*Deep breath. Wades in well aware that she may regret this.*
I see quite a lot written about working mums* and the guilt, the feeling of missing out, the lack of choice. I have great sympathy for all of these feelings, and, to be very clear, this post is not a criticism of those emotions, nor of mothers working. Nonetheless, and maybe I will turn out to be alone in this (in which case, I am probably setting myself up for a tidal wave of indignation, though it is really not my intent to offend), something bothers me in a lot of what I see written about this subject.
It is this: there generally appears to be little acknowledgement of the fact that being a stay at home mother is not always a choice either. Or, worse, little acknowledgement of the fact that often there has actually been a choice by both working and at home parents, and that stay at home mothers have made sacrifices for their choices, too. The suggestion, sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, often seems to be that stay at home mothers are privileged and fortunate to have what working mothers do not. It is there in every statement that a working mother wishes she were ‘lucky enough’ to have had the option to stay at home. The implication is that to stay at home is a matter of luck and good fortune, not something that there may have been no choice over, or something a family has made significant sacrifices (that perhaps the working parents did not wish to make) in order to make happen. It may well be that it is often not the writer’s actual intent to suggest this. But, regardless of the intent, the implication does remain: that it is a position of privilege to be a stay at home mum.
Whilst not disputing that certain people may (wrongly) be guilty of judging the particular sacrifices made by working mothers, I don’t think that there is much dispute that there are sacrifices made. Is the same true of the sacrifices made by stay at home mothers? I am not sure that they receive quite the same level of recognition or discussion. That being a stay at home mother is not more often just vaguely regarded as the position of the privileged (or even, by a few unpleasant specimens, regarded as the position of the lazy). I want to highlight that many families with a stay at home parent have to make difficult financial sacrifices to enable that position, the stay at home parent themselves may have sacrificed a career, and for some families there is not even a choice at all. Why is this perhaps not discussed as much as the hardships facing working parents? Maybe partly because many stay at home parents enjoy and appreciate looking after their children, of course. I do. But many working mothers enjoy their jobs, too. I don’t think this is the whole explanation. Because, while many stay at home parents are happy with their role and the time they spend with their children, would they also like to be able to provide more for their children? To have some financial independence? Yes, many would. But we don’t seem to talk about that. Is it because we wouldn’t want anyone to infer that we don’t like looking after our children, that we don’t appreciate the time we spend with them? Is it less acceptable to mention the sacrifices of being a stay at home parent?
Consider the situation if I was to write that it upsets me that I can’t provide for my children, and that I wish I was lucky enough to have had the option to have an income, and to be able to give the children more material luxuries and opportunities. I imagine many working parents would indignantly think, ‘Hang on a bloody minute: luck? It’s not luck. I chose to go to work to provide for my children, and I have to miss out on spending time with them as a result. If you want to have more money, do what I do and go to work.’ And that would be a reasonable response, as far as I am concerned. But it should apply the other way around, too, and I think there is something of a subconscious mindset around that says that it does not. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone knows really that stay at home parents have made sacrifices, would agree this if asked, but there remains a tendency to be unthinkingly dismissive of it. I am not sure how many people really consider that perhaps when a working mother states that she wishes she were fortunate enough that she could have stayed at home and not had to work, stay at home mothers may also be just a little indignant. That there may be a mother who stays at home who had just as little choice in her role, who maybe feels sad that she can’t provide financially for her child. Or a mother who knows that, in order for her to stay at home, her family gets by on a fraction of the money that working mother’s family does. Maybe even gets by on less than the working family would have on a single income, who knows? Maybe she feels that she is accepting the sacrifices that came for her to stay at home, and that others could have done so too, had they wanted to. And maybe, just maybe, she feels like she should not mention any of this, for fear that she would be accused of not appreciating her time with her children, or of not showing sufficient empathy for the feelings of the working mother.
In truth, when it comes to working or staying at home, there are really only two groups of people: those who had a choice, and those who did not. Not having a choice is not the preserve of working parents. There are those families who really cannot in any way afford to live on one person’s income (or single parent families, where there is only one person to provide an income), but who do have free or affordable childcare options, for whom working is the only available path. Equally, however, there are those with no one to provide free childcare, and no (or insufficient) assistance towards childcare costs, for whom the cost of childcare would exceed what the second person could earn, making one parent undertaking the childcare the only viable option. In both cases, the decision is made for the parents by the limits of their circumstances. They may or may not be perfectly happy with the arrangement they have had to pursue, but this is not particularly relevant: there is no choice regardless.
Then there is everyone else. The people with some level of choice. Now, there are, of course, a few people who have such privilege that they have literally any option they want available to them, and little sacrifice to make. We can all agree that we hate those jammy sods (sorry – just kidding). But this is rare. For most, this is not how it goes. Instead there is choice, but it has constraints. Sacrifices must be made. Having it all is not an option. Decisions have to be made, priorities assessed, myriad considerations taken into account. And, guess what? There are no wrong answers here. All the possible decisions are valid. All the considerations have merit. Children can benefit from being cared for by a parent at home. Equally, children can benefit from having a comfortable, more affluent lifestyle. We all want to spend time with our children. We all want to provide well for our children. How much you like your job and the potential for career development is, of course, relevant. So is the availability of family members to provide childcare. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you will take a greater degree of financial hardship because it is important to you that you stay home with your child. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you want to be able to maintain the standard of living or the lifestyle you have for your child’s sake, and cannot do that on one income. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you love spending time with your child, but do not want to surrender a career you enjoy.
I am not saying that there is anything wrong with whichever decision anyone makes. What I am saying is that perhaps we all need to accept the consequences of those decisions. Perhaps we need to take responsibility for the fact that this is what we chose, we reaped the rewards and paid the price of whichever path we followed. We should not be jealously comparing ourselves with others who made a different decision. We need to acknowledge that they have made their own sacrifices, ones we chose not to make, in order to have those benefits we covet. That should not be brushed under the carpet. You cannot choose the starter and main from a two course set price menu, not be willing to pay extra for dessert, but complain about how unfair it is that someone else had the dessert, how lucky they are. It is not luck: they made a different choice to you. They skipped the starter. (Yes, analogies are not my strong point. And clearly this is not exactly analogous, as in my menu scenario there is obviously only one correct option: dessert. Sorry, starter people – what are you thinking? I digress.)
It may not feel fair. The available options may be hard, imperfect, limited. But that is life. Apart from those few jammy sods we have all agreed to hate (sorry, again), everyone is either having to make similar decisions, determining their priorities, sacrificing on something; or they are simply having to play the hand they were dealt. Perhaps the level of choice we have in modern life has given rise to the idea that there must be this elusive option of having it all, and that we should therefore feel dissatisfied and cheated if we do not. For most people, however, having it all simply does not exist. Perhaps we would all be happier if we accepted that. Accepted that we make our choices, pay the price, and that nearly everyone else is doing exactly the same.
None of this, of course, is to say that there is anything wrong with working mothers saying that they feel sad that they do not see their children as much as they would like. I suppose what I want to say is: working mothers, don’t beat yourself up with guilt over your choice (or lack thereof). You made the decision that was most right for your family, or you simply got on with the only option you had, and I am very sorry for what you feel you are missing out on. But perhaps you could be careful to remember that stay at home mothers made a decision and sacrifices, or did what they had to do, too.
No working mother should feel judged because she had to, or chose to, work. But, equally, no stay at home mother should feel resented. Nor should she have the decision she made to stay at home, and the price she has paid for it, undermined by being dismissed as someone who has merely had luck, ‘luck’ that may be acceptably coveted by those who did not make her sacrifices.