super vocabulary (though those two points are not necessarily connected). I don't go to many toddler groups because I don't get along with 90% of the mothers there. My life is too short. I invite my interesting friends over and my kids can play with their kids while we discuss politics and religion.
My personality is not subsumed to some expert's idea of what is best for children, and no one else's has to be either.
Tik: I think giving up work to be at home with your children is the best thing you can give them. Afterall, we all want what is best for our children NOT SECOND BEST!
Melissa: I like to think all parents want what is best for their children. Since all children (and all parents, for that matter) are different, how can one blanket prescription for all families possibly work? Home v. work is not a black and white choice. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities worth considering. Granted the choices are not always available, but why be paralysed by what Dr so-and-so's statistics say is the right way to go? We have to adapt the options available to us to our family's own individual needs. What I want to do is dispel some of the fear surrounding leaving work.
Robbie: What do you think of the government's policy re mothers? i.e. all financial incentives seem to be aimed at keeping mothers at work/ getting them back to work, as opposed to encouraging them to stay at home?
Melissa: Quite frankly I don't think it should be the government's business to be encouraging one specific behaviour over another, especially when it comes to choices over raising our children. I think there should be more pressure brought to bear on employers to be more family-friendly and I think schools should be more sensitive to the difficulties that working parents face: eg four day school weeks are outrageous, and in the US they have implemented year-round schooling in some areas and eliminated the long summer holiday. It is not just finances that people have to work through - we are really held back by rigid, out-dated and self-interested institutions. That's just my opinion, for what it's worth.
Cl: I gave up my career when my first child was born, having tried to go back. Both me and my husband worked long, hard, inflexible hours and something had to give. I now unpaid part-time work, to keep my brain active, but fit my child, but I hate not having my own money (I worked and earned for 15 years), and hate feeling as if I'm not contributing to the family finances. My husband has admitted that he hates the pressure of being the only breadwinner and provider, though when I ask him what I'm supposed to do about it - he doesn't have any answers. Did you come across many SAHM's who a) missed having their' money (especially for stuff like parking tickets and hair highlights...) and b) found their partner got stressed about losing an income?
Melissa: Brilliant point. I met all too many at home mums who hate asking their husbands for money.
The best solution is for both of you to get your head around the fact that there is no his & hers money when there is only one earner in a family. This is tough because we are a society that worships individuality and independence.
Money represents power and when someone is feeling insecure, money becomes the number one topic to argue about.
The way my husband and I deal with money is he earns it and I manage it. Don't get me wrong, we discuss purchasing decisions and the budget, but I am the one who knows all the financial details. I pay the bills and approve all the major purchases. I'm not a jerk about it, though. We negotiate the finances, but I am the keeper of all the information.
Tik: As you have taken the step to being a stay at home mum, what are your views about home educating - seeing that you are a 'professional mum' with your values, ideals and believes. If you can take time out to be with your children, will you take time out to educate them as well or are you going to leave that responsibility to other people?
Melissa: Ahhh. Home education. I know many home-educating families and there is no question that you have got to be a SAH or WAH parent to carry this off. It is a very interesting life-style decision for a family to home-educate, and as far as I've seen a very positive one. If you are interested in home education in the UK, there is a useful website, www.education-otherwise.org covering all the legalities and practicalities and you can debate this to your heart's content!
Nancy: Steve Biddulph said in a previous live chat here that he thought it was important to stay at home for the first 3 years of your child's life in particular. Would you agree that the first 3, are the crucial years? After that is it less important?
Melissa: I'm not a child development expert, but the research I have read says that children can develop confidence and all that other good stuff just as easily in a good nursery environment as they can being 24/7 with their mother. The catch is the good nursery environment.
For many mothers who leave work, this is the deciding question. They were not able to find or afford the care they wanted for their children so they leave work or scale back their hours.
Other mothers I have met say the years after 3 are more important for being at home - it's the early years that are best for continuing your career!
Do what is best for your family given your situation. Your child will thrive when you are confident that you are doing the best you can for them.
Bon: It's fine to say that we should take a sabbatical until the kids go back to school but there are many professions where this just isn't possible. In my line of work, (I work as a Doctor) taking 5 years out would make me totally lose touch and render me unemployable. I enjoy my work and after years of training, wouldn't want to change professions. I have 2 young children and would love to spend more time with them. Do you have any suggestions for women in such a position as mine?
Melissa: I'm sure you appreciate life is full of trade-offs. I am at home with my children, but I gave up a lucrative career. You have a lucrative career but want more time with your children. It is the rare individual who can have their cake and eat it too.
I do know an ex-mother at home who is a medical professional in a very technical job who was able to return to work after being away for 10 years. It wasn't like she opened her door and announced 'take me back' and the hospitals fell all over themselves to take her, but after much searching and persistence she found what she calls her dream job, good hours at a super hospital. Don't sell yourself short. You are smart enough to be a doctor; you won't forget everything you know if you take a year or so off.
I know another GP who left his surgery to become a 'tv doctor' - those doctors who do medical reports on talk shows. He did this because he is a single dad who has to look after three children. His hand is still in the medical profession, he has a fun job and he has more time to spend with his kids.
Then there is private work - you don't say if you are a specialist, but there are plenty of clinics that only operate certain hours, or you can work a limited number of hours within a group practice.
I'm not an expert in the medical industry, but I've given you three options just there. I'm sure with some thought and creativity you'll come up with even more.
Last updated: over 3 years ago