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Guest post: "you can’t win as a mother. If you’re not being judged for staying with your baby, you’re being judged for not leaning in."

64 replies

JuliaMumsnet · 08/07/2021 11:23

How do we navigate the tensions between work and family, community and the individual? Mary Harrington is a MNer, journalist and advises the New Social Covenant Unit:

"In the course of being not very good at numerous jobs, and spending a lot of time online in the office when I should have been working, I discovered Mumsnet long before I actually had a child. (No, I’m not going to post my old MN handle - there’s wayyy too much oversharing there).

I spent many happy afternoons skiving off jobs I didn’t especially enjoy, reading (now classic) threads like the Pom Bear dinner party or the DH who ate a fat ball. Then when I did have a baby, MN was a lifeline via all the collected wisdom on the boards, and the 2016 pregnancy bus that morphed into a real-life friendship group which is still going strong five years and many meetups later.

After DD came along, I spent some time as a SAHM. It wasn’t really planned that way - my contract ended and it didn’t feel right to get a new job while pregnant but not showing yet. And as it turned out, not only did I not have a job to go back to, and a DH working long hours in London, but I also found I really didn’t want to leave DD. She was so tiny and I didn’t even really like my then-career (I was also rubbish at it). I was lucky that we could get by on DH’s wage, so I just sort of carried on not looking for a job.

One by one, the women I’d spent maternity leave with, or chatted to in my MN bus group, went back to work. Not many wanted to return full-time and not all had the choice either way. Lots found being away from their babies difficult to begin with.

There were conversations about how you can’t win as a mother. If you’re not being judged for staying with your baby, you’re being judged for not leaning in. But one size really doesn’t fit all. The sociologist Catherine Hakim studied women’s work preferences and argued that, where women do have a choice, roughly 20% of women prefer to work full-time, another 20% prefer to be SAHMs and the remaining 60% prefer a balance. Anecdotally, looking around at my peer group and MN discussions on this subject, that sounds about right.

Some 38% of working-age women work part-time, which equates to around 6.18 million. Of these, 4.85 million are voluntarily part-time (nearly 80%) – that is, they didn’t want full-time hours. This compares to the 1.2 million voluntarily part-time men out of a total of 2.22 million: 54% of all part-time working men. Considerably more women than men prefer to work part-time. This is widely associated with having dependent, and especially young, children.

But preferences also vary by job type. It makes sense: you’d expect someone with a fun and lucrative career to be more enthusiastic about returning to work than someone who mainly works to pay the bills. Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK government data show full-time female workers cluster at the top of the pay scale. And the strongest public support for mothers working part-time or staying home (60%) comes from those in unskilled or routine occupations.

But government policy skews toward these full-timers and only grudgingly sees the rest. At the 2019 General Election, all the major parties vied for who could offer to spend the most on providing childcare so women can work more.

Since I had DD, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have fallen by accident into a pretty ideal work setup: writing from home, which I can do flexibly around preschool hours, and I have a supportive DH who now also works from home. I count my blessings every day. I’m also aware that not all work can be done from home and some people are working not because they want to but because they have to.

I don’t think anyone should be guilted for doing the best they can for their family. But my sense is also that some mothers might, if they had the choice, spend less time at work and more time with their children, especially when they’re very young.

Politics is mainly done by the kind of professional women who are more likely to want to work full-time (or men who are married to, and socialise with, such women). It’s understandable that many will assume the same is true everywhere, and thus the best way to address the interests of mothers is always more and cheaper childcare. But I think government could do more to reflect the full range of mothers’ priorities.

This is such a sensitive subject, and it’s nearly impossible to raise without someone feeling criticised when we’re all just doing our best. The pandemic has been rough on everyone but perhaps especially mothers, many of whom have shouldered the lion’s share of home schooling and childcare while keeping work ticking over as well. I’ve no desire to go back to a world where mothers are tutted at for working, and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution.

But I was grateful for the chance to be home with DD for nearly three years, and I’m also grateful for being able to work flexibly now. I don’t think the answer is trying to make anyone get back in the kitchen (unless that’s where they want to be). But I’d like to see more politicians break the mould like Miriam Cates recently, when she called not just for policies aimed at giving families the option to work, but also the option to be with our children more.

Whether that’s a lump sum to help ease the financial hit of being very part-time or taking a career break, loosening rules for childcare co-ops or subsidising grandparent care, or campaigning for a fully transferable tax allowance, I don’t know. I would love to know what MNers think. I’m now standing by for a flaming, for leaping head-first into this radioactive territory. But I want to say it: I suspect that more childcare is not always the answer. And I think we should talk about it."

Mary Harrington is a journalist and advises the New Social Covenant Unit which exists to promote ideas that create a more local, more connected, more sustainable life for all by strengthening the associations that make individuals happy, safe and free - such as the family. The Unit will launch a campaign on family finance in the autumn. She's on twitter here.

Mary will be coming onto the thread to answer your questions at 2pm on 15th July.

Guest post: "you can’t win as a mother. If you’re not being judged for staying with your baby, you’re being judged for not leaning in."
OP posts:
Challengerice · 08/07/2021 12:32

Who’s doing all this judging?

I’ve been a sahm
I’ve been part time
I’ve been full time

I have never ever felt judged

OoglyMoogly · 08/07/2021 12:45

I felt judged when I worked part-time as colleagues either felt I should be a SAHM or work full-time and not have the “best of both worlds” by working part-time, earning a part-time salary, racing from pillar to post to work and childcare, stretching myself further than I wanted yet with the same workload as full-timers and people openly glaring as I left on time for school pickup. I would come into work to find my desk had been loaded with jobs to accomplish that had clearly been left for me to do because the prime projects had been cherry-picked.

I took voluntary redundancy in the end as it grew intolerable. My next job was part-time with a very family-friendly company and my stress levels vanished overnight.

Challengerice · 08/07/2021 12:54


I felt judged when I worked part-time as colleagues either felt I should be a SAHM or work full-time and not have the “best of both worlds” by working part-time, earning a part-time salary, racing from pillar to post to work and childcare, stretching myself further than I wanted yet with the same workload as full-timers and people openly glaring as I left on time for school pickup. I would come into work to find my desk had been loaded with jobs to accomplish that had clearly been left for me to do because the prime projects had been cherry-picked.

I took voluntary redundancy in the end as it grew intolerable. My next job was part-time with a very family-friendly company and my stress levels vanished overnight.

Did they actually verbalise this to you?
If so, how many?
Hardbackwriter · 08/07/2021 13:20

Given that there is currently so little government subsidy for childcare compared to the vast majority of other European countries it feels a bit soon to me to say that 'more childcare is not the answer'. For the vast majority of families tax free childcare is the only help they get towards childcare costs until their child is 3, which seems so wrongheaded to me - if the point of this help is to encourage and enable parents to work why is there this huge gap between maternity leave and funded hours kicking in?

Phineyj · 08/07/2021 13:35

I don't think anyone ever thought under funded, not really free, bargain basement childcare was the answer to anything (other than votes).

Personally, I'd make childcare fully tax deductible. Then you'd get a much more realistic picture of who wants to work and who doesn't.

I would also completely reform the primary school admissions system and ban homework at primary school. That would really help mums. The school system is much more of an issue than nurseries.

Kopperbergcazza · 08/07/2021 14:04

I actually think more childcare IS the answer. Properly thought out and funded childcare. So that it does actually equate to the X amount of free hours it is supposed to. So it can be used to suit the parent, not the childcare providers. Make it available all year around, not just term times. And that is is available from an age where it would make more of a difference, like from birth. Not 3 years old when the damage has already been done in terms of the mother's career.

I've done it all. Full time shift work when my eldest was six months old. Part time evenings around DHs hours when my youngest was six months old and my eldest was two. I am now back to full time again, working from home. I am very lucky that I have kind of stumbled into situations of right place, right time where I've found flexible jobs that suit what I need.

3totheright4totheleft · 08/07/2021 14:58

@Phineyj what are you proposals re primary school admissions? I definitely agree that's it's once they start school that life becomes really challenging. There seems to be an assumption, in Reception/Year 1, that you have a second child at home and are therefore not working, so you can attend meetings at all sorts of crazy times. I felt like an alien among the other parents during those years, with my 1 child and FT job.

PacificState · 08/07/2021 15:16

I chose to do the SAHM thing with mine when they were pre-school - they didn't even do the free preschool year. Like the author here I hated my pre-kids job. DP didn't earn loads and it was a tough time financially but we had supportive parents who helped us out (of course this was luck - or class/privilege).

I so remember feeling how lucky I was to be able to make that choice. If we'd been reliant on benefits, I'd have had no choice but to put my kids in childcare and get a job. The idea that parents are forced to use childcare so that they can go and do something they hate and be a productive economic unit really makes me shiver. I'm so grateful that wasn't me.

Obviously this isn't purely about class: you can come from a working class background and have a well paid or fascinating job that you love and wouldn't want to give up. But people with money, whether it's their own or family money, just have more choices, full stop. I think a universal basic income that recognises that some people want to do care work for family members or kids, and other people have to, is the way to go. Although in combination with the expectation that it's always mothers who will do this, you risk entrenching the lack of representation of women in senior decision making roles, and women's smaller share of wealth overall.

Snog · 08/07/2021 16:04

Think the four day week is an important part of the answer.

dameofdilemma · 08/07/2021 16:30

As ever, where are fathers in this debate?

Why are the majority of SAHPs women? Why are the majority of part-time workers women? Why are the majority of lone parents women?

On the basis that the vast majority of people are not independently wealthy, then the current scenario hands over a hefty chunk of economic power to men.
That doesn't seem in the interests of women in the long term.

Surely men want to spend time with their children too? Why are they not campaigning to make that happen?

Hardbackwriter · 08/07/2021 17:41

The idea that parents are forced to use childcare so that they can go and do something they hate and be a productive economic unit really makes me shiver. I'm so grateful that wasn't me.

I think it's quite odd that this is all framed - as it is by the author of the guest post - about what parents (women) want to do. Lots and lots of people don't like their jobs, would rather not work and have lots of other things of varying importance they would rather be doing, and I don't really see why wanting to spend time with your children is a special category of things you want to do that the state should support. I think it should be about a combination of what's likely to be best for children themselves and what makes economic sense. I don't really think the state should fund women to stay at home because they don't like their jobs and would rather not be there.

Phineyj · 08/07/2021 19:07

3totheright I don't have a fully worked out alternative, sadly, but I would like a system where there wasn't so much assumption of how much time, knowledge and skill parents have got to support their children's education, where allocation of places was more logical, more closely linked to the actual amount of children locally in the relevant age groups, catered for SEN properly and was less dependent on parents' religion. Wrap around care a requirement, not left up to the whim of the school. I can dream!

Royalbloo · 08/07/2021 19:37

I was led to believe that returning to work was a 'choice'. Haha!

In reality, you either earn so little it's not worth returning, or you earn too much to stop.

Utter nonsense...our choices are not choices!

somuchcoffeeneeded · 08/07/2021 22:46

I would love to be a SAHM but it’s not financially possible. I do need more help with childcare.

MerryDecembermas · 08/07/2021 23:49

I'm scratching my head wondering why this is yet again focused on women's "choices". Fathers, men? What are their choices? Fathers have even fewer "choices" than mothers do. Can you imagine a world where men frequently went part time after becoming fathers, to spend more time with their children and to pick up their fair share of the domestic load?

It may come with a side serving of belittlement, undermining and snidey comments, but I have much greater leeway to make work "work for me" than DH does.

Radziwill · 09/07/2021 00:15

I think banning homework at primary school to make life easier for mums is a very bad idea. Starting secondary school is already a big adjustment for children as it is - never mind having to get used to homework all of a sudden!

HighNetGirth · 09/07/2021 06:39

Parents, please, not just mothers.

And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be this:

The world of work can change when it has to and change radically. Family, children, caring responsibilities, well-being have all been squashed by an exploitative long hours work culture that we need to change.

Childcare, like other caring jobs, is left to the unskilled and is low paid, low status. Actually, like healthcare, these jobs are vital. We need to shift our thinking and recognise that. I would like to see people who do this work paid more and valued with better working conditions.

Bring back Sure Start centres properly.

The families who most need this help are the working poor and those who want to get back into work but can't because of the benefits trap.

Confusedandshaken · 09/07/2021 09:04

I was mainly a SAHM for over 20 years but occasionally worked PT either from boredom or because we needed extra money. I can honestly say I never felt judged by friends, family or colleagues. A couple of friends were openly envious that I had the luxury of being at home with my DC so much but it was never in a negative way and I was able to spread the benefit of it by being available to do emergency school runs/child care for them when needed.

I am sure there are some judgy people out there. Perhaps some of them were judging me and I was unaware of it. But I also think that a lot of people who feel continuously judged for their choices are projecting their own unconscious feelings of guilt or inadequacy onto other people.

PacificState · 09/07/2021 09:27

@Hardbackwriter I think there is a special category of thing that the state should support actually - which is love/care work. Not just for infants, but for family members with higher needs of any sort. It's not the same as wanting to sack off work because you prefer gardening or reading books. Care work is absolutely fundamental, to society and human happiness, and at the moment the people who do it (mostly but not exclusively women) are almost completely unsupported and have to sacrifice their own financial interest and long-term security to do it. It's hard, skilled, crucial work and I think the state should pay people to do it!

As I said in my previous post, the problem is that we risk entrenching women's relative lack of power in paid work and in economic security, because of the gendered nature of caring (the expectation that women will do it, partly because we're the ones who gestate, give birth and breastfeed). But leaving that aside I think there's a really strong argument for recognising the value of care work in financial terms.

OnsJabeurforPM · 09/07/2021 10:39

Interesting - thank you Mary

I feel what is missing from the piece is the consequence of women not being in the workplace. In our current economy, that also means that women are therefore disadvantaged in many ways - smaller pensions, less savings, less able to leave abusive marriages, less able to pursue activities and careers they love, less able to support the causes that would make their life better etc etc. I.e. this women working less if they want to in practice translates to less economic, cultural and political power for women. Especially as they get older this means women are living in poverty or trapped in abusive or loveless marriages.

It feels like the solution is normalising four day weeks, flexible working, part-time working, increasing the minimum wage (which more women are on), and cultural shift towards dads working part time too.

It feels like A Universal Basic Income is the obvious IDEAL answer here (and better, cheaper, community childcare provision) - because it means you have a real choice about what work you take on and you have real financial security whatever you do.

And yes it's 100% affordable - great piece here: 'Universal basic income 'would cost less than value of benefit cuts since 2010'

Good article about why the UBI is a feminist project here.

AlexaShutUp · 09/07/2021 10:52

I fully support women who choose to be SAHMs or work part time, if that's what suits them and their families. However, I would not support paying more tax to subsidise this.

If women don't want to work, that's a perfectly valid lifestyle choice. It may benefit their family, but there is no wider benefit to society. Kids do just as well with WOHMs as they do with SAHMs. People should pay for their lifestyle choices themselves.

Phineyj · 09/07/2021 13:45

This is not a thread about homework. But as a secondary teacher myself I am confident the concept of homework could be introduced in a gradual way in year 7. I am only suggesting a return to the norm when I was at primary and one that is supported by the Sutton Trust meta analysis that finds primary homework of little value. A norm that didn't place massive demands on my SAHM!

I find it suspicious that the intensification of primary school has coincided with women making real inroads into the world of work.

monotonousmum · 09/07/2021 14:32

I was definitely judged for returning to work full time, but do understand this can happen no matter what you do.

An ex 'friend' commented to another friend at work how I wasn't a good Mum as I'd chosen to come back full time. In reality I could not afford to return part time (without making significant lifestyle changes which would also impact my child) despite being on a pretty good wage, nor was my manager receptive to my earlier request (totally ignored the email).

Properly funded childcare would be a good start.

But I feel shared parental leave is key. I now have two children and have suggested shared parental leave both times to my partner. His response both times has been that work would never 'allow it'. He might believe that in his head, but really I think it's a combination of:

  • work actually not being receptive to a Dad taking shared parental leave and his opportunities being limited if he were to do this
  • him believing the above would happen even if he asked for shared leave
  • him not really wanting to do it but at the same time not wanting to acknowledge how hard it is to be home with the kids.

Perhaps if more Dads took shared parental leave it would encourage a more even split of responsibility as the child grows, and it wouldn't be mostly Mums who feel the need to go part time (or drop out of the workforce entirely) because of these responsibilities.

I'm full time and would love to be part time. I'm sure my husband would like to be part time too. Properly funded and properly free childcare could put us in a position where we're both able to work part time - not necessarily less days, but a few shorter days to enable us to drop off and pick up the kids from school/nursery. As someone already commented kids can thrive in either home or nursery setting, but I don't believe they benefit from multiple providers and stressed out parents trying to cram everything that needs to be done into a couple of hours in the evening.

Even in this position it's unlikely my employer would agree the hours, and even less likely my partner would ask his.
whatkatydid2013 · 09/07/2021 16:49

My husband and I both did a year of part time after our younger one was born. I know many couples we are friends with who would have been better off financially doing the same as us rather than going what is the traditional route of the woman giving up her job. Many expressed how lucky we were to be able to do it but in honesty none of them had actually tried for various reasons. I really think until it’s broadly acknowledged childcare is a shared responsibility for both parents things are unlikely to change much. My husband feels strongly enough about it he moved jobs to a more family friendly employer before the end of my maternity leave and had part time hours for a year as a condition of him taking the job. I’m sure lots of women do that (or seek out jobs with flexibility before they have a family as it’s in the back of their mind). My employer recently introduced 3 months full paid paternity leave (maternity is 6 months). They are already seeing an increase in requests from men to go part time so that has clearly helped

SmashingBlouson · 09/07/2021 17:42

It seems parents work far more these days than they ever did. We both work full time and we are not rolling in it (thanks massive childcare costs) but it is a choice we made as we did not want to get in debt and having started my career later in life, I was worried about the impact of taking time out, despite working for an employer that offers decent part-time roles and promoting part-time workers.

The families I know with a SAHP are either in debt or are being bank rolled by wealthy parents. This is even with the working parent on a good salary. We both have ok salaries - above the mean for the area - but this is still not enough for decent housing and there is absolutely no way we would survive on one income. There is always the assumption that one person in a household earns a good salary, not two people earning average salaries, which makes it harder for one parent to stay home.

The issue really is housing and the cost of living - it is far too expensive for anyone to even have a choice. This needs to be addressed or it is not worth discussing about working patterns that aren't available to most people anyway. I would love for us both to work less hours (30 each would be ideal). It would relieve so much stress and chaos in our household, but as we don't qualify for any govt help apart from child benefit, we can't afford it. Eighteen odd years ago it was very different and there was a lot more support for working families.

Employers also seem to expect the other parent to pick up the slack when the child is ill/parent wants to drop hours for a better work life balance. I agree with a pp about shared parental leave. My OH employer is fairly flexible if he needs to leave to pick our son up from nursery, but in terms of reduced hours or shared parental leave, this would not be considered. There is still a lot of assumptions about roles in the family and how men and women differ in the hours they want to work as a parent.

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