AS families battle childcare costs, and reluctantly rely on two incomes to pay boom-time mortgages, being a stay-at-home mother is often seen as a luxury. But is giving up work to be at home with the children as rosy as it seems?
Stay-at-home motherhood has its drawbacks. There’s the groundhog-day housework and the non-stop school runs, neither of which are remunerated by a performance-based bonus or a promotion.
But there’s also the psychological impact. There’s a loss of identity in switching from full-time work to fulltime home.
To make it doubly challenging, it’s often not acceptable to talk about that — stay-at-home parents are expected to be glad to be with their children, and therefore shouldn’t complain.
Expressing a lack of fulfilment about being at home sounds patronising towards those who do it happily and willingly. It can be misinterpreted as “It’s fine for you, but I think I’m better than this.”
Jenny Bishop resigned from her job as a marketing manager last year, having tried every combination of part-time hours. “It took me a long time to make the decision,” says the Dublin mum-of-two. “I loved my work, but it just wasn’t feasible anymore. My husband is a marine engineer and away four weeks at a time, and I just found that I was chasing my tail. Dashing from Montessori to school to work, and then doing it all again in the afternoon.”
Initially, she was delighted that the pressure was off, that she could focus on the children. But she began to miss the mental stimulation of work, the sense of community and the idea of having something that was just for her. “I think career is connected to identity,” says Jenny. “The sense of achievement and satisfaction can be very closely linked to confidence. Even small things, like getting ‘dressed up’ for work and looking professional, can have an effect on how we feel and how we perceive ourselves.” Paid work is a badge of sorts — telling people what you ‘do’ is code for ‘I am skilled at this and an employer is willing to pay me thousands of euro to do it.’ There’s an inherent value. So stepping away from that, whether by choice or through redundancy, creates a void. The badge is gone.
Being ‘good’ at minding your own children and keeping your own house isn’t recognised formally and other than proffering reasonably clean, well-mannered children as proof, there’s no real record of ability. So often along with the badge goes, at least some of, the self-esteem and identity.
Cork woman Kate Cuddy agrees. “There can certainly be a loss of self when you leave the paid workplace. I believe that that’s largely the fault of society’s general lack of respect for stay-at-home mothers,” she says. The mum-of-four resigned from her job at the Cork Chamber of Commerce when her third child was born, with dreams of setting up her own business in the long term. Financially, she and her husband could manage, but it did mean disposable income was near non-existent. “When you’re at home with toddlers, babies and school kids all day every day , you do need something nice to look forward to. A coffee. A night at the cinema. A meal in a restaurant. And the lack of fun money would get me down from time to time.”
In the following years, she had a fourth baby, took up yoga and running, began to plant fruit and vegetables and bought hens. But it wasn’t easy. “Sometimes, my husband would come home from work and I would literally run out the door and not look back — desperate for some space, physically and mentally, from the house and the kids. The constant, unrelenting nature of the job is what I have found the hardest. There’s no let-up. There’s no start and no end to your working day. There’s no measurement for what you have achieved. There’s no positive feedback. There’s no remuneration or bonuses for a job well done. There’s no thanks. Or at least not in the short-term,” Kate says.
Lack of structure can also be an adjustment. “I think our generation is just so used to working,” says Jenny. “And the highs and lows of the working world are very much part of our lives. I tend to need structure in my life, which the working world obviously catered for.” Women can also feel that they’re letting the side down, or not living up to their feminist credentials, when they decide to stay at home. And being told they are ‘wasting education’ is a common source of frustration.
“Sometimes, I have wondered what the point in all my education was, when I feel as though I haven’t used my brain to any greater effect than writing a shopping list or helping with fifth-class maths,” says Kate. “But the point of education, as far as I’m concerned, is to open our minds and empower us to make the right choices for us. It’s up to me to exercise my brain as well as my body. A salary should not validate a job and, ultimately, a person.” Many women worry that they’ll have difficulty getting back into the workplace when their children are older; there’s a confidence dip in staying at home.
“I did fear the idea of being ‘out of the game’ for too long,” says Jenny, “And, for me, further education is the answer.” Both her sons are now in school, and she has just started a masters in digital marketing.
Kate, too, felt it was time to do something else when her youngest child started pre-school, so she trained to be a yoga teacher. She now runs Kate Cuddy Yoga in Glounthaune. “I’m a full-time-mum, part-time yoga teacher. I run classes in the morning while the children are at school and when they have completed homework, music practice, extra curricular classes and had their dinner, I do evening classes. I like having something other than the house and children to focus on, especially something I love, that’s as good for me as it is for those I share it with. The garden might not be tended to as well as it could be, but something’s got to give, right?”
And that’s just it. Working mothers have found they can’t ‘have it all’, but it’s often true for stay-at-home mothers too. It can take time to find the right balance.
The grass may indeed be greener, but it takes patience, determination and hard work to get it looking that good — to find a path as fulfilling as the office job once was.
Put parameters around your decision and set timelines for re-assessing. Are you leaving work until your children reach a certain age?
Stay in touch with your industry contacts; you may want to do contract work in the future.
Keep your skills and knowledge up to date. Do training courses, read up on industry changes.
Find a community — neighbours, school-run parents, members of a club — people you can interact with when the office banter is no longer an option.
Do something that’s just for you — exercise, a hobby, a blog, a class, a book-club or a part-time business.