About 18 months or so ago we made the decision for me to resign from my part-time NHS post and become a stay at home mum. There were a few reasons behind it. I had well and truly had enough of the political landscape in which I was working: constantly going out to tender and consequently losing budgets and staff and providing an increasingly watered down service was not for me. I had felt like that for some time but what exacerbated my decision to actually leave was Little Bear. He didn’t cope well with my return work and really just needed at least one of us to be predictably and consistently here for him. He had a high level of need and we agreed that it would work best for everybody if I could stay at home and support him in whatever way necessary. I know that we were extremely lucky to be in a financial position where there was possible.
I’m not sure how well I’ve taken to being a Stay at Home Mum. My thoughts and feelings on the subject are a little complicated and contradictory.
Firstly, I know that many people would chop their right arm off to be able to quit the 9-5 and be at home but for various reasons, usually of a financial nature, they can’t. I am fully aware that being a Stay at Home Mum is a privileged position to be in and it undoubtedly has its benefits. The fact I am able to drop the boys off and pick them up from school every single day is great. I am also always available for watching assemblies/ sports days/ school plays and can be there for shared reading or craft afternoons. Taking Little Bear to weekly speech therapy appointments or attending meetings in school (though Grizzly makes a point of prioritising being there too) has never been a problem. I can do extra work with him, create resources etc. Equally I can manage the last minute demands of needing a coloured t-shirt or a cake or a costume or whatever else school might require of them without too much hassle.
My time-flexibility also means I can help others out, like the grandparents or friends if needs be: taking my mum-in-law to her recent set of hospital appointments or watering my parents’ garden when they go away is no problem at all.
Although all of these things are important and I would always want to prioritise them, sometimes I struggle with having a sense of purpose. Some school mums (who are probably a little envious of my freedom) like to make out I’m a ‘lady of leisure’. I’m pretty sure they think I laze on a sun lounger all day, while one young toga-clad man wafts me with an oversized palm leaf and another peels me grapes. Or perhaps they think I come back home after drop-off, don my velour tracksuit and glue myself to Jeremy Kyle while main-lining chocolate biscuits. I’m not sure but they’re pretty far off the mark either way. I have to admit that there are days when I meet somebody for lunch or a coffee or I get my nails done. I feel like that’s ok; you have to take advantage of opportunities and self-care and all that. Sometimes I do enjoy a mooch around the shops. But even when I’m telling you about it, I feel as though I’m confessing to something naughty or elicit, like I’ve been caught doing something I shouldn’t. This is really the paradox for me: I know I’m lucky and I’m in this sought after position but I’m not sure I’ve quite squared it off with myself yet.
When I find myself out and about, doing something fun, or something that has no other purpose than being just for me, I tend to feel as though I’m skiving or as though it isn’t a valid way to spend my time. Even the other day, whilst wandering around my parents’ garden, watering their vegetables, I was struck by how lovely it was to be outdoors in the sunshine, in the quiet, with just the birds for company. I was struck by how lucky I was and how most other people were probably sitting in a hot office somewhere, hunched over a computer and I felt as though I should have been somewhere else, doing something else, like I had skipped out of lessons or pulled a sicky.
I think it probably sounds as though I need a job. I do work a little but that is an area of complexity too. I offer speech therapy to children as an independent speech and language therapist. The number of children I work with varies. I love the work when I do it but I am very mindful of parents having to pay for it. There is not a big demand for that type of work at the moment, probably because of the cost implication.
I also run workshops and am an adoption buddy. Much of the work I do is on a voluntary basis. I love it and it does feel worthwhile but I seem more bothered by my lack of earning than I would have thought. I’m not sure how I’ve got the idea that unless you bring money in, you aren’t contributing but sometimes I do feel that way, despite not wanting to or really believing it.
The freedom of being a Stay at Home Mum has allowed me the space to discover writing and to write my book (see Am Writing). On the one hand, writing is a passion. When I’m writing the days fly by. I’m excited by what I’m doing and I get very into it. I have a clear and even urgent sense of purpose. However, if you spend weeks and months and maybe years doing something which doesn’t go anywhere, is that really a valid use of time? Sometimes I can be quite sensible about it. I know the publishing industry is one of the most competitive in the world; that getting someone to like your book is a very subjective process and that you have to be prepared to persevere. You have to anticipate the knock-backs and keep going regardless. However, on other days, I feel as though I’m working really hard going nowhere. If you have nothing to show for your labours, have you really laboured? Trying to become a writer can all too easily lead to an existential crisis. There is probably a reason why many literary agencies tell you not to give up your day job. It’s too late when you already have.
Now that I’m in the submission stage of trying to become published, I am trying to find useful ways of distracting myself because checking your e-mails 300 times per day is definitely not a good use of time. I started painting a picture, just for the fun of it. I used to paint quite a bit when I was younger but haven’t exactly had the time more recently. I am struggling with the picture though because I am struggling to justify spending all that time doing something just for my own personal gratification. I seem to have reached a point where if there is no conceivable benefit to others of me doing a task then I really question why I’m doing it. As I write this, I can see I might need to have a word or two with myself.
This week I did a mini-house project. While Grizzly was away, the boys and I re-decorated the utility room and drew a mural of our family and pets on the wall as a Father’s Day gift. I could get psychologically behind this project because it was a present and because the boys were involved. In fact, I think I feel quite justified in doing house projects in general because creating an inviting and hopefully inspiring home for my children does feel like a worthwhile use of time. I enjoy doing this type of thing too so it is probably a safe area to stick to in terms of keeping myself busy whilst also getting a sense of achievement. Watch out downstairs toilet, you’re next.
I know many people who would spend a lot of their days cleaning/ washing/ ironing to maintain a pristine home if left to their own devices. Obviously I do those things as necessary but the thought of describing myself as a ‘housewife’ leaves me cold. I am not a natural and to be honest, would rather vegetate in front of Jeremy Kyle. Or maybe the sun-lounger and the peeled grapes. There has to be more to life than cleaning, surely?
When I was gainfully employed, I had far less-time for navel-gazing or evaluating my impact on the world. I worked; I moaned about it; it kept me out of trouble. Us humans are weird: the grass is always greener and often the reality of getting the thing you thought you always wanted doesn’t match up to expectation. The problem, as usual in these situations, is not with my situation, but with my attitude and feelings towards it. Perhaps as a Society we are not good at valuing parenting and running a home as an occupation. Our measures of success are very much wrapped up in money and earning and promotion. How can you quantify your success as a stay at home parent? There is no evaluation form, no 360 degree feedback, no annual Personal Development Review. You have to just keep trucking, trying your best, whilst others assume you are swanning about a lot more than you actual are.
It seems that to be comfortable as a Stay at Home Parent (or a writer for that matter) you have to have an unwavering belief in the value of what you are doing and the innate ability to cultivate that belief without the need for external reassurance. Can people do that? How? Send help.