The Harshest Critic of the Stay at Home Mum: Herself (a guest post)

Today I have Kate from One Small Life guest posting on the blog. Kate talks about the complicated criticisms stay at home mums level at themselves, the presumptions made about other people’s thoughts and the reality of it all. I found myself relating to so much of this beautiful post and I thank Kate for sharing so honestly.

the harshest critic of the stay at home mother

It was that time of year.  Time to get to know the parents of the kids my kid shares a classroom with.

We sat in the sun sipping chai and chatting pleasantly when one of us began asking around the table what we did.  There was a lawyer, a physio, an accountant, the director of a promising start-up – the rest I’m unsure of.  At first I was listening with interest.  What an interesting group of women.  Then my head got fuzzy.  Because I realized soon I would have to say something.  And what would I say?

I’m a stay at home Mum.

I don’t work.

I’m not in paid employment.

I’m a full time Mother.  Can’t say that – because of course, we are all full time mothers.  None of these women stops being a Mum when they clock on at work.

None of these sat right with me.  But all of them are true.

I was the only one at that table who wasn’t working.  And that is becoming more and more common now that my eldest has reached school age.  Back in the day, when the kids were really little many of us were taking a hiatus from work.  But as the kids get older so many of those around me have headed back to the workforce.

The responses to my status were interesting.  And I know none of the women delivering them did so with any judgment.  But of course, my antennae were up and I was sensitive to how they reacted.  Here’s what they said:

“What does your partner do?”

“Oh lucky!”

“Are you thinking about going back to work?”

Like I said, all of the women at that table were simply making conversation with a group of strangers.  I don’t believe any of them was trying to make any hidden implications or assumptions with their responses.

But here’s how it felt to me:

“Your partner must make good money.”

“It must be so great/easy/fun not having to work!”

“You should be thinking about going back to work.”

I can’t reiterate this enough.  It’s not that I think these women were actually implying these things.  It’s just that my own sensitivities made me hear these implications.

Partly I guess because I feel like I should be going back to work.  My eldest is in Grade One, next year my youngest starts Prep.  People are asking me a lot at the moment if I’m thinking about going back to work.  And I am.  Thinking about it.

But it’s not that easy.  Where do I go?  What do I do?  I was a freelancer when I got pregnant.  That meant I had no maternity leave, no employer to go back to.  In some ways this was a good thing.  I was certainly relieved when my kids were tiny that I didn’t have a boss expecting my return to work – especially with my first.

I had no idea what I was doing.  Breastfeeding was intense and sleeping was a nightmare.  In hindsight I also think I had a bit of PND, which I just battled through, not really knowing or understanding the symptoms enough to seek treatment.

Which is why when people told me stories at that time of women going back to work when their babies were six weeks or even six months old I was dumbfounded.

“I don’t know how they do that!”

I realise that phrase might seem judgemental.  It’s not – not remotely.  It doesn’t mean ‘I don’t know how they can do that?  How can they leave their babies?’  It means, quite literally ‘I don’t understand how they make that happen.’

I was so swamped, so overwhelmed, it was incomprehensible to me that I could have added a return to work to the mix.

I do wonder – what would have happened if I’d had a job that required my return?  Would I have just sucked it up, worked it out, soldiered on, made it work, as I know so many families do?  Or would it have been my tipping point, the point at which I ceased to cope and fell apart?

We’ll never know.  I reckon it’s an each way bet.

The thing is I never thought I’d be not working for this long.  I had a career that I really valued and enjoyed.  I had a job that I was good at.  I always planned to return to it.

Before we had kids a girlfriend and I used to talk about it.  She was always adamant that she wanted to stay home until her kids were school age.  She would lament the fact that she didn’t see how she could afford to do that.

Not me, I’d counter.  No.  I didn’t see myself staying home for more than six months.  I wanted to go back.

Until I didn’t.  Until I felt like I couldn’t.

Being a Mum not in paid employment can be a confidence destroyer.  Since looking after my kids is now my full time job there’s a lot of self inflicted pressure to get it right at all times.  Bake all the things!  Join all the committees!  When things aren’t going well and you feel like your kids are brats you and all you do all day is yell, there’s a feeling of failure.  Like, I only have this one thing to do and I can’t even get that right.

It’s easy to look around at so many other Mums who seem to be able to manage caring for their kids and professional employment and it can make me feel very inadequate.

Also, I feel like my decision not to return to work has been career killer.  That’s a confidence stomper and a shock to the system.  But I need to face that it may be the reality.

It’s been seven years since I’ve worked.  My previous career was media based and so much has changed.  Technology, equipment, positions, budgets.  None of it is the same.  My contacts list is all but irrelevant.  My knowledge all but obsolete.

We’ve done a big spring clean in our house recently.  Sorted through all the cupboards, thrown out trailer loads of stuff.  I came across my storage container of work stuff.  I’ve held onto it all this time, because I never really had a fixed idea that I wasn’t returning to work – it just sort of happened that way.  But I had to admit it was worthless.  All of it.  I threw it in the bin.  I turned to my partner and said, “I feel like I’ve just thrown away my career.”

That’s a harsh reality to face.

I don’t mean to make it sound like it was a situation that was forced on me.  That is not an accurate representation of things.  But there is certainly an aspect of it that crept up on me.  That wasn’t planned.  That perhaps I might have done differently if I’d had a bit more insight and perspective.  Or maybe not.

I never made one clear decision that I wouldn’t return to work.  But along the way I have knowingly made lots of smaller decisions to not prioritise my career.

Even as recently as last year I was offered a job by a former employer that might have been a dream.  A perfect entrée back into the industry.  I said no.  I was torn – very torn.  It was a difficult decision to make and even more difficult to tell him.  And I really do feel like that decision my have closed the book on my former career.

So why did I say no?

Because it would have been a strain.  It would not have been easy.  It would have impacted all of us.  It would have meant doing the juggle that I see so many families struggle with every day.

We could have done it.  But after seven years of making decisions that prioritise the security and continuity of our family unit, saying yes to a job that would have impacted terribly on my daughters return to school and my son starting kinder seemed contradictory to all our previous decisions.

We’ve come this far, in for a penny in for a pound.  My son starts school next year, why rock the boat before then?  And even then?

I can’t see myself not being there for drop off, for pick up.  Taking them to the Museum on curriculum days.  Spending long lazy days with them at home during the holidays.

These are the advantages of being a Mum that doesn’t work.  I’m very lucky to be able to enjoy all these things.  But they do come at a price.  It’s a cost that we have weighed and chosen, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.  Just as the decision to return to work comes with it’s many difficulties and challenges.

We are financially well behind where we would have been had I returned to work sooner.  We rent, don’t own.  We don’t do a lot of travelling.   Our kids won’t be going to private schools.  My partner is self employed, work is sporadic and so is the income.

That’s not a complaint.  We are very lucky that we are in a position where we can make that choice.  We choose to sacrifice the income and live a little simpler.  It is sometimes a difficult decision though.  And sometimes it’s easy to wonder if it’s the right one.

I admit all this by way of saying that what we do in our family is not borne of some strategic grand plan.  It’s more of a complex, confused set of circumstances that align in a certain way.

And what it all boils down to is this; I am far too busy trying to navigate the subtleties of my own situation to be judging anybody else’s.

Because I know that the mothers I shared coffee with might equally have been saying:

“We struggle to pay our mortgage.”

“I’d love to spend more time with my kids.”

“I wish I didn’t have to go back to work just yet.”

Or any variation of those themes that resonated with their personal situations.  There was no judgment in what they were saying to me.  Just as there was no judgment in my responses to hearing about their enviable careers.

Any judgment I construed in their responses came from within, was created by my own fears and insecurities about the decisions we are making for our family.  It’s a good thing to remember when talking with other mums about these things.

That we are most often our own harshest critics, that we are all just navigating things as best we can.  It might be easy sometimes to assume judgment or a hidden critique, but it’s just better not to.

Kate from One Small Life

It’s so lovely to have Kate here sharing her words.

On her One Small Life blog, Kate writes about the big stuff:  parenting, meditating, running, feminism, creativity and living. 

One Small Life is also on  Instagram |  Facebook | Twitter 

16 thoughts on “The Harshest Critic of the Stay at Home Mum: Herself (a guest post)

  1. Have A Laugh On Me says:

    I get lots of people telling me how ‘lucky’ it is that I can work from home, umm no it’s not. It’s bloody hard work, it’s 5 years of university, 10 years as a journalist, lots of hard work and determination and thankfully a bucket load of skills. Sure it’s nice I get to be around for all my kid’s things but it’s also hard slog living and working in the same spot. Before I even met my husband I knew I wanted to have a job that I could do from home once I had kids. Great post Kate

    • Kate (@onesmalllife) says:

      Thank-you so much. I always used to think working from home would be The Best. Now that I’m a ‘stay-at-home’ mum, nup. If I’m going to go back to work, I’d love for it to be out of the house!

  2. Sandra Kelly says:

    I loved reading this insightful post. Thank you. In comparing ourselves to others and others lives we sure can be our own worst critics. And what a great message… we should never assume what others may be thinking about our choices or our lives for we could have it so so wrong. We are all just trying to do what works best for our families and circumstances. Xx

  3. Maxabella says:

    This was a really thoughful post, Kate. I think mums are never really satisfied with any of the choices we make because that ‘balance’ we are all striving for is just impossible to achieve. Impossible! I’m a work-from-home mum like Emily and I find I do have the best of both worlds – a stay at home mum who is also a working mum – but it’s rather exhausting, as you can imagine. I used to work in the city four days a week and one day from home and with three little kids that was a very, very busy time in my life. Once they all started school and the extra-curricular regime began, I found it impossible to stay working away and give my kids what they needed. So I changed things. It’s all we can do. I have often wished to be a SAHM without the working bit, but alas, it doesn’t seem to be in me! x

    • Kate (@onesmalllife) says:

      Families are just such specific and peculiar things. We really need to just drop this notion that just because I’m not doing what your doing means I think any less of your choices, don’t you reckon? We make our choices based on a set of circumstances very particular to the needs of ourselves and those around us. Why would we presume to think it would be right for anyone else. Crazy town. Thanks so much for commenting! x

  4. Claire (Pillarboxblue) says:

    Hi Really enjoyed your post and could relate to it as a stay at home mum. I was an academic Psychologist in a previous life. When I had my first child it wasn’t practical for me return to my old job as it involved a lot of travel and so did my husbands job. Then with more children child care costs were prohibitive and we weren’t comfortable with the idea Now that they are teenagers, they may not appear to need me so much but it actually seems more important that I’m around. My staying at home is a luxury life style choice for our family, it gives me time to volunteer for roles within our community and makes day to day a little easier as there is less juggling. I do feel though I have sacrificed a big part of my identity and feel vulnerable as I have lost my earning potential which makes me nervous at times.

    • Kate @onesmalllife says:

      I know exactly what you mean about feeling like you have sacrificed part of your identity (and earning potential!). On one hand I feel so grateful to have been able to have made the decision to stay at home. On the other hand, their are costs to that decision. It’s not all sitting around eating bon-bons! Thanks for the comment Claire.
      Kate @onesmalllife recently posted…The Harshest CriticMy Profile

  5. Kathy says:

    Hi Kate! Ahh! we have parallel lives! I have two kids – the youngest started school this year. I too worked in media (7 years ago! – Crazy! – hasn’t it changed! it freaks me out completely!) And just yesterday I made a VERY bold decision not to apply for a job (that I was invited to apply for…) I know I would love it, I would be well paid, and it would help our family be financially comfortable for the first time since my babies were born! I actually wrote it all down today. Not sure if I’ll share those scribblings publicly yet, it just helped me gather my thoughts.
    It was a hard decision to make… it was an easy decision to make. I know you understand.

    Anyway… Very timely to read your post. Thank you for sharing your story. x x – Kathy.

    • Kate (@onesmalllife) says:

      Wow! I cannot believe how similar our experiences are. Crazy! I feel like I have a kindred spirit in you – isn;t it great to connect with people you know understand? Thanks so much for commenting. x

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