I was sitting at the kitchen table well past my bedtime when I spied four words on the back cover of my soon-to-be-published memoir of family life: ‘stay-at-home mother’. I stared at the tiny print, thinking the words must be referring to some other book.
Even as I typed my tactful response to the publisher, worrying about the sleep I wasn’t having, I knew that I was more upset than I should be. I knew the more reasonable my email sounded the more hysterical I felt. Was I, I panicked, about to be marketed as a tracksuit-wearing, healthy eating, mummy blogging, stay-at-home mother?
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At dinner the following night, still incensed, I mentioned the four-word label to my teenage daughter and husband. ‘But’, my daughter said, ‘you are a stay-at-home mother’. ‘What do you mean?’ I replied, petulant. ‘I’ve always worked. Besides I’m never at home when you get home from school’.
At which my daughter gave me her ‘don’t you know anything’ look. ‘Thanks a lot’, I said, thinking to myself that my daughter’s insult was part of her larger mission to pull me down so as to make separating from me easier.
‘I wouldn’t worry about it’, said my husband, aiming to console. ‘It’s one of those terms that stick the more you fight it’.
Wondering what my memoir was really about, this morning I sat in a café and read it through. Forgetting the Yoga class that I was meant to be at, I read on and on. Embarrassed at how long I’d sat reading, before leaving I chatted to the waitress who told me some of her complicated feelings about being a single mother of a two-year-old. ‘There’s just so much judgment around motherhood these days’, she said. ‘Yes’, I agreed.
Then it came to me – as I took in the parking ticket on my windscreen and groaned. The opening paragraph of an earlier manuscript – there have been a few – sailed whole into my mind. It described how my mother, who had four girls in six years, used to hiss her displeasure whenever the subject of working mothers came up. In her view working mothers, excluding those who absolutely had to work, were selfish. Working mothers deserved what they got if their kids went off the rails further down the line. So intent was my mother in her attack on working mothers that I vowed that I’d never sacrifice myself to family in the way that she seemed to have done.
Thirty years later the tables have turned. Now I am the one telling myself that I haven’t sacrificed myself to family, whatever my publisher and daughter tell me. Sure, I’ve surrendered to family life. But that, I tell myself, isn’t the same as sacrifice.
Who am I kidding? The line between sacrifice and surrender is so fine that in most lights it blurs. I have let my kids take me for granted. I have dropped everything when the school nurse called. I have put my work on the back burner during school holidays and bouts of illness. I have let my husband’s career gallop to the slow trot of my own. I have cooked more meals than I would like to count, have paired more socks than I thought possible to pair.
Walking round the city that I moved to with my family for quality of life reasons eight years ago, it came to me why I felt insulted to be called a stay-at-home mother. The world has changed so much since I grew up that my mother’s hissing at working mothers has flipped into reverse. Now the hissing goes the other way. These days I am hissed at by my publisher and daughter for being a stay-at-home mother. The value of my life as a mother feels under attack by a label created by an undeclared dissatisfaction at the heart of social life, a well of emotion that fuels an ongoing battle between so-called working and so-called stay-at-home mothers.
In my mother’s day, working mothers were in the minority and stay-at-home mothers were the norm. Today the numbers go the other way. Spending time with your children is encouraged. Staying at home with them – suggestive of passivity and defence – is not. Self-declared stay-at-home mothers use their role as a badge of self-righteous abnegating honour, irritating the pants off the majority of women who embrace the real world juggle that is working motherhood.
What does it mean that one of the most powerful ways we can undermine each other as women is via the way we mother our children? Are we really so existentially insecure that we can only feel okay about ourselves by sticking pins into other women on the basis of the so-called choices they have made about how they look after their children?
What does it mean that in surrendering myself to the demands of my family, I end up feeling humiliated by a taunt as scorching as the names gay people and foreigners were once branded with? Once upon a time, a paid-up lecturer at The University of London, I taught Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Twenty years later, without a title to my name, I have my very own scarlet letter – S.
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Stopping at the traffic lights I remember why I wrote a book about being ‘it’ for my family over a fifteen-year span. I wrote it not for the media to tie me to the stake of stay-at-home motherhood and to dance a jig around it. I wrote about family life in order to make sense of an experience that was bigger and far more interesting than anything I’d been led to expect.
I wrote it for another woman, equally bewildered by the pace of family life, to read in the bath after a long day. I wrote it because until I’d written about family life I couldn’t write intelligently about anything else.
And I wrote it for my god-daughter who I looked after as a toddler, who told me recently that she wanders around London in her lunch hour noticing the baby bumps of passing women, and wondering if she’ll ever have a baby who makes her want to stay at home.
This is an extract from A Slow Childhood: Notes on Thoughtful Parenting by Helen Hayward is published by Editia (May, $32).
How do you feel about the 'Stay At Home Mum' label?