One of the things about being a stay at home mother that has annoyed me the most has been the insinuations (from others) and the nigglings of guilt (from myself) that I was setting a poor example to my children, and my daughter in particular.
The insinuations weren’t just over-sensitivity on my part, either. When research about the apparent benefits to children of working mothers was rehashed in the press a couple of weeks ago, one commentator stated:
“In some ways [the study’s findings are] a signal to women who don’t [work] that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother,”
I did think hard about it, before I even made the choice to leave work. How could I claim to be a feminist, how could I teach my daughter that her destiny was in her own hands, while the model I presented was one of absolute domesticity? She knew I worked from home, but that was an abstract, unseen concept. What she saw was someone who cooked and cleaned and fetched and carried: always at the school gate, when I wasn’t at the hob or forlornly harvesting socks out of the airing cupboard.
There’s no way of knowing how badly I have harmed her life chances (or otherwise). What could possibly be the control anyway? I would argue pretty strongly, though, that having always explained to her and her brothers that I chose to be at home with them while they were very little because the nursery they were at was going down the pan and because we had no-one on hand to help out with the inevitable, incessant lurgies of small childhood, that I was giving them a fairly good idea of what it means to be a woman and a mother. It wasn’t ideal – or certainly not idyllic – but it was a choice, a means to an end. It was being a grown-up (albeit one lucky enough to be able to decide).
It’s now that I am on the brink of going back to full time work, however, that I am really having to think about what my actions say and do. Not the working itself, but all the other stuff around the edges. The plan is that I will drop the children off at wraparound for breakfast, and that their dad will collect them and bring them home for an evening meal at about 6. And despite the fact that he is a fantastic father, a perfectly competent cook, and a thoroughly functional adult, he is having to chip my fingers off the meal planning to get me to relinquish control. My instincts are to write out what we are going to eat each night, to shop for it all and to plan the preparation necessary in order to ensure we eat a decent meal every (or almost every) night. But I won’t be here. This isn’t my role any more.
The same thing goes for laundry, for shopping for presents, for planning parties and filling in school slips and all the time-consuming minutiae of family life. While we divided our labour so that he earned the money and I ran the home, it made perfect sense for me to do all that stuff. I could explain to my children that I wasn’t doing it because I was a woman or a mother, I was doing it because that was how we had agreed to function as a family for a while. Children are incredibly practical. That made absolute sense to them.
When I am working as many hours as their father, though, what kind of message will I be sending then about what it means to be a mother and a woman if I insist on hanging on to all the domestic stuff? If I cling to “wife-work” as somehow my domain, despite the fact that I also work outside the home? Surely they would, unavoidably, absorb the message that women are just inherently more capable of running round with a hoover or writing an RSVP and that men shouldn’t be troubled even to try.
I hate saying that my husband is brilliant around the house, though he is, because it makes him sound like a well-trained puppy. He has always been hands-on with the children, right from the nights when he would carry a screaming colicky No1 to the back of the house to try and let me get some sleep. Now is the time that I have to let him step in to do what he is more than willing to do to keep our little crew of five afloat and show our children, not that women can have it all, but that there is absolutely no reason why they should have to do it all. That’s definitely a perception worth impacting.