Feb 4, 2013

What Not To Say To A Working Mother

I danced a little jig in my head when I read this blog on the Huffington Post this week.

It has now been posted on Mamamia as well and is apparently garnering a huge number of comments, which I will not be reading (no doubt many in support, and no doubt equally as many of the "I don't understand why you'd have children only to farm them out to others to raise" sort).

In What Not to Say to a Working Mom, Devon Corneal totally nails it on those questions and comments - some dumb, some nasty, some well-meaning - that all "working mothers" get from the day they hit the workforce after having a child.

Here are some snippets:

Can't you afford to stay home?  Let's assume for a minute that I can't. Let's imagine I work to help pay the mortgage and buy groceries and send our kids to college. Where does this conversation go now? Awkward, right? Next thing you know, I'm going to be asking you how much your husband earns so you can stay home. Let's agree not to go there.

There are other good reasons for working, of course, beyond the immediate budget:
...I also know that some day our kids will be off at college or started on careers of their own and I want to keep a foot in the working world so when that time comes, I'm not staring at a big gap in my resume that makes it harder for me to get a job.

I also like the equality that exists in my marriage because both my husband and I put money in the bank. 

This is a big one for me, and an unexpected beneficial side-effect from our arrangement. I know the way we live doesn't work for everyone, but I do believe, in the best of all worlds, both parents work outside the home and both parents do heavy-lifting parenting as well as cooking, cleaning and gardening, administration and the rest. The "traditional" (it's not really) model of Dad in the office and Mum at home, doesn't always but can lead to frustration and resentment on both sides, as Dad feels locked in to a career he hates, and Mum is over-burdened with the heavy-lifting parenting and emotional parenting, and each feels misunderstood and under-appreciated by the other.

Not that that still doesn't go on in our house of course.

Here's my favourite:
There's always time to work later, these early years are so precious.  All the years are precious. 
Absolutely. OK, I know where people are coming from. Those early years are special, as you get to know your child and get to know yourself as a parent, and as children grow and change so fast. But I think people get so hung up on the years before pre-school that it's as if the years following are worth nothing. School years are also immensely important; as are tween years, and teen years. I have never prized the early years any higher than those.

Here's my second favourite:

Why did you have kids only to let someone else raise them?  ....We are grateful and proud to have wonderful people who help us -- from family to friends to teachers and babysitters. But make no mistake, my husband and I are raising our kids. 

That old thing - that if you're working then other people are raising your kids. It's everywhere in popular culture - in books and films written by people who don't have kids (The Nanny Diaries) and others (Paris Je T'aime - the scene where the struggling mother drops her baby to the cold, institutional, Romanian-orphanage-style daycare centre). I admit before I went back to work I also worried this was true, and I worried about kids loving their carers more than us, or crying for their carers when they were upset with us. It didn't happen. It doesn't. I was assured "Don't worry, babies and kids always know who their mum and dad are", but it's more than that. Kids always love their mum and dad the most. And what's more, you're still as involved with your kids as any other parent. That scene in I Don't Know How She Does It where the frazzled career mum has no idea whether her son likes broccoli or not? As ridiculous as suggesting this of a "stay at home" mum. 

Two anecdotes from my own world

Someone judges me...
Once when I had recently returned to work (and yes, I was feeling guilty and a little sad about it), I went to a movie one night with a friend and her friend G. G had her twins at the same time as me. Unlike me, her husband had a career job with steady pay and good entitlements; her husband was the main breadwinner; her house had been bought earlier so her mortgage was smaller, and she had taken time off work to spend "the early years" with her children. See how those things go together? I'm not implying that G and her husband didn't sacrifice, struggle, plan mightily and scrimp and save to do this. I'm just saying it was possible for them in a way it was not for us.

G asked me what I was doing and I said I was working. Her comment? "Oooh, that's unusual."

My reply? Not as feisty as it would be now. Now I would say "Actually it's not at all unusual." (Yes, I have replayed this scene in my head just a few times).

At the time I said, "Oh well, I'm working now and the kids are really happy and thriving and I plan to switch to part-time work down the track when the kids are in school."  (And this was indeed always my plan).

Her response: "Oh, but the years before school are so critical."

My response: again, not as good as it would be now. But even in my swallowed hurt and anger I found it ridiculous that anyone would discount the school years as less important. Playground squabbles? Homework? Struggles with independence and obedience? There's a lot going on there, baby.

...And I judge someone else

While I was still off work and my girls were babies, a mum at our local Multiples club recounted her story. She and her husband were both teachers and had decided she would take "the early years" off work. In order to do this, they'd sold their house and were renting.  Now, while this level of sacrifice (and guts) are admirable, to me, I admit this seemed a step too far. At that time the housing market was booming and even now post-GFC house prices continue to rise in Australia. It's a fair bet that unless their financial situation improved dramatically (or she went back to work), they would struggle to buy a house again later and could also end up locked into increasing rents and a difficult rental market.  

Of course they probably took all this into account, and of course plenty of people make the choice to sell up and rent for all sorts of reasons. But I couldn't help think that the current obsession for being able to "stay home" for "the early years" has created unrealistic expectations and placed undue burdens of stress and guilt on those of us who can't do it.

It's just not the case that every family can afford one parent at home for a few years.  It's not a matter of being selfless and giving up McMansions and fancy TVs. If you are both on low pay, or one wage is not steady, or you bought your house recently and your mortgage is large, then these days, both parents work. Then, yes, there may be some extra discretionary cash available for a new TV, but that doesn't mean you would save a bucketload by not working. Also, while spending time with your children is critically important, providing financial security and keeping finance-based stress to a minimum are also important parts of raising children. (Not that everyone should be working outside the home - just don't assume that nobody has to).

In conclusion

I will say quite honestly that I hand-on-heart loved being home with my babies, and I did return to work when they were eight months old for financial reasons. That last night of my maternity leave I cried and I wished things were different.

But our arrangement had benefits as well, and I haven't hesitated to share those with women at work who have asked me (as well as the drawbacks).  It's not just financial - having spare cash, being able to pay off a mortgage and accumulate super that will provide long-term security - or about job security.  I honestly believe my husband is a better father than he would have been otherwise. I honestly know that my kids had wonderful, loving and beneficial years at day-care. And, they also accept a couple of days of before- and after-school care now, because they are used to being cared for outside the home. (After all, you can't stay home forever - at some point most mums must go back to work).

Everyone is different. In my perfect world, I would work three days a week at a stimulating, fulfilling job where I was respected and made full use of my knowledge and strengths, my husband would not be worked off his feet, we'd have enough super saved up for some kind of retirement and our mortgage would be negligible.

Until then... back to work! 


  1. I read that Huffpo article too and found myself nodding in agreement.

    Your 'take' on this, coupled with your own views, has made it a hundred times better. Send this to The Age opinion section - it deserves to be published!

  2. Think I'm glad I've stayed single and childless - and get judged for that. It's all too hard, no matter what route you take in life. In the words of Malcolm Fraser, "Life wasn't meant to be easy." You've raised some great points (says she who doesn't have the kids dilemma)

    1. I so agree - so much - with this: ALL ways are difficult, and life isn't meant to be easy.



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