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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 1 October, 2014

Column: The ‘Mammy Wars’ – do we judge each others’ choices?

Andrea Mara writes: there are no universal truths about the different circumstances mothers find themselves in … and aren’t we all too busy, anyway, to have time to judge one another?

Andrea Mara

MOMMY WARS. Or, since we’re in Ireland, let’s say Mammy Wars. I don’t like the term, but it’s the widely-used name for the phenomenon of mothers judging mothers on every element of parenting, originally coined to refer to mothers working outside the home versus stay-at-home (SAHM) mothers.

The internet is laden with extreme positions on most topics, including the SAHM/mothers working outside the home debate. Look at the comments on any feature about parenting choices, and you’ll find at least a few provocative, extreme, judgemental opinions – often because people see advocates of one particular parenting choice as judging alternative choices.

But to what extent does this judgement exist in real life? And how much of it is an assumption rather than a reality – in other words, to what extent are we assuming we’re being judged rather than actually being judged?

I think there are two distinct groups of mothers who are truly happy and secure in their choices: one group is made up of mothers who are choosing to stay at home with their kids, are naturally, instinctively great at being stay-at-home-parents, who enjoy every minute of being there with their children all day every day, who have no real financial worries – at least not enough to cause serious stress day-to-day, who do not need work for self-esteem reasons and are secure enough in their choice to not worry about being judged.

On the other end of the spectrum is Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo who earned $36 million last year and built a nursery beside her office for her baby boy.

The rest of us fall somewhere in between.

The truth …

There are mothers who stay at home because they choose to, and can manage financially, though often by making big material sacrifices.

There are mothers who give up fulfilling careers because they want to be with their children, but may have lingering thoughts of what might have been.

There are mothers who stay at home because the cost of childcare is greater than any salary they can earn in their locality or area of expertise.

There are some who mostly love being at home, though as do we all, sometimes have a bad day and would love to escape.

There are others who are unhappy being at home and while they feel that they’re doing the best of their children, they are less than happy themselves.

There are mothers who work outside the home because they can’t afford to continue paying the mortgage if they don’t work. (Many, many of these in Ireland today.)

There are mothers who go to work because they have a job that they love, and are trying to strike a balance between being a parent and continuing to have a fulfilling career.

And again within those groups, there are of course many varying levels of contentment: some who have no choice about working are lucky enough to also very much enjoy the job in question. For others it’s much more difficult – being employed purely for financial reasons in an unsatisfying job is very draining and demotivating, and one of the most difficult situations for any mother – all the guilt, none of the satisfaction.

There are no universal truths about the different circumstances mothers find themselves in and this is no place for sweeping generalisations. Nobody should assume that a stay-at-home mother is having an easy life and equally it should not be assumed that employed mothers are less interested in their children.

Most mothers are far too busy to judge their peers

But I’m just not sure that this is how the vast majority of mothers view one another - perhaps I’m naive, but I think most mothers are far too busy minding children and judging themselves to have time to judge their peers.

Yes, of course there’s a vocal minority, prominent online. But in real life, do you judge your friends who have taken a different path to yours?

There will always be critics – people who say that stay-at-home mothers are lazy, á la Katie Hopkins, and people who say that parents who have their children in crèche are falling short. And many of us have someone in the family who is not so convinced by the choices we make – an aunt who thinks the working mother is letting her children down, or a mother-in-law who tells the stay-at-home mum that she’s wasting her education.

But day-to-day in our lives, I don’t think there’s a lot of judgement going on regarding mums going out to work or staying at home. Let’s face it – all of it can be very tough going at times, and most people know that.

Some days I envy the mums who are at home, especially during my most guilt-filled moments (or during the heatwave last summer!), but I’m under no illusion about the hard work that’s involved in being at home full-time with children. I’ve done it while on maternity leave and for weeks here and there since I went back to work. It was tiring and at times very stressful (though ultimately rewarding and fulfilling in a way that far outweighed the exhaustion).

I am certain that, similarly, SAHMs sometimes envy their friends who go out of the home to work, and can have a cup of tea that isn’t cold, or sit in silence for a moment or two.

Other mothers are not the enemy

So we know other mothers are not the enemy – there are enough battles to fight without arguing amongst ourselves; such as a tax system that disincentivises parents from staying at home with children, childcare that is expensive, and inflexible employers who short-sightedly refuse requests for shorter hours and remote working.

Previous generations of women fought for the right to work and we have that now – in spades. Today the pendulum has swung arguably too far in the opposite direction; many families would prefer for one parent to stay at home with their children, or both parents to work part of the week and share the childcare, but because of the economic necessity of two incomes to pay the mortgage, countless parents are now trapped into working whether they wish to or not.

So let’s focus on creating a society where every woman has the right to stay at home, to work full-time and progress to the top of her career, to work part-time, to take time out when her children are small – and fathers too. That’s a far better use of energy than fighting imaginary mammy-wars.

Andrea Mara has three small kids, one tall husband and one office job. She writes at OfficeMum.ie about being a parent, being a mother working outside the home, being a woman in the workplace. She’s just trying to keep her balance. Follow her tweets@office_mum or on Facebook.

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