'I became what I had always swore I wouldn't - a stay-at-home-mum'- Carol Hunt on taking unexpected time out to raise her children
Taking time out to raise your children and be a home-maker doesn't mean you are destined for the employment scrapheap, says Carol Hunt
Of course, it was never supposed to be like this. When I got married - on February 29, leap year, like a proper feminist - myself and the current Mr Hunt agreed that if we ever had children, it would be a 50-50 split. There would be none of this traditional nonsense about Mammy being the one to give up her career and financial future purely because she was the one in possession of a womb.
We were going to share the childcare, in the same way that we shared all the household chores, the bills and everything else. So, how long did that last? One year? Five? If I'm to be honest, my equality ideals didn't even make it past birth. We still live in a world where the ability to give birth is seen as somehow conferring magical parenting abilities on you, regardless of the fact that the two are not necessarily connected.
And though I adored being a mother and idolised my kids, being with them 24/7 was probably about 12/7 too much. It's also quite extraordinary how your status as a human being diminishes when you answer the question, "and what do you do?" with "I'm a stay-at-home-mum" (SAHM) - or, as it's usually translated by much of society, "nothing". In my case I had both my kids while I was in back in full- time study, but, even though I had about three part-time jobs, my husband made more money at his full-time one.
So when the childcare costs became impossible to cover out of my income, and when it became obvious that the best option for the children would be to have a parent at home, I became what I had always swore I wouldn't - a stay-at-home-mum. I am not a natural home-maker. If I ever feel the urge to give the house a good spring cleaning or clean out the food cupboards, I lie down with a good book until the feeling passes. So when I found myself at home, with just kids, cooking and cleaning to contend with, I wondered, where had it all gone wrong?
Don't get me wrong, I have always been in awe of those women who give up work to stay home to care for their house and family. Actually, I've always wanted one to move in with me because there is nothing quite as wonderful in this world as a well-kept home with a loving parent waiting in it. Their commitment and unselfishness has always humbled me. We know women work harder than men in school and college - the results show it. Most of us take our educational opportunities very seriously. We know how hard our grandmothers and mothers fought to get these rights for us and how easily they can be taken away. And yet there are still women who are prepared to give it all up, stay home and care for their family.
Not that they get any thanks for it. There is nothing so undervalued in this world as housework and child-rearing. But my heart also goes out to those women who work 40 hours a week, and still have to take on the lion's share of the work at home. Study after study shows that women still do far more than men when it comes to childcare and housework - even if they both also work outside the home.
My youngest starts senior school this September. Both he and his sister are - in my, I admit, biased opinion - fun, independent, well-adjusted kids. I like them very much as people as well as love them as my children. We're a pretty close-knit family but they're at the stage now where they want to spend more time with their peer groups and on their own interests. They don't need to be ferried around and supervised so much. We're all entering a new stage in our lives. I promised myself that when this time came I wouldn't sit at home moaning about running a hotel for ungrateful teens, but get back full time into the working world and reignite that career I had worked so hard for and still so very much wanted to have.
Except that's far easier said than done, isn't it? You may think that running a household, rearing kids and working part-time to pay the bills means you're a pretty nifty multi-tasker and organiser but a lot of the working world has yet to get that particular memo. Many women trying to get back into the workplace are finding it much tougher than it should be. As fellow journalist and ex-SAHM, Barbara Scully, said; " First of all there is ageist sexism! This is hard to prove but I have a sneaking suspicion that many male bosses still like their female staff to look as hot as possible. And although many of us are hot all the time - menopausal hotness is not the kind of hotness they are looking for! Then there is the problem of confidence. If you have spent years (in my case a decade) at home, even if you spent it being very happy, many women find their confidence is at rock bottom when they decide to explore employment options. This is because housework and childcare are completely without value in our society."
Barbara is right, but thankfully things are starting to change and taking time out to care for children may not automatically consign educated women to a life of low paid or voluntary work in the future. Employers are starting to realise that a woman returning to work after rearing a family has qualities and experience not found in younger men or women. As Human Resources director, Liz Nottingham says, "There just aren't enough women with a wealth of life experience available to hire and there are many businesses out there lacking this demographic of strong, capable, 'life'-savvy women who could add great value to their workforce. The message I send to those stay-at-home mums thinking of returning to work, is, come on, get inspired and empowered, we want you back!" It may be scary to get back out in the "real world" but it can also be exhilarating and life-changing.
For women of a certain age, it's a case of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. As Scully said: "[Some] Employers are daft not to see older women as a huge untapped resource. And once an older woman realises that her wisdom and life experience is worth a million times more than fitting into a size 10 bandage dress, she realises her true power."