WHEN Cork-based mother-of-two Donna Hartnett penned a letter saying she was quitting her job and putting her children first, she could never have imagined the furore it would cause.
But her blunt, unflinching statement fired the imagination of the public.
Hartnett’s protest at the strain imposed by new taxes and charges on an ordinary working family, her graphic description of the domino effect of her and her husband’s lifestyle on her young children, and her announcement that she was giving up work for all their sakes, rocked the nation.
Hartnett was quitting, she declared, because her children “were being raised in childcare centres like caged hens” while their parents worked, “breaking our necks and our children’s hearts trying to keep up with tax after tax with nothing left by month’s end.”
However, as Hartnett bluntly pointed out in her widely read missive, she won’t be enjoying the good life once she becomes a stay-at-home mum; the family income will drop and she and her husband will as a result, be faced with overdue bills and unpaid taxes.
That’s the core problem for so many people who would otherwise follow in Hartnett’s footsteps and spend more time with their children … if they only could afford to do it and pay the bills.
However, the pay-reductions suffered by many as a result of recessionary cutbacks and the imposition of new charges like property tax or water charges mean that working less is not an option for many people.
Some women have managed to find a balance between being a stay-at-home mother and a working mum by simply working part-time or from home.
Yet, while the stay-at-home lifestyle can be wonderful, like everything else, it’s not without its drawbacks.
Being taken for granted is a significant issue for stay-at-home parents, says former stay-at-home-mum Laura Haugh, spokesperson and mum-in-residence for the parent support network www.MummyPages.ie
“There’s all the housework and you also have to look after the children.
“It’s essentially double-jobbing but your spouse can also expect you to do things like pick up his dry cleaning,” or in other words, she says, to act like an unpaid PA.
This can cause resentment says Haugh, a mum-of-two, adding that there can be a fall in self-esteem and even onset of depression.
Loss of both your sense of identity and financial independence can be other disadvantages, says Haugh, who has worked full-time, and now has a part-time job.
In the workplace, she points out, “you were an established professional person, thanked and remunerated by your company — not taken for granted.
“The loss of financial independence is another issue. Stay-at-home parents may feel the need to justify their spend and make money last.
“They may not get the opportunity to treat themselves or reward themselves for the job they are doing.”
Although their numbers have fallen in recent decades, stay-at-home parents still make up a significant portion of the Irish population.
CSO figures show that about 230,645 Irish mothers work in the home, while officially, there are about 11,000 men who classify themselves as stay-at-home fathers — the unofficial figure is believed to be higher as it’s believed many men do not categorise themselves in that way.
Former office manager and mother-of-two Fiona Montague (40) loves being a stay-at-home mum — but, she also admits it can have its downsides.
Redundancy from her job in 2008 spurred her to return to college to study nutrition, and after giving birth in September 2010 to her now four-year-old daughter Abigail, she opted to stay at home with her. “I always wanted to be a stay at home mum. What I have with my children, no money or career would ever make up for — it’s about the little things I can do with them,” she says.
However, she says: “You miss your career, you miss the interaction with other adults, you miss the money, you miss the time off you miss your lunch-break and you miss being you, because in a way you stop being you and become a mum!
“That can be a kind of a label — people look at you, and know you as a mum; you never seem to step out of that role,” she says, adding that she also found that people looked at her differently.
“People seemed to think stay-at-home mums do nothing, that they just sit around and drink tea!”
There is clearly some prejudice out there, reports Haugh: “There seems to be a divide. The prejudice seems to be against stay-at-home mums who may be viewed as dull or uninteresting people who don’t have anything in common with women who work,” she says.
At home there may be a need to establish “boundaries or rules of engagement” which require both parents to acknowledge the need to parent and divide jobs fairly: “When I was full-time at home I didn’t want to be expected to be on duty all the time just because I was a stay-at-home mum,” she says.
In 2011 Fiona Montague, who now has a one-year-old son Noah, set up a part-time business ( www.healthandnutrition.ie ) working as a health and nutrition consultant.
“I do something I love, but I don’t do it at the expense of not staying at home with the kids.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to combine being a stay-at-home mum with running a small business, so that I can avoid having to leave my children in childcare.
“The part-time work gives me financial independence and a sense of identity outside my role of parent. I hope that financially I will be able to continue to do that.”
Loneliness can be an issue, recalls Montague, who lives in Johnstown, Co Kildare: “There was a sense of isolation when I was home all the time with Abigail.
“You lose some friends because you are not in the workplace, it’s like any change in life.
Stay-at-home mums can also experience a sense of isolation agrees Haugh.
“Another problem is that stay-at-home mums feel their worlds gets small and they feel isolated,” she says adding that sometimes they feel their world diminishes “to what they are having for dinner and what the children are doing.
“Unlike working mums who have another dimension to life – stay-at-home mums may feel they have nothing to talk about but their children and what’s on the menu for dinner.”
Denise Whitmore (31), worked full-time for several years, before switching, first to a part-time job and then to being a stay-at-home mum with her own part-time business. She found that being a member of a website like mummypages.ie helped her cope with the sense of isolation reported by many stay-at-home parents.
“We didn’t have a great quality of life. In the end I went part-time and our lives improved,” recalls Whitmore, who lives in Taghmon, in Wexford.
“I was able to have the house tidy and dinner ready, and bring him to the doctor or attend parent teacher meetings during the school day,” she says, adding that she’s never regretted giving up her full-time job.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
Last March she set up a home-based IT training company: “The majority of work is from home,” she says, adding that she is always there for her now-14-year-old son both in the mornings and when he gets home from school.
“I’ve found it easier to manage by being stay-at-home,” she says, though she has also found there’s some prejudice against stay-at-home-parents. “People automatically think you’re at home not doing anything. “I am a stay-at-home working mum and I think it’s of benefit to my son.”
“If I was working full-time in the workforce I’d be making more money, but although I’m not financially rich I am time-rich and I have time for my son which means a lot more.”
There may be other very significant advantages to staying at home to raise your child— research conducted in Norway whose findings were published last year, showed that the children of stay-at-home parents did better at school.
Concern about the long-term effects of day-care however, stretch back to 1986 when an American study’ Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern’, found that babies in daycare were showing signs of increased levels of aggression and disobedience in later life.
Studies by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Institute of Child Development of the University of Minnesota, also found that children who spent all day in day-care had higher levels of stress and more aggression than kids cared for at home.
In 2006 a Dutch study found that children in daycare displayed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, than to those children reared at home.
The renowned British child psychologist Oliver James believes nursery care is not appropriate and he has advised against putting small babies into daycare.
Of course it makes little sense to rule out all creches for children under the age of three. For many it’s an economic necessity and you cannot point the finger of blame at creches for every difficulty your child experiences. Psychological or behavioural problems in children cannot be viewed in isolation, away from the wider socio-economic context.
In Norway, where 79% of one to two year olds and nearly all three to five year olds are in daycare, a study published in the journal Child Development last year found little evidence of a correlation between time spent in nurseries and behavioural problems.
As it turns out, it’s the quality of a child’s care that makes the difference. A well-run creche, with enthusiastic, highly trained staff, will offer children the right balance between learning and fun; challenge and security.
There is no perfect set-up. For parents who do decide to stay at home and rear their children, it’s a demanding job.
“It’s about as full-time a job as you can get,” says Dr Olivia Gordon, senior clinical psychologist at St John of Gods, “There may be issues with social isolation and stress around choices, for example, whether to stay at home or return to work after a baby.”
Some people may experience feelings of loneliness, she points out. “They may miss chatting with colleagues over coffee during the day and may not see their friends as much so there is a bit of loss around that.
“When a parent decides to leave a workforce they can experience a sense of loss. Staying at home can cause a shift in how they see themselves and how others see them as well.”
Derrick Bell was a high-flying sales-manager for a major software firm— but when the recession hit in 2008 the Blessington, Co Wicklow executive was made redundant.
His son Conan, now aged six, was born in January of that year, and spent his first few years in childcare.
When Conan was three, Derrick set up a highly successful online business, Toby’s Wagons, selling pull-along children’s wagons at home and abroad.
He looked after Conan at home during the day, and worked at night — it was a most enjoyable few years, he recalls: “An online business runs away in the background and you just keep an eye on things! “I did a lot of work in the evenings, so I’d play with Conan and we’d go into Dublin and visit the museums. We had a great time!”
Conan loved music and they spent many hours looking at and talking about various musical instruments in the city, visiting Conan’s granny and meeting friends.
“It was a more relaxed lifestyle, although the downside was that it could become quite insular,” says Bell, who had worked in an office with 200 people and had 30 employees under him.
“I tried to get out of the house as much as possible.
“At the start I was conscious of being a stay-at-home dad, and because of the nature of my business, I felt people thought that maybe I didn’t work.
“I had come from a very challenging and prestigious job so I was conscious of the change. But I had time to be with my son; it was happy,” he says now, adding that he believes the existence of his online company was key.
“If I hadn’t been running the company I’d have had a crisis of identity!”
* Generally most people cope well with the role of a stay-at-home parents. Laura Haugh of www.MummyPages.ie points says there are some tried-and-testesd ways to smooth the transition.
* Discuss your responsibilities and your partner’s expectations regarding housekeeping, cooking and childcare on the weekdays and weekends.
* Establish a routine. This allows you to organise your day and complete tasks when your children are in crèche, school or asleep.
* Carve out time for yourself to meet with friends, hit the gym or pursue a hobby.
* Socialise with other stay-at-home parents — get out and meet other adults, for example through volunteer work with your local sports club
* Make a point of getting out of the house — fresh air is very important for your sense of wellbeing, and your children will enjoy the frequent walks in the park. Visit the local library or take a morning trip into town to a museum with your little one, you’ll both benefit from the experience.
* Talk to other parents about everything from potty training techniques to dealing with terrible teens. You are not alone — parenting and forum websites can offer an outlet to stay-at-home parents.
* Enjoy the opportunity to spend more time with your children, witnessing them growing up and sharing in the magical moments of childhood.
* Don’t forget your relationship with your partner. Remember to have fun. Make time to be together!