I can admit it. I am a stay-at-home-mother. (Most of the time 😉 ). But now my children are older, I feel the urge to follow the fledglings out of the nest and back into a world where I have more to talk about than revision tactics or why I hate winter sports. Most of all, I want to regain some financial independence. Doing a Masters is fun. Unfortunately my other campaign – to earn a crust or two from my desk at home – is faltering. I blame my tendency to distract myself with essential preparatory activities such as rearranging my bookshelves, internet window shopping and social networking.
It almost feels like work. Like the most demanding of clients, my dogs clamour for attention and exercise, the garden is a windswept mess and the fridge is empty. Now I come to think about it, life is very much as it was twenty years ago, except that the shoulder pads have gone, the briefcase got recycled, there are fewer sick stains and crayon marks about my person and more sheep than people in the immediate vicinity. It’s just missing one more much appreciated and long absent friend. My own income.
In this country, the option to be a SAHM rests almost exclusively with the rich, and the unemployed. Most other mothers find that from the moment maternity leave ends, they enter the guilt-laden world of the working mum. Life becomes one huge juggling act, without the pleasure of looking like Sarah Jessica Parker at the end of a long stint at work. Childcare becomes a nightmarish calculation of time versus cost: hours out of the home mean hours within the home become twice as busy. Childminders, daycare, stay at home dads, part-time contracts, grandparents, au pairs: most of us have tried it all. Sometimes it works; very often it doesn’t, and if the wheels spin off the domestic bus it is often mum who has to jack it up and change the tyre.
Exhausting – yes. Over eventually – yes. And that’s the problem.
If, in polishing your act as a working mother you managed to survive long enough to perfect the art of plate spinning, then by the time your children are semi-independent you find that you are, too. In remuneration and pension provision you may still lag behind your male counterparts, but you have survived, which means you have a reasonable chance of continuing to work until you choose to retire.
Sadly, for a lot of mothers, giving birth leads eventually to a mountain of smashed crockery. I am always amazed that in a world where so much emphasis is put on the importance of good parenting, so much emotional pressure is placed on those who want the option of spending the early years at home with their child. And if staying at home makes you feel lazy, then try to manage the role of parent and earn any sort of income at the same time. I’m not going to bang on about grown up stuff like the need for flexibility in the workplace. Much better informed writers would now quote lots of statistics about government initiatives, tax breaks and employment legislation. I’m talking instead about the emotional load that starts as soon as the midwife hands you a blue or pink card and tells you that co-sleeping prevents cot death. For many new mums, the circular argument starts almost immediately. I need to be fully responsible for my child for as long as possible. To be responsible for my child, I need to earn a living as soon as possible. The awesome, shattering realisation that you are apparently responsible for making sure your baby keeps breathing is just an early warning of the guilt you must shoulder for everything from the performance of your child’s school in league tables to his failure to get a foot on the property ladder by the age of thirty.
Yesterday I spent an emotional half hour sorting through a box of old notes, half-finished poems and scrawled ideas for best-sellers. Each scrap of paper had represented another scratch on the cell wall inside my head… increasingly desperate escape plans, exhortations, self-analysis. It is clear that motherhood did not come naturally to me. While on maternity leave for my third child, I penned the following note to His Nibs and pinned it to the back door for his return:
MY LIFE 17.10.95
- I don’t want to greet you with a litany of woe, so here’s a list instead…
- No, I haven’t eaten a thing yet.
- Yes, the baby HAS been asleep all day.
- Yes, I know there are feathers in the utility room, kitchen AND playroom
- No, I have not found a corpse yet…
- ..try behind the curtains in the utility room?
- The cat has been sick on the carpet by the phone again
- No, I have not cleaned it up yet
- Toddler No2 has had 6 accidents today – I’ve cleaned those up instead!
- We need to make up some more bottles of milk.
- PS here’s your worm medicine!
I’m amazed HN is still here. In my defence, I was suffering from PND at the time.
Reading some of those jottings now, it is not clear whether I was fighting to justify myself wanting a career, or struggling to defend my role as a mother. I am struck by the obvious fear that I felt at the thought of becoming a full-time mother. A few scribbled lines highlight my shame at not knowing what to do with egg boxes, or rainy days, despite two toddler boys. It’s not like my nanny had kept trade secrets – just that it seemed to involve arcane rituals and knowledge that I had somehow failed to acquire. Loss of income must have worried me: in one note I record that my five-year old son had offered me the contents of his money-box if it meant I would stay at home. 😦 . Motherhood eventually won, but at a price.
So it is sad to know that these private battles are still being fought out, every day. The guilty arguments over work versus parenthood are a constant feature of parenting forums such as Mumsnet. And to be fair, many struggling working mums receive enormous and compassionate support, advice and understanding from the virtual world of Mumsnetters. I am pretty sure that – had Mumsnet been around fifteen years ago – I might have learned to spin a plate or two by now. Recently, though, a new and darker note has crept in, as the continued recession makes it even harder for women with out of date skills to return to work after a prolonged gap in employment. I was saddened by this comment yesterday, posted by an unemployed teacher with fifteen years experience:
‘Do not have kids and give up your job or you will remain stuck and forgotten by your country indefinitely’.
It will hardly be surprising if more and more new parents see the full-time raising of the next generation as a less important task than the financial survival of the family, or the need to be a self-supporting wage earner in middle age.
I know I was incredibly lucky to have the choice. I know that I was – and am – fantastically privileged to be able to raise my kids as I do. But raising our children ourselves should not be a privilege born of circumstance, but a respected and supported job. Parenting is an incredibly demanding and complex role, and those who succeed deserve as much respect and encouragement as those who can juggle that china. And while those who juggle well are helped by better access to childcare and flex-working, spare a thought for those of us who are putting aside our egg boxes and glue, and venturing back, only to find ourselves back at the bottom of the hill.