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Column: Motherhood, feminism and the big decision

Should I stay at home with my baby or go back to work? There’s no ‘right’ answer, writes Ann Marie O’Sullivan.

Ann Marie O'Sullivan

YESTERDAY I FOUND myself sharing with my boss the realisation that I want to stay at home rather than go back to work. I have a niggling feeling that I may not be given the career break I hope for, in which case I’ll leave work altogether.

This is not an easy choice for me, and writing about it hasn’t come easily either. I have thought a lot about writing a post about this decision but I held off for many reasons: my own uncertainty, wanting to tell people at work first, and fear.

I think I was afraid of offending people with my views (past or present), afraid that people would judge me and afraid of writing it all down in case I can’t explain myself as I’d like . But, much like burps, it’s better out than in, so here we go.

I never imagined having a child. If I ever thought of having children I certainly never thought of leaving work to care for one. The student feminist in me thought many things about stay at home mums, none of them kind. I read books like the Baby Trap which claimed that ” the girls I’ve talked to who have no children are, almost without exception, prettier, more conversational, more aware, more alive, more exciting, more satisfied”.

While I wouldn’t have said it so bluntly, there was a time when I would have thought that to be true.

Valuing the option of staying at home

Now, as a mum, I don’t think of myself as an ugly zombie-type dragging my dull corpse through my unsatisfying life. I haven’t become devoid of personality, creativity or interest since I’ve had Ewan – if anything I have space to figure myself out.

Of course not all feminists are as anti-family as the extract above. Feminists often talk about flexible work patterns, greater sharing of parental leave between men and women and anything, anything at all, that might limit or disrupt the traditional division of labour where women stay at home and the man earns the money.

I agree that, yes, we need equality and, yes, part of that is greater opportunities for men to be active caregivers but I think there’s a missing bit about valuing the option of staying at home – for men or women. When you read about the role of a carer being valued, it’s often said that caring is ‘work’ too and therefore should be valued. But to me that just doesn’t sit right.

Yes, caring involves work but it’s not the work part that gives it value. It’s not how many loads of washing you do or how many meals you make or how many tantrums you survive. Trying to put it on the same scale as work outside the home, equating it to something that has a monetary value, doesn’t feel right to me. It shouldn’t have to be thought of drudgery before it becomes valuable.

Socialist feminists sometimes seem to be describing women who stay at home as women who have been sold by society into unpaid servitude, rearing and developing the next mass of workers. For me, staying home with my son has nothing to do with work, that’s not how I value it. I value the chance to do it because I get to indulge myself in spending time with him that I know I’m lucky to have.

My work is not my identity

Should I not strive to have “it all” ? Am I yet another woman who is falling into a traditional role? Yet another woman who thinks she is making a choice, but is really fooling herself because there never really was a choice? What will the future hold with no wage packet with my name on it? Will anyone ever hire me again?

These things have all bothered me, but the nub of what worried me most was much more shallow than the great feminist debate. It’s… will I become dull? Will I be unable to talk about anything but the baby, devoid of an opinion on anything other than the cost of grocery shopping?

But it comes back to the point that took me so long to realise: I am not my work. Work never made me interesting. Work gave me a lot of things, and will one day again, but it’s not the only thing I am and ever will be.

I am lucky enough to have a chance to stay at home with my son, and I plan on cherishing it. I no longer equal my job. Be it for a year or longer I’ll be spending time at home and I plan to enjoy finding out whatever it is I equal and all the messiness that goes with that.

Ann Marie O’Sullivan runs a personal blog about figuring out parenting and shares vintage items she finds while thrifting in Cork. She also runs a small online vintage shop, Thrifty Amos.
You can find her online at www.thriftyamos.com on Twitter @thriftyamos, and on Facebook.

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Ann Marie O'Sullivan

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