Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stay-at-home versus working mum--how has it come to this?!

Divided Heart artist Sarah Tomasetti once told me that when she became pregnant for the first time, one friend’s response was: “Congratulations! From here on in, everything you do will be wrong!”

We all know that motherhood and guilt may as well be interchangeable terms, but this seems to be doubly true when it comes to the issue of work.

A while ago I was chatting to Charlotte Young, co-editor of Barefoot Magazine, who admitted to me that she used to be pretty hard-line on the issue of whether or not women with young children should work. She wouldn’t be alone, among the educated middle-class women I know, in feeling that babies and toddlers should be at home with their parents and not in childcare. More than that, I would say there’s a largely unspoken but palpable disapproval of preschool-aged kids being in full-time care at all.

Like breastfeeding, the modern ethic says that thinking, conscientious parents will stay home with their babies — and with good cause. I too have felt the terrible pang when seeing tiny babies at childcare centres and the sense that it is just not right. But I also understand that it’s highly likely they are there because their parents feel they have no choice.

This absence of choice, though, is something I think we tend to reserve for the battling working class.

What of the woman who is on a strong career trajectory and feels she can't drop the ball? Or one who simply finds she's climbing the walls at home with small children? In my experience, this is often treated not only as short-sighted and un-evolved, but a definite moral failing.

When talking to Charlotte, she seemed a bit surprised by the fact that I, as a middle-class woman, might not have a choice about whether or not to work. Which got me thinking about whether I would still work, given the choice.

I held off going back to work for as long as my family could afford it (basically, until my kids were in turn at least two), and then have worked part time. But, within my immediate circles, I have found myself to be in a minority of women whose families actually rely on their income (in my case, it would be that or sell the house).

Since my son has started school, I have become increasingly conscious of the gap between those mothers who are in the paid workforce and those who are at home full-time. (And believe me, I know that caring for children and running a household is a huge workload in itself — one which unfortunately doesn’t go away whether you are also in the paid workforce or not.)

Something I have noticed myself doing, when talking to mums in the playground, is to play down the fact that I actually enjoy my work — as if this is some terrible admission that I don’t value mothering enough, or that I have taken a selfish path. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the (generally positive) push to reassert the value of mothering as the very important thing that it is, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that work is also meaningful in women's lives — and that that’s ok.

We still seem to be on a bit of a pendulum swing away from the (equally important) feminist push for women’s right to work, which had the unfortunate fallout of leaving some women feeling ignored or shamed for wanting to stay home. I don’t know that we’ve got the balance right yet.

Surely it’s a great thing that most women now feel they can make a genuine and active choice about whether or not to work when their kids are very small. And that those women who need or want to work have access to meaningful jobs.

So why are we still in this place where women feel so guilty, no matter what they do? Who do they perceive to be judging them — their partners, friends, children, society as a whole?

Women are beset with such an avalanche of mixed messages — from the media, politicians, our mothers, our workmates and friends — that it can be almost impossible to dig our way back to our own intuition on things, or to feel solidly confident in our decisions.

A shame, when there’s so much to celebrate — like the fact that I can sit here musing on this subject while my washing machine chugs away, a pot of soup is bubbling away on the stove, my daughter will soon return from a playgroup which is today being hosted by a dad, and my son is down the road at the great local school where his teachers last year got a big fat pay rise in recognition that what they do is not “just women’s work”.


Kate Moore said...

Surely this is a Western preoccupation. My teeny weeny observation of life in Vietnam while living there for a short stint in 2000 was that everyone worked. Everyone together. The kids were around, or at school, or grandparents were nearby and school/work/social/community life all blurred into the same thing. Sure sure, it's a simplified, quick observation, but I do wonder sometimes. Our kids have grown up with working female figures. Lots of them. We work at work, we work at home (on household stuff) we work in the garden at the cooking and the like and I'd like to think the three girls I've raised and one boy don't feel they have to make a decision that is about work, but about what makes life balanced and happy for them. Like you Rachel I like my work and would probably wither and die to be told that raising the children to adulthood was now my fulltime solo job. I feel like it is my job already and I am doing it and I am working and I am volunteering in my community and being a nice neighbour and I pulled some not-yet-ready carrots this week. Sure, I'd like to work less some weeks because the balance seems a bit screwy at times, but in general, it's all good.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

I feel guilt because I'm always very hard on myself. Our family has struck the arrangement we have because if it were any other way I would be in a very bad place emotionally.

Sometimes, though, I think I should've done things differently and often wonder how it all would've turned out. Probably the same. Probably even for the better?

Christie said...

Whatever happened to 'it takes a village to raise a child'?

I knew we (women) are supposed to have more choices today and in some ways we do, but it seams they ALL have strings (and guilt) attached. Unfortunately I feel like we don't have the support networks that we used to. In our situation I probably would have returned to work part time had we had a non-paid childcare option (grandparents etc) but we didn't and paid childcare wasn't ideal for our situation.
There have been times when I have felt very alone being the only one of my peers (with kids) who wasn't in any kind of paid employment. But at the same time I feel lucky to be able to stay at home.

I guess it is all about balance and what is right for your family, but I feel sad that a lot of women don't have as many choices as that should...

Corrie said...

well at least you're brave enough to talk about it! on discussion boards it ends up one side against the other

I've just learnt you can't win! I have my views and most working mums have their own...even today at my mothers group I was the only one there who isn't working and one girl went on how about how she'll need something else to do if she were to give up work and stay at home or she'd just blow up with boredom.....um yes thank you for that, my mind must have already blown up then if I've been home 3 years then!!!! so you can't win, you stay home you get criticised you work you get criticised!!!!!

Zoe said...

Losing your income would mean losing your house - and the loss of my income means we rent. But we're both actually doing what we want. Exercising choice doesn't mean we choose between equally lovely things ;)

And miscellaneous mum - kids benefit from happy parents, who are in a position to choose. I work 2/5 now, and would be in a Very Bad Place if I didnt x

Polly said...

Just this week I was lectured by an older lady about working and missing out on bringing up my children. Just another person to make me feel dreadful about not being at home.
I would love to be at home with my son, and with another child on the way this now weighs even more heavily on my concience.
Unfortunately I earn very decent money and my husband who is tied up in family business does not.
I do enjoy my job, In a perfect world I would love to work just one or two days a week, I need the mental stimulation that I personally do not get at home with my beautiful baby. And so the mother guilt will continue on as long as those around us continue to judge us for the choices that we make.

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