Stay at home mums: Spending all day with children is a luxury few can afford

The number of women choosing to be full-time mothers has never been lower. No wonder, says Emma Bartley

Emma Bartley
Tuesday 03 March 2015 20:46 GMT
Juggling act: Sarah Jessica Parker in 'I Don’t Know How She Does It'
Juggling act: Sarah Jessica Parker in 'I Don’t Know How She Does It'

"I worked long and hard to bring home the money," said one of the most-liked commenters on yesterday's Mail Online lead story, titled DECLINE OF THE STAY AT HOME MOTHER. "My wife of 45 years has never had a 'job' since we got married but has worked as long and hard as a mum and housewife. I salute her."

I salute Mrs Commenter too. I have some understanding of what it's like to be the one in 10 working-age women who, according to the latest research from the Office of National Statistics, define their occupation as "looking after family and home", because since I had my daughter nearly two years ago, I have tried to stay at home to be with her as much as I could.

And while I've been juggling the work of a freelance writer with the demands of parenting, I know what it's like to be the woman who gets up an hour earlier than she used to – to be the woman who feeds her toddler breakfast while unloading the dishwasher and/or hanging up the washing, then somehow manages to get them both dressed before dashing over to the childminder, manically singing "The Wheels on the Bus" in the hope of fitting in two and a half minutes' more quality time/stimulation.

Because I often work about two or three days a week now. I need to, to be able to afford a home in London that will accommodate all the children I want to have. More confusingly, I also want to work. Reading the inevitable handwringing in the Mail about how women are under pressure to work, all I felt was an underlying message that women should not work, that they should stay at home with their children. (Reinforced, perhaps, by more ONS research published last year that showed that those classed as economically inactive because they are caring for a family are among the happiest people in Britain, with 83 per cent of full-time parents and carers rating their sense of worth as high or very high.)

I grew up with a female prime minister, and mother-of-two. At my all-girls' school, we were told we could have any career we wanted, and no one ever said, "until you're 30, when you should give up to be with your children".

So when I got pregnant I just assumed I'd carry on with my career. I consulted a couple of books for tips: Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook told me to Lean In, and Gaby Hinsliff, former political editor of The Observer, suggested ways to lean out. What both have in common is that they've already achieved huge success in their careers. I'm still trying to get where I want to be. That's left me in some fairly desperate situations. Like when I left my 10-week-old, exclusively breastfed baby with my mother-in-law and went back to the office for a training day, sneaking off in the middle of the day to the office's underground car park where I could artificially retrieve her afternoon feed from my chest. Understand that I was not in a car: I'd taken the train, but this was the only quiet place I could think to go, so I ended up crouched on a step in a corner, hiding behind a moped and hoping no one would come to investigate what that "waaaaac-waaaaac-waaaaac" sound was.

Or the time when she was six months old and I put her in one of those dangly door bouncers for 25 minutes while I made a work phone call, jiggling it with my foot every now and then.

Professional childcare, which I finally organised when my daughter was around 10 months old, has made a huge difference. At this point, I'm even considering going back to work full time, but there's a lot of guilt associated with that choice.

That was painfully clear to me recently, when I had an interview with an incredibly inspiring potential boss. As she outlined the project I would be working on, I realised it was probably the best career opportunity I'd ever get. Then, before the second interview, I remembered that I would need to leave work every day at 5pm, that I wasn't entirely sure about my daughter's childminder and that I planned to have another baby in the next few years. Our second meeting wasn't so much a job interview as a nervous breakdown.

Afterwards, I tried frantically to think of some ways I might make it happen. Could I work until 5pm, then leave and do bedtime, then log on again at 7pm and work from home for a few more hours, leaving my husband to eat dinner and watch box-sets by himself? Could I do a job share and work three days a week, or just mornings, or just afternoons? In the end it was academic. "I think there are too many other demands on your time right now," my nearly-boss wrote kindly in an email afterwards.

She was probably right. What those latest statistics have me wondering is, would I still have revealed all those other demands on my time if I didn't feel that mothers are constantly being told that we should want to stay at home?

Emma Bartley's column Doing it All appears on

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