Why the working vs SAH mother argument doesn’t add up

Enough with the working vs SAH mother debate

With Mother’s Day behind us I think the best gift we mothers can gave ourselves is to stop with this ridiculous argument between so-called working and stay at home mothers. As a mother and career-development practitioner I find so many flaws in this futile debate (including that we don’t hear of similar arguments or even use similar language when it comes to dads!).

The work vs SAH mother just doesn’t add up; it oversimplifies the complex nature of motherhood and careers and makes huge assumptions about what women and mothers do at work and home. The idea that women fall into two simplistic categories i.e working mother or stay-at-home-mother is completely false. As the authors of this paper state:

“ it assumes that those who are at home are not participating in the paid work force and that those who are working outside the home are disengaged from being mothers”.

In addition it assumes that those not participating in the paid work force don’t want to, that those who do participate do so by choice and that those not participating in paid work must be parenting full-time.

When I look around my vast network of mothers I find a hugely diverse group. There are mothers who work full-time outside the home, mothers who work part-time, mothers who study, mothers who spend the majority of their week in the parenting role, mothers who spend many hours in un-paid volunteer work, mothers who work full-time, part-time or freelance from home. I know mothers who want to work outside the home and do, others who want to and don’t, others who chose not to to, others who work for purely financial reasons and a raft of mothers in between. I know mothers who have a lot of child rearing assistance and others none at all and again, a range of women in between. So, in reality there are not two categories of mothers but in fact a continuum of attitudes and experiences (Pare and Dillaway).

I left the paid work force for a variety of reasons including living overseas, having a baby, experiencing post-natal depression, wanting to be with my children as much as possible, not being able to access suitable childcare. Whilst not participating in the paid work force I was the primary carer for my children, engaged in many hours of volunteer work in a variety of enriching roles and completed two post-graduate qualifications. During this time my children were at home with me, or attended day care two days a week or were in pre-school or school. In the over-simplistic model of working vs SAH I was definitely in the SAH category yet I did not always look after my children one hundred percent of the time so I really didn’t meet that definition entirely either. Even now starting my own business I don’t work outside the home. Which category do I fall? The answer is neither and I believe this is the case for most mothers.

In addition, we as a society have an outdated notion of a career. I hear so many women say they don’t have a career, or they gave up their career or that they have a job but not a career. In fact, the concept of career has and continues to evolve. The Career Industry Council of Australia defines career in their professional standards document as:

“a lifestyle concept that involves the sequence of work, learning and leisure activities in which one engages throughout a lifetime. Careers are unique to each person and are dynamic: unfolding throughout life. Careers include how persons balance their paid and unpaid work and personal life roles”.

So over a lifetime a career can include paid full-time or part-time work, involuntary unemployment, underemployment, full-time parenting, volunteer work, leisure activities, community engagement, study and combinations of these. I would suggest that even this concept of career has evolved as we start to talk less about work-life balance and more about work-life integration. Work, study, leisure, parenting, engaging with our community, etc. are all part of life. Even if we try to label and separate the elements in theory, in practice it’s just one big melting pot. And, depending on our circumstances different elements will be given different priorities and this will change over time as will our needs.

I don’t think anyone knows better about the integration of the elements that make up life than mothers but somehow as a society we’ve talked ourselves into labeling ourselves, and each other, as either “working” or “stay at home” parents which is not all reflective of the reality, places unrealistic expectations on individuals, and detracts from understanding the actual experiences of and issues faced by modern day families.

This is a complex issue and this article in no way intends to be comprehensive.  But let’s acknowledge that the issue is complex and cannot be boiled down to a working vs stay-at-home mother comparison. We’ll all be much better off.


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