IN DEFENCE OF THE STAY-AT-HOME MOTHER April 11th 2013
by Laura Perrins who campaigns for Mothers at Home Matter
In the past few years stay-at-home mothers have been criticised by a head of state (Helle Thorning-Schmidt), a wife of a former head of state (Cherie Blair), and numerous commentators (Catherine Bennett). There is something about the well-educated professional packing her laptop up for the last time and heading to the maternity ward that seems to seriously irk the great and the good. Up until how we have had to rely on broad-minded, working mothers who are journalists to fight our corner (Anne McElvoy), but finally we are starting to enter the debate ourselves.
There are three main criticisms of the stay-at-home mother. The first is that we shouldn’t be wasting our ‘fancy degrees’ on staying at home with our children to do finger painting. The second is that we are all a pack of helicopter, omnipresent mums who are slaves to our children’s demands and hover over them stifling their independence. Finally, we are letting the sisterhood down by undermining the cause of equality in the workplace by leaving the professions to look after our infants. I will examine these criticisms in turn.
The first charge against stay-at-home mums – some of whom may have benefited from free university education or scholarship awards – is that we are wasting our talents and degrees by nurturing our children. So is it right that the taxpayer should expect something back in return for their investment and is there indeed a duty to work outside the home?
This all depends on your view of what a university education is for. If it is merely for the purpose of entering the professions and making money, then all the maths graduates who go to the city and generate massive financial transactions are a better return than the graduates who go into teaching. It is also a very utilitarian way of viewing education; education is not something that enriches the person herself but only counts if that person produces something that can be measured externally. Neither of these arguments are very attractive.
The first charge also implies that the efforts a mother puts into raising her children are meaningless. In fact finger-painting does have a point. If we want to get analytical about it, painting improves fine motor skills in children and some of the designs even look nice on your wall. The reading, the running around the park, the constant imploring to share and say please is not a waste of time and talents. I believe this is what makes a well-balanced, caring individual for the benefit of society as a whole. The retort is anyone can do this (petty) stuff, a masters degree is not required. This really misses the wood for the trees. To enter the professions one needs a considerable amount of future planning, self-discipline, focus and dedication. Funnily enough these are exactly the qualities that help some moms to parent their children day-to-day. It is the process and not the outcome that counts.
The second charge, that stay at home mothers suffocate and spoil their children is perhaps the weakest because any mother can micro-manage their children’s lives; it can be executed from home or the office. There is also a subtle but important distinction between micro-managing and offering opportunities to develop character. Recently parents have been criticised for encouraging children to take too many hobbies, yet at the same time ‘character’ is now being taught in some schools. The reason why many parents offer hobbies to their children is because it is an opportunity to develop character and learn life skills such as self-discipline, perserverance, teamwork and fair play. We know children have very little chance to develop these qualities in the current hyper-prescriptive and over-examined school environment so this is why hobbies are important.
Furthermore stay-at-home mothers are often in the best position to develop their children’s independence from initiating small jobs such as helping them to prepare a meal to sending them to the library themselves. Sure, some parents may complete their children’s homework but any parent can do this and it is not helicopter parenting; it is just plain cheating.
The final charge concerns the cause of equality. Feminists argue that women should not leave the workforce as this results in fewer women reaching the top of the professions and thus contributes to their invisibility. It is important for justice that we have female judges, it is important for women’s health that we have female doctors, and, it is important for democracy that we have female MPs. These are valid concerns, so are stay -at-home mothers letting the side down? There are two problems with this argument: first it only holds if all mothers left the professions and this is not happening; and secondly it is circular.
Research by Dr Catherine Hakim has found that in terms of preferred options regarding home and work women split roughly three ways, with a fifth wanting a full-time career, a fifth wishing to devote their life full-time to the domestic sphere with the remainder wanting something in between. So there will always be a majority of women that work in some capacity. The reason mothers return to work are many and complex. Perhaps they work in public health or education and feel a strong sense of public duty to return, perhaps they feel very isolated after having children or they love their job and, of course, many need the money.
Similarly, the reasons why mothers stay-at-home full time or part-time are also complex. They may feel a strong sense of duty towards physically being there to mother their children, they may have other caring duties to elderly members of the family, their husbands may have an extremely demanding job and a nanny would only solve half the problem; they would need a housekeeper too. Many of these mothers also work voluntarily in the community such as being a reading tutor or Governor at school or being active within the local church. The point is that the argument for equality only works if policy makers and feminists choose to ignore the contribution stay-at-home mothers make not just to their families but to society as a whole. Such mothers are only invisible if feminists choose to look through them and ignore their efforts. If raising the next generation of citizens is viewed as meaningless or inferior to working outside the home, then stay-at-home mothers are less equal but that is because of the opinions of policy-makers and feminists themselves and not the mother’s contribution .
Laura Perrins regularly appears on radio and television, campaigning for motherhood and family life.