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Fiona Ness: Are we seeing the return of the stay-at-home mum?

From Clontarf to Clonmel, and healthcare to high-tech industries, more than half of women are opting to give up work once they have children. Are we experiencing a return to the old-fashioned values that favoured a mother at the hearth, or is the push for equality in the workplace only pushing women one way: back home?


Always on: 'I couldn't switch off from work,' says Nuala Grant. 'That stress is on very woman'. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Always on: 'I couldn't switch off from work,' says Nuala Grant. 'That stress is on very woman'. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Always on: 'I couldn't switch off from work,' says Nuala Grant. 'That stress is on very woman'. Photo: Caroline Quinn

The first thing you notice about Linda's home is the dog. After a brief moment of ecstasy over the unexpected arrival of visitors, he scuttles back to his basket by the window and looks dolefully out to sea. Rows of misshapen pottery crafted by little hands are stacked over the TV and a clutter of family pictures butt up against colourful pots of homemade slime. A "posh coffee" machine whirs in the background. It's 10.30am on a school-day and there's not a breakfast dish in sight.

Linda is a stay-at-home mum, one of a number of women with careers who are throwing in the towel at work, in order to throw themselves into parenting, full-time, in the home.

"It feels good when we're all together," Linda says from the other side of the kitchen workbench. This is where she stands, most evenings, to eat her dinner while fetching things for her four children seated at the other side.

"The busyness of it… there's very little time together," she says. "But I don't think it's any different if you stay at home or go out to work. You're just swapping one sort of chaos for another. It's maybe just not as condensed."

Converse to the idea of the stereotypical 1950s mother, who had no option but to stay in the home, today, staying at home to raise a family can be a progressive choice.

Economists have long recognised the vital human capital that mothers represent to society. Yet there is now an overwhelming sense that women who opt to stay at home are swimming against the tide of social reform. Government policy, such as paid parental leave and childcare payments, is being constructed to keep women in the workforce once they become mothers. It is part of a move to promote greater equality between men and women. And economic constraints - such as the cost of housing relative to income - increase the pressure for households to have two salaries.

So does opting out of the workforce once you become a mother fly in the face of advances being made in gender equality?

When it comes to individual family life, it seems that 'equality' isn't always an objective measurement.

"What do you mean when you talk about equality? Is it in the decisions you make for your family? If I plan and book the holiday and you pay for it, is that equality? I think it is," Linda says.

How much we seek to defend a mother's place in the home could be defined for us in an upcoming referendum on the removal of Article 41.2 of Ireland's Constitution. The article provides for a woman's right to "her life within the home… without which the common good cannot be achieved".

Certainly, the clause does not represent the ideal of modern life, where parenting is seen as something that can be shared equally amongst partners. It does not promote current views on gender because it places only women in the home (while denying this right to men). Crucially, however, it does place a value on carers in society, at a time when carers are not valued or rewarded properly for their momentous undertakings. So the removal of this constitutional value on the unpaid work done in the home could only serve to further underline this lack of regard.

Whether we remove Article 41.2 from the Constitution or not, it won't stem the tide of mothers flowing out of the workforce.

Official statistics from 2015 show that 86pc of childless women work, but this drops to 57 pc of those with children aged three or under. As the children reach age six and over, only 58pc of those mothers are in employment.

Research by Amarach Research earlier this month found that almost two out of three mothers with young children in Ireland would prefer to stay at home to raise their children, if finances allowed. The study came on the back of calls for new childcare subsidies for working parents to be extended to parents who minded their children in the home.

Of the 800 women surveyed, 63pc said they would prefer to be a stay-at-home mum, if they were given the option and could afford it. So for many women the question is not why a woman would give up a fulfilling career to stay at home with her children, but how would she do it.

The 'mam' factor

Dr Claire O'Hagan, whose 2015 book, Complex Inequality and Working Mothers, brought the lose-lose conundrum faced by working mothers to the fore, says that today's working mothers find it particularly difficult to navigate their roles because they are "charting a new course".

"These women would all have grown up with a mam at home. So they are the first generation to have this dilemma of career and home. They have no parameters for making their choices and no support once they make them.

"The marriage bar [disallowing married women from working in the civil service and some other jobs] was only lifted in 1973, and today, society still promotes the idea of mother care. In Britain they would have experience of 'latchkey children' for decades. This is particularly an Irish thing."

O'Hagan says that the pull between career and home is also exclusively a middle class issue. "Poor or working class women have always worked, out of necessity." Single parents who often have no choice but to stay at home, due to prohibitive childcare costs, also find themselves cut out of the debate.

Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council, says that when it comes to paying childcare costs, it often doesn't make financial sense for women to continue in employment, "so then it's not as simple as saying 'the mother wants this' - to stay at home.

"Women will continue to be the most obvious childcare solution, O'Connor says, until there is a more equal spread of women in employment, with higher earning power. Because up until now, women have been made very unequal in society."

O'Hagan says the real issue in the lack of progress in the area is the lack of solidarity amongst women, and debates that pit the working woman against the woman in the home. Far from retreating into the home, women, she says, should be demanding en masse a society that enables parents to work.

"The obesity crisis, the rise of anxiety amongst kids… blaming the mother for not being at home, landing all of society's ills at the feet of mothers is a backlash against growing equality for women. Financial independence is the best thing that happened to women, and they should be able to maintain it through the child-rearing years," she says.

O'Hagan believes there should be supports for people who have children because they are a societal benefit for a short-term societal cost. But if you don't have children, why should you care about the dilemma mothers are in, or want to facilitate their work-life balance issues to the detriment of your own? "Rampant individualism is a feature of modern society," O'Hagan says. "Children are a public good. They are the workers who will pay for the older generation's pensions, and people should be supported to have them."

The beginnings of such supports in Ireland can be seen in initiatives such as the affordable childcare subsidy scheme championed by minister Katherine Zappone. It is a small but significant step in making it more affordable for both parents in a family to be in the workforce. It doesn't question if this set-up is actually an intrinsic good.

In terms of managing the care of children, psychologist David Coleman believes society should aspire to having one parent at home. When it comes to childcare, he says group care in a facility "might be your last option", because "there is something about that environment that puts extra pressures on children".

Despite this, he says that the group childcare model is being promoted in Ireland today, through the likes of the affordable childcare payment. "It's the way we are going but why is it? It is not based on the needs of the child. The needs of the workers or the needs of society or the needs of the parents are not necessarily the same as the needs of the child."

That is not to say that children in childcare are suffering. "The quality of the parents' interaction makes a huge difference, if parents are engaged and warm and emotionally understanding of their children's needs," Coleman says. "But if it is a marginal situation for a family where the cost of childcare is almost outweighing a second salary, it is really worth looking at whether the potential quality of life is better without the second income."

The fact remains, Ireland needs both parents in the workforce if it is to meet European Union targets of achieving an employment rate for people aged 20-64 of at least 75pc in each of its member states by 2020. While Ireland exceeded its overall 2020 target in 2016, females lag behind the target with a 64pc employment rate, compared to 76pc for males, according to Eurostat. Keeping mothers in the workplace will be crucial in raising the female participation rate for Ireland.

Employment rates between men and women as a whole vary greatly within the EU member states, and tell a story of their own. Eurostat statistics for 2016 show the gap between the percentage of men and women in employment is narrowest in Sweden and Finland, and with parity being achieved in Iceland. These countries are well known for their progressive childcare initiatives, and the equal expectation society places on both sexes when it comes to rearing children. Countries where the gap is largest include traditionally Catholic countries Malta, Italy and Spain, and Croatia and Greece. In these countries, women are still viewed as the primary caregivers.

I don't know how she does it

In Ireland, the idea of the woman as the primary carer in a family is in flux. Fledgling laws around paternity leave are nudging society towards the idea that it is valid for men and women to be equally involved in the care of their children in the home. Employers are playing catch-up on a situation men and women have wanted for a long time.

Regardless of whether the idea of the mother as nurturer persists into the future, today it is an important role women say they still want to fulfil.

At Linda's house, where 'whither the stay-at-home mum?' is being debated, the statement "why does it always have to be the mammies who stay at home?" is met by a chorus of: "Because we are the mammies".

Many women want being at home with their children to be that simple: because they are mothers, and the reason they had children in the first place was to raise them.

For so long working mothers have been consuming and regurgitating the narrative of 'juggling'. What are they doing when they are pursuing meaningful careers and contributing to the financial stability of the family, while also running a home? Not living, not making the best decisions for them and their family, and not thriving, but juggling.

It's certainly what Linda was doing the morning she dropped her three children off at their childminders, all dressed and prepped for school, and then drove to the office from where she managed a staff of up to 80 people, walked up to her assistant's desk and burst into tears. "I can't do this any more," she told her colleague. She was six months' pregnant with her fourth child when she opted for a year-long career break. Eight years later, she has never gone back.

"I may not be reaping the benefits of my decision now but in 20 years' time I think my children will look back and feel they benefited by having me in the home," Linda says. "My own mam was at home. It was a safe environment. I never had to come home to an empty house.

"We are pushing, pushing, pushing equality, but it's not really pushing men, it's pushing women. You have to get back into the workplace, you have to excel at work - that's the message, but it's at odds with the fundamental role of family, which is about nurture.

"Returning to work after you have had children is more stress on the woman than it is on the man. To be equal with men in the workplace women have to do even more."

Giving up work, Linda warns, is not a panacea for mothers. "There is still chaos in my life; Sometimes I feel I've just swapped one set of chaotic circumstances for another. So possibly we thrive on it. Sometimes I feel the whole day is hurtling towards those hours when I can go inside to the sitting room at 10pm and shut down. Towards a bit of calm. That I am just surviving the day instead of living. This idea of everyone sitting at home together and eating together isn't an amazing concept; it's just living."

I'm a survivor

"I regard myself as a 'survivor'," says professor Eileen Drew. It's an interesting choice of words for a learned Trinity College professor: not 'successful', 'educated' or 'ambitious' - although she is no doubt all of these things - but 'survivor'.

The key to her choice of words is her area of study: Drew is director of the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership, and as such has spent years studying the changing role of women in society. Throughout this time, Drew says she worked full-time while raising two children. "Survivor" is the word she chooses, and she doesn't choose it lightly.

Providing Professor Drew with the working title of this article as 'the rise of the stay-at-home mum', elicits the retort that nothing is going to change for mothers until we change the circumstances for dads.

"I feel that it is not just birth mothers that have a potential nurturing role. In Iceland, where mothers and fathers each have entitlement to three months' paid leave and three months shared after the birth of their child, there is much less pressure on birth mothers to be sole carers and more opportunity for dads (or non-birth mothers) to 'share the care'."

However, statistics for 2016 from the British Office for National Statistics last week showed that the number of stay-at-home dads was declining from a high in 2011, after a steady rise in numbers since 1983.

Is the push to facilitate mothers and fathers in the workplace serving to devalue the role of the parent in the home?

"I would personally, and professionally, welcome more recognition of the important role of parenting for families and societies - it is undervalued and working hours are far too long and insufficiently flexible for modern-day parents," she says.

Drew imagines an Ireland where both parents work a maximum of three days a week for the first two to three years of a child's life. Allowing for childcare costs and high levels of taxation, at one stroke we could move towards more equality in the home and the workplace and spend more time with young children, without a huge drop in after-tax income. However, Drew says women are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if they bow out of the labour force due to family commitments.

She says that while leaving work to be at home looking after the children can be very appealing, it's not going to occupy 40 years of anyone's life, female or male.

"I don't believe that women 'leave' the workforce - as in 'forever'," she says. "Some move to other companies with a better work/life balance record. Some take stock and abandon more highly competitive career paths for 'safer' conventional employment. Some re-enter education for motives that range from pure self-fulfilment to labour-market driven programmes. Still others embark upon entrepreneurship."

Back to work

Linda, a dietician by profession, says she feels she is "still employable" and that her skills are still relevant should she decide to re-enter the profession. She has also begun an artisan candle-making business and through this she has established a monthly artisan crafts market in Dublin's St Anne's Park.

"My kids know that I worked, that I had a responsible job as a mother as well, and that I stopped it to look after them. They also know that I do other things. With Linda's Wicked Waxes… I could spend 40 hours a week working on it or I could spend six. But I've never worked so hard for such little money. On the basis of it, I run a market with a friend and there's a lot of organising around that.

"The children come down and see the market and that I'm running that business and sometimes I catch them saying 'my mam has a market'. It's good for them to see me doing it; but it's good for me, too. For me to see they are proud to be talking about something that I do."

Meanwhile Emer, a social worker from Kildare, is preparing to go back to work. She had taken a five-year career break to raise her children while her husband worked abroad to finance the care of one of their children who had become ill. She says that staying at home can be an empowering choice for women, and not something they are driven to through burnout or economics.

"I always wanted to be the one at home and I resented going out to work," she says of working full time. "And I say that knowing I am going back to work soon. I know going back is my opportunity to do something really different but I don't really have the mental energy or space to work out what that might be.

"I don't feel I am in an unequal position to men. I contribute. I don't feel I'm being treated unequally. I am enhancing the life of the family by being at home."

Being able to have the children at home after  school is very important to me

Nuala Grant

BA in social studies, mum of four

A social worker on a child protection team in Dublin for 14 years, Nuala, a mother of four, began a career break when her youngest child was a year old. She says being a public sector worker made the decision more straightforward, in that she could return to her job and maintain her pension.

"My work was emotionally charged. I was working with the most vulnerable kids in society. I'd get home from work and sit in the car trying to gather myself to go inside and I could see them all at the window, shouting 'Mammy! Mammy!' I'd go into the house and they all come at you - and then the pressure is on. It's a lot about nature. The core is... the mother is the feeder. It's as basic as that.

"That was one of the reasons I gave up work - I couldn't make that transition into family life; I couldn't switch off from work. That stress is on every woman.

"There must be a maturity in the relationship between the parents to enable couples to make this decision. It requires you to communicate with each other in the midst of the chaos.

"Being able to have the children at home after school is very important to me. There is a lot of safety in your home and children respond to that. It's the feeling you get from home. In the push to get women into the workforce, the Government are forgetting about the little people at home. And what about the men? Men carry the stress a lot, too. There should be flexible working arrangements more available to all. I would choose to work part time if I could. Maybe most of us would.

"I couldn't afford to stay at home and still can't. But I'm willing to do that. It wasn't a choice for me. The scales were only tipping one way.

"Sometimes you need to step outside of yourselves to get some perspective. I spoke to a parenting expert. She said to me, 'you need to get out of that situation: you are drowning'. Someone said to me, you'll never regret spending time at home with the kids. But you might regret the flip-side.

"I loved my job. It has to be a passion. I had a big fear of stepping out and not being able to step back in again. When I was working, I trained in Play Therapy as something extra I could give the kids, but I started to realise the children I was working with had gone far beyond what Play Therapy could offer.

"So I started to think where could I really fill a need. A while after I began the career break, I started up North Dublin Play Therapy (playtherapynorthdublin@gmail.com), doing hours that fit around my family. I deal with children who aren't in care, children struggling with little things, the day-to-day things. I'm happy. I'm not always working in crisis mode now."

'I constantly thought I was doing two jobs at 50%'

Claire, Limerick, Finance expert, mum of three

'I never imagined giving up work to be a stay-at-home mum. I got a promotion when I was pregnant with my third baby and my start date was when he was five months old. I didn't hesitate; I wanted the job so much.

"I'm a worrier. I worried about the children in afterschool care and crèche, I couldn't focus at work. I constantly had the thought that I was doing two jobs at only 50pc. I wasn't home until six or seven and we wouldn't know what we were going to be eating.

"I wanted to be a mother. I want to give them homemade soup for lunch every day. We did a parenting course and the course manager said: 'You need to change this'. Up until that point I hadn't even considered giving up work. My mum said to me: 'Children need to go home after school every day'.

"All you go through before you sit down at your desk as a working mum; you've worked a whole day before 9am. You'd lose all pride in yourself. Someone in work would say, 'Have you not got a bit of makeup in your bag?'

"I don't see myself going back into finance. I have that option but I think I'll get back into something different; I don't want to go back to a full-time job. That said, I'm continuing my CPD hours that will keep my qualifications current.

"Already I feel a lack of confidence that I could go back into a work environment. Already I feel like I couldn't have an intellectual conversation.

"Because it was my idea - I had to sell it at home. I've been cutting down on everything - I could spend €300 a week on food and wouldn't know. Now I do my shopping in Lidl for €100. The kids are living better, they have more routine. They are eating better. I'm more organised.

"It mightn't work for everyone - I know many people are already making those savings. If I want to get my hair done - what do I do now? I don't know.

"I don't feel like it's a massive personal sacrifice. I can't believe I didn't do it sooner. Women fight for their rights but this is where I am happier. It's a different kind of stress. A different kind of shattered. I don't expect tax credits - I made this choice knowing the system is the way it is.

"I still have guilt that I should be doing something more with my time off. I feel a bit inadequate when my husband comes home… but he is coming home to a cooked meal, a clean house... the kids settled. He can put his all into his job. So this takes the pressure off him, too. It's calmer with me being here. I am happy and the children are ecstatic."

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