The stay-at-home parent and the working parent

I love my job. It’s so fulfilling being able to help people with their websites and most users are profoundly grateful for the support. I also feel privileged to have this little window into their lives: to see what they’re writing about and what their interests are.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this job. It has been a long time since I was in paid employment. For the past seven years I have primarily been a stay-at-home mother. This has been wonderful and I feel lucky to have been able to do this as many families just can’t afford it. But there’s a perception in society that staying at home to care for one’s children is a worthless task. That you’re not contributing to society and that it’s unfulfilling on a personal level.

I’m not going to comment on whether how I chose to spend the last seven years of my life contributed to society or not, but I will say that it has been fulfilling. Aside from my primary role as caregiver – which has meant that I got to spend lots of time with my kids – I have also developed some skills. I taught myself to crochet and I think I’ve become quite good. I taught myself how to create IOS apps and I’ve now got some in the App Store. I started my blog and have made lots of friends through the WordPress.com blogging community. I’ve also learnt a lot through research I’ve done for my own blog and also from reading others people’s blogs.

I feel like I have had the best of both worlds: I got to spend time at home with my kids developing crafts that interest me; and now when my kids don’t really need me so much anymore, I’ve found a job that I love.

There’s a good article in the Philosopher’s Mail today called Why you resent your partner. The article talks about how society undervalues domestic work, and overvalues paid work. People who stay home to care for children or an ill family member are “implicitly told by society that they are spending their time on something low-grade and demeaning.” Whereas the wage earner is expected to be fulfilled and proud of their work when quite often they are stressed and unhappy. Here’s an excerpt:

At the core of the problem is that domestic work has been undervalued and paid work has been overvalued – or at least misinterpreted.

Making and maintaining a home and bringing up children are amongst the more serious, important and demanding of human achievements. They are certainly not for everyone but they answer to vital needs in human nature. Those who do it deserve honour and prestige.

At the same time, though paid work can be wonderful, it frequently isn’t; and those who do it deserve a lot of sympathy and care. Most of us do it simply because we have to in order to survive and it doesn’t especially fulfil our souls. It is ironic – to put it gently – that being paid to take a photograph of an attractive kitchen for an interiors magazine, is regarded as a prestigious occupation (a dream job), while running an attractive kitchen in your own home is regarded as insignificant (just a ‘stay at home’); or that being the in-house legal-counsel for a firm that makes domestic appliances is thought a great career; yet using the appliances to clean and cook is regarded as not having a career at all.

We need to equalise prestige and also equalise gratitude. One of the pair isn’t necessarily taking the easy option, the other the humiliating option. Paid-work can be awful and unliberating, housework freeing and ennobling – and vice-versa. So both deserve respect, both deserve sympathy.

I’m not sure how we can change this other than to write about it and point out why these prevailing attitudes are wrong. I loved being a stay-at-home mother. It was fulfilling and satisfying in every possible way and I felt fortunate that I did not have to get up and leave for work at 8am after a sleepless night with an unsettled baby. I always felt that I was the lucky one in my marriage. Whenever I filled out airline landing cards, I wrote “Mother” for my occupation in the hope that I might challenge the idea that caring for one’s children is not an occupation.

Now when I fill out airline landing cards I’ll write Happiness Engineer. In many respects, the two roles – Mother and Happiness Engineer – draw on similar qualities: patience, communication skills, problem solving and a sense of humour. I loved my old job. I love my new job.

18 thoughts on “The stay-at-home parent and the working parent

  1. I love everything you say in this blog Rachel. You seem to have been lucky, but you can catalyse your own luck. It is not what cards you are dealt in life, but how you handle them.

  2. Almost all the paid work generates products and services that end up in the home. Much of the rest, like transport, support those endeavours. Ludicrous to undervalue the end user. Advertisers certainly don’t.

    Perhaps the imbalance came about because it favoured the employers. That is, cheap wages for women and men stuck in their jobs because they were persuaded to be the sole breadwinner, as a matter of middle class pride. Like many things, it has been those who profit from attitudes who created them.

    You show that a person can fulfill their desire for many roles, one after the other. Do each well and that is a life.

    Enjoy ! 🙂

    1. I think the imbalance is a consequence of the feminist movement. Not that I’m against feminism – I call myself a feminist – but it did push the idea that what has been defined as women’s work (domestic stuff) is demeaning and unfulfilling. Having said this, the feminist movement happened because of inequality and because women had no say in what they could do, so I’m not saying that things were right before. I think having a choice is what matters.

      1. Good point. The real feminists just got on with it and paved the way through the glass ceiling. Unfortunately their were a few who wanted to put women in a another box.

        As Pete Townsend sung, “meet the the new boss, same as the old boss”.

        Having a choice is right. I’d go a little further and say having one’s choice respected. 🙂

  3. Congratulations on the job by the way. I have been meaning to say that for ages.

    This post resonates a lot with me. Not working changed me and I struggled to stay positive. Also not being able to have the jobs I’d trained for – which would have been difficult problem solving exerises rather than organising campsite bookings for teenagers.

    It’s not all negative, because I learned quite a few people handling skills I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And my friend reminded me the other day “You brought up two children.” I guess it was my choice not to buy in childcare and go into high pressure corporate work. They needed someone there for them.

    The best thing about your article is how positive you are about the situation that many of us struggle with

    1. Thanks, Denise. I think lots of people end up doing jobs different to what they trained for. Personally I think what’s important is that you enjoy what you’re doing. And also, it doesn’t matter what other people think.

  4. “But there’s a perception in society that staying at home to care for one’s children is a worthless task. That you’re not contributing to society and that it’s unfulfilling on a personal level.”

    I’d like to meet these people (losers).

  5. Your blog really resonated with me, Rachel. Years ago, I started paid work after a number of productive and mostly enjoyable years at home looking after small children. In social situations, people would often ask what I did but when I stopped saying ‘home duties’, I noticed a significant change in attitude. It was as if my conversation and views now mattered.

    When my marriage failed (at a time when I was a stay-at-home mum), my partner said I would get nothing because, after all, what had I “contributed”? Subsequently when he was caring for the children alone, he complained bitterly, “how can I earn an income and look after the children?!”.

  6. I’ve come full circle in the last 38 years or so. I’ve been the at-home parent for our 4 children for 15 or so years. I’ve also gone back to paid work after that for about 20 years. Now we (my husband and I) are both at home full-time, looking after the home and property we jointly own with our son and his family, and caring for our 3 grandchildren before and after school. This allows both our son and daughter-in-law to go out to full-time work, and the work our daughter-in-law does is work not many people would want to do but she loves it and is very good at it.

    While we both know how important what we are doing is, and that we owe no-one any money, and don’t get any hand-outs from anyone, it is can be very hard sometimes not to feel guilty and as if we are not justifying every minute of our day. Why is this? Why do we not feel we have an equal standing in society with our contemporaries who are still in paid work? We are “retired” and “so lucky”, and while I agree with both statements, we are in fact still both working quite hard, but somehow our work doesn’t have the same standing and value as if we were paid to do it. Ironically, if we were doing it for another family, and were paid for it, we could say we were still “working” and our “work” would probably get more respect, rather than being seen as retirement.

    So your blog posting, and the article you referred to really resonate with me too – thanks for them both. I think I just need to learn to hold my head up higher, know that what we are doing has value, and take pride in it. Why should I care whether society agrees with me or not?

    And hearty congratulations on the job Rachel. Having worked with you, I know you’ll be fantastic at it, and I can see how well it will suit you. Was it the prompt for the somewhat mysterious posting sometime back when you expressed great satisfaction with life without explaining why?

    Catherine

    1. Thanks, Catherine.

      My mysterious post a few months back was about this job. I had just been offered the chance to do trial but I didn’t want to disclose this in case I didn’t make it.

      Our economy is based on valuing paid work only. Work that isn’t isn’t paid is not valued and so forgotten. I have read that there are efforts to better quantify the contribution made to the economy of unpaid work and so maybe this is starting to change. This site for instance – http://data.ncvo.org.uk/a/almanac12/how-big-is-the-voluntary-sector-compared-to-the-rest-of-the-economy/ – finds that the voluntary sector contributes £11.7 billion to the UK economy. That’s comparable to other sectors.

      I think I just need to learn to hold my head up higher, know that what we are doing has value, and take pride in it. Why should I care whether society agrees with me or not?

      I really agree with you here. I tried to make an effort when I was a stay-at-home mother to say my occupation with pride. I felt that I could, in my small and insignificant way, bring about change.

  7. A wonderfully refreshing post Rachel Squirrel 🙂 Now, you know how much I love red squirrels (that’s what sent me over to your site in the first place if you remember and I’m so glad for that!) and I resonate so much with all you say here. As you know, I loved being a full time mother and it’s so good to read your thoughts. I was always proud of my chosen career as I am now of my writing career. Now I support and help my daughter in other ways and I know that some people wonder why I’m not in paid employment. But…I’m doing what I need to do for my family and I know it’s right. This is such a well balanced article, thank you, and so glad to hear that this job is bringing you as much fulfillment as your other one 😀

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Sherri. I thought you might share my sentiments in this thread. In fact, I’ve loved all the comments I’ve got on this topic. It seems like I’m not the only one who feels this way and that’s always nice to know.

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