opinion

Four working mums talk about Cassandra Thorburn's open letter.

Today, Cassandra Thorburn, who has just split from TODAY show host husband Karl Stefanovic, wrote an open letter titled ‘Dear Working Mums’, standing up for stay at home mothers (SAHMs) who left the workforce after having children.

After reading it, the working women in the Mamamia office – mums and non-mums – had A LOT to say. Is there really competition between working mums and SAHMs?

This is how the conversation went down on our online instant chat.

***

Mia Freedman [5:09 PM] – aged 40s, mother of 3 kids aged 19, 10 and 8.

@here

who’s here?

Gemma Garkut [5:09 PM] – aged 20s, does not have children.

I am

Teegs Gilchrist [5:09 PM] – aged 30s, mother of one aged two.

me

Jacqueline Lunn [5:14 PM] – aged 40s, mother of three kids aged 16, 14 and 11.

I’m here

Holly Wainwright [5:09 PM] – aged 40s, mother of two children aged 6 and 4.

Okay. Let’s go.

Mia Freedman [5:09] 

OK, so I think we’re all a bit nervous about this not becoming “working mums hit back at Cass Thorburn”

Because none of us want to do that. Poor Cass. It’s a shitty time for her and Karl and their family. It’s a shame it’s all so public but this is the flip side of fame and Gold Logies. When stuff happens in your personal life, it sparks bigger conversations and raises issues that people want to talk about. It’s SUCH an important conversation to have: what happens to women when marriages break down.

Holly Wainwright [5:10 PM] 

I have a lot of empathy for her current situation, but I feel 25 shades of offended by Cass Thorburn’s characterisation of working mums.

Mia Freedman [5:11 PM] 

Which bits offended you?

Holly Wainwright [5:11 PM] 

That we are ‘in competition’ with SAHM mums, because we are used to being in a competitive environment, for starters…

Mia Freedman [5:12 PM] 

Yeah. That’s totally not true. I’m too tired and frazzled to compete with anyone!

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Teegs Gilchrist [5:12 PM] 

There’s guilt both sides. And that’s what’s immensely frustrating.

Holly Wainwright [5:12 PM] 

I don’t feel in competition with SAHM mothers, but what’s interesting here is that from where I sit, I feel it’s the working mums who are judged, not the SAHM ones.

Maybe we’re all feeling a damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Mia Freedman [5:12 PM] 

How do you feel judged by SAHM’s?

Holly Wainwright [5:12 PM] 

I feel judged for not being at the school gate.

I feel judged for not ferrying them to 5 activities a night

I feel judged for not baking for the bake sale

I feel judged for not knowing all the other parents…

I think that society still puts all this in a woman’s basket

Holly with her two kids. (Image: Instagram)

Teegs Gilchrist [5:14 PM] 

There also judgment from the part-timers to the full-timers…  I get judgment because the “other working mums normally only work 9 to 3 so your son is sad when you get here at 6” says daycare teacher.

Mia Freedman [5:14 PM] 

I don’t judge SAHM’s, I worry about them. It’s different. I worry about what will happen to them if their marriage breaks down or they need to leave it for reasons of abuse for example. Or if their partner dies. I worry that they’ve been out of the workforce for years or decades and they suddenly have to support themselves and their kids.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:14 PM] 

I've been both SAHM and working mum and I honestly don't think the interest around Thorburn is about whether or not she is a SAHM. It's about what happens to women when they give over their working life to their husband and then 15-20 years later you split.

Holly Wainwright [5:15 PM] 

But isn't it patronising for us to "worry" about them, just as it is for Cass today to say she feels "sympathy" for working mums?

Mia Freedman [5:15 PM] 

Yeah - I know what you mean Holly. Is it concern trolling? It can be. But I truly don’t feel ‘worry’ in a superior way it’s more that I worry that they won’t be able to support themselves. I know women whose husbands have lost all the family’s money or who have committed suicide. They haven’t worked for decades and they’re in incredibly vulnerable positions.

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That's why I think working for women is an insurance policy for the deep unknown of the future

Jacqueline Lunn [5:15 PM] 

I have friends who have been advertising execs and 15 years later are just able to get jobs as office assistants

Holly Wainwright [5:16 PM] 

But that seems like a bogus reason to work - because of what might happen? Women work because they NEED TO and, if they're lucky, because they LOVE IT.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:16 PM] 

I don't think so. I work around a lot of younger women and you can't put all your eggs in the one basket – marriage.

Teegs Gilchrist [5:17 PM] 

I can see the worry too, it’s a gamble to take a step outside from the workforce. But equally it can be a gamble, for some families, to stay in. The pressure to succeed at work and family, puts an enormous weight of responsibility on women.

Gemma Garkut [5:17 PM] 

@mia Jumping in here too - I'm not a mother, but my mother was a SAHM. She works part time now and her husband, my dad, is still alive and working and will retire. She constantly feels patronised for her decision and other people's 'worry'.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:17 PM] 

She shouldn't feel patronised - I don't know where that comes from.

Mia Freedman [5:18 PM] 

The workforce moves SO FAST. Taking years and years out of it no matter what industry you’re in is a massive risk and a massive setback for your earning potential and even just your ability to get back in. Cass is incredibly fortunate. She doesn’t have to worry about working at the moment because Karl earns a fortune and she’ll get a great settlement no doubt. I don’t think any of the commentary was aimed at her personally - she’s just the lightning rod for women to talk about this as an issue.

I’m sure it feels horribly personal for her. She’s not representative of a movement or of all SAHMs she’s just an individual who is no doubt broken hearted and reeling.

WATCH: Hey Mia, have you ever cried at work? (Post continues after video...)

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Holly Wainwright [5:18 PM] 

I know. I find it amazing that in 2016 this argument, SAHMs vs Working ones still gets oxygen.

Gemma Garkut [5:19 PM] 

Absolutely

Holly Wainwright [5:19 PM] 

And yet here I am, being offended by it.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:19 PM] 

It's rubbish

Holly Wainwright [5:19 PM] 

I just wonder if women are conditioned to feel guilty about whatever they're doing.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:19 PM] 

Women are interested here because they have friends or they themselves have split and life is something completely different post-divorce.

Jackie and her daughter. (Image provided)

Gemma Garkut [5:19 PM] 

But Cassandra’s ‘dear working mums’ letter is responding to a journalist’s very public article about her, too - she clearly felt the need to stand up for her own decision to be a SAHM, which was her's and her own family's decision.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:20 PM] 

Yep Holly - you can never get it right - at home or at work. But you can try to cover your bases.

Holly Wainwright [5:20 PM] 

I think this is such a good point about working being an insurance policy, but I also think that we don't live our lives like that - we think our plan will be a good one, and that our relationships will last.

Mia Freedman [5:20 PM] 

Do you think we all feel judged because we all feel inadequate about our choices? Both SAHMs and working mums? We’re all worried that we’re stuffing it up and that everyone else is doing it better. I feel that pretty often.

Holly Wainwright [5:20 PM] 

YES

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Teegs Gilchrist [5:20 PM] 

Underlying this whole debate is still the lack of affordable choices families have in accessing quality childcare, and crazy escalated house prices which forcing families further to the suburbs, and driving up commute times.

Longer commutes do make it much more appealing for a parent to be home. And day care, for a child up to 5 1/2 will cost about $120,000 which is about 2 years of average salary.  This debate will exist until women are supported back into the workforce, and childcare is seen as a parental worker’s right, rather than a mother’s.

Gemma Garkut [5:20 PM] 

@tegangilchrist yes ^

Holly Wainwright [5:21 PM] 

When will that be????

Mia Freedman [5:21 PM] 

Yes! So often women talk about going back to work in terms of the cost of childcare versus what they could earn. That is a terrible mistake! It’s a dangerous way to do that equation. There are so many other things at play like building a work history, superannuation, the mental benefits of working outside the home, financial independence… and if it takes two people to make a child, why is the childcare cost always just weighed against the mother’s prospective salary?

Jacqueline Lunn [5:21 PM] 

I think we question our choices all the time.  It's like a constant hum.

Gemma Garkut [5:21 PM] 

For so many women childcare is a luxury - honestly, some mothers I know would love to work if they could.

Gemma as a child (left) with her mother and sister. (Image provided)

Holly Wainwright [5:21 PM] 

REALLY? They genuinely don't work for that reason? :scream:

Childcare was horribly expensive for us for a while but I never considered quitting.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:22 PM] 

It's all expensive.

Holly Wainwright [5:22 PM] 

That seems counter-intuitive. I need to earn for a long time yet, and a big gap on my CV will dent my earning power, right?

Jacqueline Lunn [5:22 PM] 

It doesn't stop Holly.

Mia Freedman [5:23 PM] 

Are we sheltered because we all love our jobs? And consider them careers? What about women who don’t necessarily have a ‘career’ or consider work something they love?

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Gemma Garkut [5:23 PM] 

@hollywainwright Jobs and careers come in all shapes and sizes - with VERY different pay packets. On a retail wage, how can you justify it?? On a hospitality wage? We live in a privileged professional bubble.

Mia Freedman [5:24 PM] 

There it is! Justify it!

That’s the way we’re conditioned to think about working!

Teegs Gilchrist [5:24 PM] 

True @gemma

Gemma Garkut [5:24 PM] 

I know, @mia I just caught myself!! SO TRUE

Mia Freedman [5:24 PM] 

As a straight equation between money in and money out for childcare! There are some things that can’t be measured in that equation like the impact of not working for a decade.

Teegs Gilchrist [5:24 PM] 

Same issue Holly, with after school care costs etc.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:24 PM] 

Like I said - there are always costs

Holly Wainwright [5:24 PM] 

It is not a privilege to work.

For women.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:24 PM] 

Do you just quit the game altogether?

Holly Wainwright [5:25 PM] 

NO!

Gemma Garkut [5:25 PM] 

@jackielunn :disappointed:

Teegs Gilchrist [5:25 PM] 

In this debate, I worry about the parents who have had to take a step back because of a child’s illness or disability, and the extra carer responsibilities that come with.

Their marriages are already more likely to end because of the added pressures, and now we are saying heaping on an extra pile of pressure about an eventuality for the future that may or may not happen.

Tegan and her son. (Image provided)

Holly Wainwright [5:25 PM] 

Why do we think that men 'have' to work and women 'choose' to work?

Mia Freedman [5:25 PM] 

OK - we’re talking in a lot of philosophical ways. What’s the PRACTICALITY of staying connected to the paid workforce when your kids are babies or little? What’s the best way for women to do that? Full time is not always possible or desirable.

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Holly Wainwright [5:26 PM] 

The practicalities that make all the difference are about flexibility.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:26 PM] 

If you don't keep connected to the workforce you will find it very difficult to get a job when you need to.

Mia Freedman [5:26 PM] 

How do you stay connected?

Holly Wainwright [5:26 PM] 

The perfect post-kid job is one that allows you to keep a foot in both camps.

And the other big issue is about your partner. How much to do they work? How much of the kid duties do they take on?

Jacqueline Lunn [5:26 PM] 

I worked part-time for over a decade. I loved it.

Mia Freedman [5:26 PM] 

Yes!

Holly Wainwright [5:26 PM] 

Partners need to heavy-lift too. Kids are not a woman's responsibility,

It's a FAMILY.

Teegs Gilchrist [5:26 PM] 

The other issue here, is valuing the SAHM contribution to a family properly when a marriage does end… If it truly was about supporting the family, then the market rate or carer and domestic responsibilities that might have otherwise been outsourced should apply.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:26 PM] 

Working part time meant I never climbed the ladder but I was happy and if I needed to rev it up I could.

Holly Wainwright [5:27 PM] 

That just seems like pie in the sky these days, Teegs.

Even PPL is not a given.

Mia Freedman [5:28 PM] 

I want to raise something else: what about domestic violence. It’s a national crisis, so many women are victims of physical and emotional abuse. If you are financially reliant on your partner, how do you leave?

Holly Wainwright [5:28 PM] 

There are so many issues here that fire us up. Is it any wonder we are supposedly 'at war' about it...

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LISTEN: Bec Judd discusses balancing her career with a young family. (Post continues...)

Holly Wainwright [5:28 PM] 

YES, Mia.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:28 PM] 

You can't leave Mia.

It's completely and utterly cruel and sadistic and women are trapped.

Teegs Gilchrist [5:28 PM] 

So true @mia

Mia Freedman [5:29 PM] 

Exactly. That’s why to me, it’s not about judging SAHMs by some feminist standard, it’s about self-protection and the ability to be self-sufficient.

Holly Wainwright [5:29 PM] 

That is a really good point, Mia. This 'insurance policy' approach is making more and more sense...

Gemma Garkut [5:29 PM] 

That is a nightmare scenario @mia, and so common.

Holly Wainwright [5:29 PM] 

But then you're back to "judging" the women who don't? Are we running the risk of "blaming" a woman who can't afford to leave because she quit her job?

Jacqueline Lunn [5:29 PM] 

Money gives you options.

Mia Freedman [5:29 PM] 

It’s that “all your eggs in one basket” idea. It’s incredibly risky to rely on your partner for money for long periods of time.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:30 PM] 

'I'm not judging Holly. I'm saying women who stay at home better be sure nothing changes with their partner.

Mia Freedman [5:30 PM] 

No! I’m not judging her either. My heart is breaking for her and I want other women to not fall into that trap because that’s what it is.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:30 PM] 

I know. It's awful

Teegs Gilchrist [5:30 PM] 

I think the ‘insurance policy’ argument is valid, but for the same reason people don’t like taking out life insurance because no one wants to think about dying.  If you are in the lucky happy love bubble of a new baby, and happy marriage, no-one wants to think I need to go back to work because in 20 years’ time my perfect life is going to fall apart.

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Gemma Garkut [5:31 PM] 

BUT - when you are a SAHM or a SAHD, isn't it a joint family decision on all fronts?? The person working is relying EQUALLY on that stay-at-homer for the unity and unglamorous tasks in the family. Both are relying on each other. No matter what the situation, you’re a team?
Also, even though we agree here that working is an essential ‘insurance policy’ for women, we need to remember that in places outside of cosmopolitan bubbles of Sydney and Melbourne it’s sometimes just not an option financially for women to work after having kids. I grew up around rural towns in NSW and QLD and it’s extremely common for mums to stop working after children. Yes, it feels like an out of date reality and it should be an out of date expectation. But it isn’t for a lot of women.

Holly Wainwright [5:32 PM] 

Okay. So here's a difficult question for all of us to answer, but is Cass right in that letter when she says SAHMs are eye-rolled at and pick up the volunteering slack?

Jacqueline Lunn [5:32 PM] 

I think they eye roll at working mums because SAHMs pick up the school slack.

Gemma Garkut [5:32 PM] 

@hollywainwright Yes - my mother felt constantly judged for 'not having a life outside the family'.

@jackielunn and she felt resentment because she felt she was always expected to do things like canteen duty twice as much 'because she had time'. Why is working the only way someone's time is seen as being spent in a valuable way? My mum and dad were/are an amazing team.

Holly Wainwright [5:35 PM] 

This shocks me that your mum felt that way, Gemma. Maybe because, despite my sensibilities, I feel like they are doing mothering "right" and I'm a hot mess. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

I certainly don't volunteer very much. But I don't sit round thinking 'some SAHM mum will do it for me...'

Is that what I'm doing?

Teegs Gilchrist [5:36 PM] 

Volunteering is a lovely wonderful thing to do, and I wish I had more time to do it. But as a working mother, I am not sure I should feel indebted to them for volunteering – it’s a choice (and a worthy one) but not an expectation of working mothers that SAHM “must pick up the slack” here...

Mia Freedman [5:38 PM] 

wow - this is actually amazing to read!

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Mia Freedman [5:38 PM] 

Sometimes I feel frustrated that women who don’t work just can’t understand my life. Like when they ring during a work day for a chat.

Mia with her kids and husband. (Image provided)

Teegs Gilchrist [5:40 PM] 

I wanted to add a point @mia about why childcare is still judged against a woman’s salary. And it’s because of the pay gap… While women still earn 17% less than men on average the economics will dictate that it will be judged against her salary.

Mia Freedman [5:40 PM] 

I think that sometimes ‘judgement’ is confused with opinion or point of view. When you disagree with someone it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re judging them, you might just disagree!

Teegs Gilchrist [5:41 PM] 

^^ YES

Mia Freedman [5:42 PM] 

I find that working mums are very supportive of each other - particularly on an emotional level. My working mum friends are the first ones I vent to. Because it’s so important to feel like you’re not the only one who isn’t coping.

Holly Wainwright [5:42 PM] 

@mia So true.

There's a lot of solace in sharing.

Which is why some people must think Working Mums whinge a lot!

Mia Freedman [5:42 PM] 

It’s brilliant working with other mums because the young ones in the office don’t understand that we’ve lived an entire day before we’ve even arrived at 9am! There are some things that can’t be measured in that equation like the impact of not working for a decade.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:42 PM] 

Yep and I find that the friendship circle does contract when you're busy with work and family - but they are BRILLIANT friends.

Holly Wainwright [5:42 PM] 

YES.

Teegs Gilchrist [5:43 PM] 

Shared experiences are so powerful. And maybe that’s why there’s still a great divide between the WM and the SAHMs?

Gemma Garkut [5:43 PM] 

@mia @hollywainwright I think a lot of young women - my friends especially - feel as though they can't get that support in their workplaces, that other people in that office don’t know how hard it is to cope sometimes as a working parent.

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Jacqueline Lunn [5:43 PM] 

Even in this discussion, it's so comforting to see we are all worried and thinking about the same thing. I'm not mad!

Mia Freedman [5:43 PM] 

Gemma, do you mean your working mum friends?

Holly Wainwright [5:43 PM] 

Gemma, I think if you don't work with other parents, that would be so true.

I certainly didn't get it before I had kids.

Gemma Garkut [5:44 PM] 

@mia my friends who are about to re-join the workforce after having a baby, yep.

@hollywainwright I feel that way all the time now - I have no idea what it's like.

Holly Wainwright [5:44 PM] 

I used to eye-roll at the editor who had to leave at 5pm to get her kids.

Mia Freedman [5:44 PM] 

hahahha.

Holly Wainwright [5:44 PM] 

Now, I want to shoot my former self.

Mia Freedman [5:44 PM] 

I was that editor. Except for the time I forget to get them.

Holly Wainwright [5:44 PM] 

And that, right there, is the #truth of the working mum.

Jacqueline Lunn [5:45 PM] 

Plus a lot of running down hallways

Holly Wainwright [5:45 PM] 

Speaking of which - shit it's 5.45!

Mia Freedman [5:45 PM] 

OK - I RECKON WE ARE DONE

Holly Wainwright [5:45 PM] 

And I have to go HOME!

Gemma Garkut [5:45 PM] 

TIME TO PICK UP THE KIDS!! :laughing:

Holly Wainwright [5:46 PM] 

The crusty cereal bowls are waiting, Cass...

What's your take on the 'SAHM v working mum war'? Let us know in the comments...

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