Three women tell Arlene Harris why 'stay-at-home mum' is a perfectly valid job description
A wise woman once said that the phrase 'working mother' is redundant, yet some believe that stay-at-home mums have taken the easy option and turned their back on the feminist movement.
Take Cath Kidston for instance. She has made a fortune from her signature floral designs – from tea towels to teapots, nappy bags to shopping bags – aimed specifically at women who, for the most part, are either traditional housewives or stay-at-home-mums.
But the English designer (who is estimated to be worth £25m) caused a bit of a stir last month when she revealed that she had no desire to join her loyal customers.
"My mother didn't work," said the 54-year-old in a recent interview. "My father even paid the housekeeping bills, so she was entirely dependent. Then she was widowed when she was quite young, and I think it was seeing her so vulnerable that gave me the motivation to do this.
"It is so nice to have one's own life and support oneself. Of course it's wonderful to share things, but I don't aspire to being that housewife getting supper ready in the evening."
However, many women feel that looking after the house and family is just as important as going out to work, particularly while their children are growing up.
Lauren Dare used to work in communications until she became a mother. And although she never imagined she would be a stay-at-home mum, she is really enjoying being with her sons Nathaniel (two-and-a-half) and Alexander (one) while her husband Chris goes out to work.
"If you told me when I was 25 that I'd become a stay-at-home mum, I would have laughed out loud," she admits. "I was very focused on building a career, but, in hindsight, I never really had direction.
"As soon as I became a mother, all my priorities shifted. I really enjoyed being with my son and wanted to throw myself into everything he was experiencing. I also met a community of mothers and made some great new friends."
The 31-year-old doesn't leave the house to go to work, but she is on the go from early morning until the children go to bed in the evening.
"My days are so much longer now than before I had kids and usually oscillate between eating and playing and cleaning up after eating and playing," she admits. "We're all up and dressed by 7.30am and I let the boys direct their play, but try to make sure we have a mix of quiet time and active play.
"Both boys nap well, so I get at least an hour every afternoon to myself. This is such an essential part of my day. I have a cup of tea, put on the TV and don't think about cleaning or doing anything useful until the cup of tea is done. This is my break time and I've learnt it is vitally important to honour that, just as I would if I had a lunch break in an office."
Lauren adds: "The afternoons go pretty quickly as we run errands, visit friends and play some more. Then it's dinner before Dad gets home. On the weekends, we try to get out and do something as a family, like go to the library or zoo. They are both avid swimmers and Alex is a champ in his water babies class and gets to shine on his own away from his pesky older brother."
When the Dublin mother made the choice to stay home with her children, she decided to dedicate all her energies to being the best home-maker she could.
"Part of my challenge to myself when I decided to stay at home was to learn to do as many things as I could," Lauren says. "My grandmother was a great seamstress and cook; she grew all her own vegetables and knew how to do so much. Somehow this was never passed down to me, so I'm reclaiming the lost art of home-making.
"It has been a lot of fun so far and I'm really proud of what I am learning to do. I think there was always a creative, free- spirited girl trapped inside me and it took becoming a mum to give her the space to break out."
Lauren is, however, conscious of reactions to her 'job title'.
"I still get nervous when meeting new people and they ask me what I do," she says. "It takes a lot of getting used to, but I keep telling myself to be proud of what I'm doing. It is a difficult job looking after two little boys, but there is nothing more important than raising two young men to do brilliant things in the world."
Denise Guidera used to work as a primary school teacher, but when her two children – Grace (seven) and Donnchadh (five) – were babies, she stayed at home to look after them. Initially finding it very difficult, she returned to work.
Now that they are older, she is back at home and really enjoying it.
"Like a lot of people before they have children, I had very unrealistic and idealistic notions of what it would be like to be a mother," admits the 40-year-old. "I decided that it would be best if I stayed at home, but found it incredibly difficult in the early years.
"I joined a couple of Cuidiu mother and toddler groups, which really saved my sanity at the beginning. I went because they gave my days a bit of structure, but, in time, I really began to enjoy them and made some good friends.
"I went back to work for a while and now I am at home again, but because they are in school I have a bit of head space. I use this time to do some housework, start the dinner, make phone calls and anything else which helps to make life a bit less chaotic in the evenings."
Denise now enjoys being a stay-at-home mum. "I think one of feminism's greatest achievements is that it has given women choices," says Denise.
"We are lucky in Ireland that, generally speaking, it is accepted that families make the best choice for their individual circumstances. Some stay at home, some work, some work part-time, some dads stay at home.
"But the mums I often feel sorry for are the ones who would love to be at home but can't be or who want to work but are forced by circumstances to stay at home."
She says she might go back to work when her children are older and more independent: "But right now, I love being part of their lives and taking them to and from school and activities," she explains.
"When I was working, my husband Eoin – also a teacher – was a huge support, so now that I am at home he gets to have more free time, which is good, and we get to chat and generally spend more time together. Also, because I have more time to shop around, we eat a lot better too."
Denise adds: "Every family is different, but my advice to anyone at home full-time would be to link in with the local parenting groups. It's so simple, but really helpful."
Lucy Hill is married to Ross, who is a company director. Together, they have two children – Madeleine (four) and Ruby (20 months). When 31-year-old Lucy became pregnant with her first child, she gave up her position in the education department of the National Youth Council of Ireland, as being a stay-at-home mum was a role she always wanted to fulfil.
"It was definitely a conscious decision to quit my job and stay home after I had Madeleine," Lucy says. "I had always hoped that I would be able to be there for my children, particularly while they were small.
"I love that I get to share the everyday moments with them – when they learn something new, say something funny or just enjoy doing something.
"I'm also glad to be around when they are upset, sick, sad or worried and to be able to answer their questions – of which there are many. I know everyone says it, but they do grow up so quickly and I'm glad to have this opportunity."
Despite the challenges of her role, Lucy feels it's worth it.
"I don't think I'd have made the choice to stay home if I didn't think it mattered so much," she says. "Sometimes I think people imagine it's an easy choice, but it isn't. It's really hard work and I have days when I question my sanity or struggle with having spent years in further education to be wiping snotty noses and cleaning nappies. Still, the rewards by far outweigh the challenges.
"Ultimately, in those early years, the best person to look after your children is you and I'm pretty sure research indicates the same.
"At the same time, I am fully aware that many women work because they have to, and I respect that – and I know many child-care workers do an excellent job, but I just think there are more benefits to children being at home."
The mother-of-two says that although she believes she is doing the most important job of her life, not everyone shares her opinion.
"In recent years, the number of stay-at-home mums has decreased and sometimes I almost feel I have to apologise for it," Lucy says.
"I'd love to see more value placed on stay-at-home mothers. With so many people working, we are afraid to promote the merits of staying at home for fear of seeming like we are being too critical of working mothers and causing them to feel guilty.
"Everyone is entitled to make a choice, but I'd love people to see this as an equally valid and, in fact, good choice to make for children's development.
"My identity isn't wrapped up in my children. I am definitely my own person but I'm very happy to be known as their mum. When I'm asked socially what I do, I'm very proud to have that as my job description."
For more parenting advice, visit cuidiu.ie
To read Lauren's parenting blog, visit thedar.es