Is it harder to be a stay at home mum than a working mum? I was recently on the edge of a debate over this working mums vs stay-at-home mums competition, and I came away from it feeling sad, disheartened, confused and more than a little bit frustrated.
I’ve been a bit of both of these labels that society feels the need to categorise us by. When Milin was born at the end of 2011, I took three full months off my job at the newspaper. After that, I did a small amount of freelance writing from home for a month. And then, when my baby was four months old, I returned to work as acting head of news at the national daily I’d spent years at – but only for two days a week. I was, if I must use the labels, a mum working at the office part-time.
After Milin turned one, we moved from New Zealand to London. I spent the next 18 months, which included the period of Jasmin’s birth, working from home again. I freelanced and work varied, but as a minimum, I worked at least a few hours a week, every week of the year, from home.
If pushed, I thought more of myself as stay-at-home-mum, or a SAHM. The writing work I did never really felt like work because I loved it. Plus, I did it late at night, when the children were asleep – so I suppose I felt like it didn’t impact on the time I spent with them.
Last month, this all changed. I’ve started a new job which keeps me busy for three days a week. I’m lucky enough to do two of these days at home which cuts out commuting times, and I spend one day in the office. I still freelance too, and that work adds up to about 25-20 hours a month which – quite frankly – I only manage to do because I drink too much coffee and stay up too late fitting it in.
So, I guess I’m a working mum. My freelance work is still somehow managed when the kids go to bed at night. But for three days a week, they are either at nursery or looked after by my mother and husband. I don’t see them playing, I don’t see them laughing, I don’t see them learning, I don’t see them trying new things, I don’t see them eating their lunch. I don’t see them.
The three days I spend at work are of course hugely different from my four days with my children. Yes – I get to do things which feel like complete luxury. I drink my coffee while it’s hot. I eat lunch with two free hands, at a time that I want. I go to the toilet alone, with the door locked, whenever I want to. I wear fancy clothes without fear of chubby hands smearing pesto all over them.
And on the days that I’m home, I also do things which feel like complete luxury. I have endless cuddles with Jasmin who is the most affectionate little girl in my world. I laugh all day at the funny things said by Milin, who is the brightest, funniest boy in my world. I get to go to the zoo on a weekday, or the playground for hours on end just because we fancy it. I get to go out for cake with my two little best friends for breakfast if we feel like it. I get to play trains all day if Milin feels like it.
There are, of course, hard bits to both days too. On the days that I work, I can’t shake the guilt. Jasmin cries in the morning when I go, she stretches out her arms to me and pleads with her eyes that I would stay at home with her. That is the last image I have of her before leaving the house. I get on the tube knowing I will never, ever, get back the day I am about to have without her. What she does for the first time, I know I will miss. I know I won’t be there when Milin gets home from nursery and wants a cuddle with mummy. What I feel is guilt – because deep down I want to be with them all the time while they are so very young. And so, more selfishly, I also feel sadness that I’m not there.
On the days that I’m home, the hard bits are different. There is the frustration of not being able to get either child to eat their dinner. There is the guilt of knowing that I don’t try hard enough to feed Milin any meat or fish, because it’s easier to avoid the battles. There is the exhaustion that comes with being constantly on the go from 6am, attending to every need of a two-year-old and one-year-old – at the same time. There is the logistical drama of getting two children organised for outings, for getting anywhere on time.
Is one day harder than the other? Is staying at home harder than being a working mum?
Honestly – it doesn’t matter. The days themselves are so different they can’t be compared. And, more importantly, they shouldn’t be.
I’ve had enough of the competitions and the debates.
Mothers, simply, are mothers. Whether they spend their days at the office or their days running round after their children at home – they don’t spend the hours notching up how many challenges they’ve overcome.
Instead of debating who has it harder, surely we should be recognising that we all have personal challenges, personal triumphs, personal difficulties, and personal wins. We all have struggles which we face everyday – whether we are employed or not. Encouraging us to frame our experiences along battle lines, on one side of a fence or another, does nothing to acknowledge our individual experiences.
There should be no competition over who has harder days. There should be no debate over whether it’s harder to face the monotony of playgroups and nappies than sitting in an office all day drinking cups of tea, getting your head around budgets, while missing your babies.
We are all mothers. It’s time we valued each other and turned our backs on a debate which won’t help us.
It’s time to erase the labels and the perceptions that are associated with them. We will each have our own experiences of motherhood and of employment – and these will all be equally valid. They are what they are. We are mothers, together. That’s what matters.