Are you a WM, SAHM or BOEM?
Catherine Tafto tips her hat to both working and stay-at-home mamas, and finds out how three kiwi mums make it work.
"When you’re a stay-at-home mother, you have to pretend it’s really boring, but it’s not. It’s enriching and fulfilling, and an amazing experience. Then when you’re a working mother, you have to pretend that you feel guilty all day long.” – Amy Poehler
The different ways we choose to parent our children are in the spotlight, thanks to New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, a woman in the early years of her parenting journey. Her decision to return to work soon after giving birth highlights our growing acceptance that there isn’t just one right way to raise our children, and that not all families are run in the same way. Yet we still look at each other and think “I don’t know how you do it! I don’t know how you manage to stay at home with your children” or “I don’t know how you juggle work and parenting”.
These decisions are never made lightly, but with careful thought to what is best for our families. Whatever we choose, there will be days when it’s hard, and we’ll wonder whether we made the right choice. Knowing we made the best decision we could, in line with our values, will help us stick with it on those hard days.
THE WORKING MOTHER
“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.” – Annabel Crabb
The participation of mothers in the workforce keeps rising (Statistics NZ). For some, this is due to financial pressures, others have choices that previous generations of women didn’t (a hat-tip to the bra-burning feminists of the sixties). The stress of managing sick days, the inconvenience of pumping, having to pay for childcare and missing milestones are a part of the story, but so is greater financial freedom, mental and social stimulation, and the satisfaction of work and career progression.
Sarah Tohill is the owner and director of Extension Marketing in Auckland, but when Mason (now six) was born, she was working throughout the Asia Pacific region in corporate marketing events. She stayed home until he was nine months old and then hired a nanny.
“I loved my job and have always been very driven in my career. I was the higher earner so that was a consideration, but I heard so many stories about ‘mum brain’ and I didn’t want to get stuck in an intellectual rut” says Sarah.
Her redundancy was the catalyst for starting her own business. Her son Mason was two-and-a-half, and went to daycare as well as having a nanny, while Sarah worked from home. The structure was a welcome change. “We were lucky we could have a nanny, and working from home meant I could be involved and connected throughout the day, but it was also harder to focus and get work done”, she reflects.
When Freya (now three) arrived, they employed a nanny again, and Freya started daycare when she was one. While it was the right choice for the family, Sarah felt guilty about how much younger Freya was when starting daycare than Mason had been.
When both parents work fulltime, is the parenting load divided evenly? For many, it seems not. For Sarah, working from home was part of the issue. “Although I was the higher earner and working full time, the burden of sick days and the pick-ups and drop-offs fell on me.” When Mason started school, the pressure ramped up, and the time was right for her husband Mike to join the business. “This has made a huge difference” explains Sarah. “We share the sick days, pick-ups and drop-offs. It has shifted the balance and it is more manageable.” She admits she still carries the mental load as the household management generally falls on her. “It seems the running of things is ultimately the mother’s responsibility.”
Sarah is motivated by wanting her children to see a strong woman working and driving a business, and learning that there are different ways of working. However, she still struggles with the emotional pull, and the guilt of not being there with her children.
THE STAY-AT-HOME MOTHER
“A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”
– Bill Watterson
While at times it can be tedious, and often financially stressful, being a stay-at-home parent can still be one of the most delightfully rewarding periods of a person’s life.
When Amie and Jeff Morgan started their family, they were sure that Amie staying home with the children was the right thing for them to do. With Max (seven) and Ella (five) now at school and Sammy (three) just starting kindy, Amie still feels they made the right choice. “I felt that I would be the best at educating our children in their early years. We were happy to compromise on finances and careers to make that happen.”
Amie has loved being able to be with her children, giving them the care and attention she feels they wouldn’t get at an Early Childhood Education centre. She has also been heavily involved in her local Playcentre, where she is president.
While she’s confident and happy in her choice, she still struggles with the lack of value ascribed by society to stay-at-home parents. “I dread the question ‘What do you do?’, because as soon as I say I stay at home with the children, I feel people start to glaze over”, she says. “There’s so little understanding of what that really means, and I feel very conscious about justifying my contribution to our family.”
Amie believes her choice has a flow-on effect beyond her own nuclear family. “I have the time to make meals for people in our community who are struggling, and I take on the majority of care for my father-in-law.”
In her grandmother’s last two years, she took her for trips to the beach to feel the sand and water on her feet, and the children would entertain the residents at the rest home. “It was a privilege to help improve the quality of her last days.”
She also knows her role at Playcentre is important. “Playcentres can be a lifeline for young families and provide quality education, but the role is voluntary so it’s undervalued.” Despite this, Amie has managed a $40,000 renovation, made sure the centre stays licensed and managed an Education Review Office review.
Sarah (the working mother) wanted her nannies to look after and engage with the children – not to do housework.So, how does this work when a mother is the caregiver? “Jeff said ‘I don’t expect you to do anything other than care for our children and educate them. Anything else, we’ll divide’.” Amie laughs, “But that is absolutely not the reality!”.
THE BIT-OF-EVERYTHING MOTHER
Stacey Brierley, owner of Vintage Love in Pukekohe, laughs when she talks about her expectations of managing motherhood and a job before Maisie (now 14 months) arrived. “I had no clue! I thought she would sleep out the back while I worked!” When Maisie was seven weeks old, Stacey tried going back to work. “Everything went backwards, and I don’t think I left the house for three weeks after that”, she recalls. “I’d worked hard before in my career ... but the broken sleep [with a baby] was debilitating.”
Owning a business can make taking time off a challenge. Having a good manager gave her some time to get her head around her new life, but she was still doing a lot of the work. As an accomplished businesswoman who was used to being in control and managing multiple responsibilities, the unknowns of parenting were baffling.
Stacey has now found her rhythm. Maisie goes to preschool on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to work with Stacey on Thursdays. On Sundays and Mondays they chill out at home. Tuesdays are Stacey’s “running around” days, and Maisie comes along for the ride. Some days, however, Maisie is having none of it, so they just go home. If Maisie is sick, Stacey calls in staff to cover her, and if they can’t, the shop closes. “Maisie comes first, end of story”, she says.
Being self-employed gives Stacey the freedom to prioritise her daughter while still having a career and an income, but it isn’t without cost. “I remember hanging a mirror, with Maisie in the sling, and customers saying it was so wonderful. But I was thinking how terrible my house looked, and how Maisie might lose the plot any minute and I’d have to go home. You just get a snapshot of other people’s lives, and it never tells the whole story.”
The wonderful women I spoke to all agreed on two things. Firstly, that to make it work, we need to empower men, and to talk about our expectations and about splitting the workload early on. Secondly, that we’re all on the same team, with the goal being healthy and socially functioning children.
So do it your own way, and have faith in your choices for your family. But have compassion too, for the challenges faced by those who have chosen a path that is different – but no less ‘right’ – than yours.
“However, there is one gift that trumps all other talents — being an excellent parent. If you can successfully raise a child in this day and age to have integrity, then you have left a legacy that future generations will benefit from.”
– Shannon L. Alder
Catherine Tafto is a self-employed business owner raising three boys, aged four, seven and nine, with her wonderful husband. She loves the flexibility her choices provide, and is happy to help out working mums on teacher-only days with payment in kind – or perhaps even a bottle of wine.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 44 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW