Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don't Call Me a Stay-at-Home Mum: Reflections on Becoming a Full Time Parent

When I think back to my childhood, I feel lucky to have had constant love and security, and to have grown up in a fun-filled, happy home. On paper it may not have seemed like a perfect lot, and like any family there were ups and downs, but most of my memories are good ones. This is largely to do with the unwavering presence of my mother, who raised us pretty much single-handedly, but was steadfast, nurturing and kind. She chose not to work during our infancy, and so my siblings and I benefitted from a great deal of one-to-one attention. I was taught to read and write before starting school, and was initiated into the complex world of social interaction through the supportive and regular circle of friends with whom we would spend time.

Me in the 70s, in my happy place.
From this experience, I can personally vouch for the advantages of having a full time parent, although I am by no means against the idea of working mums. It is such a thorny issue, and one that I have recently wrangled with myself, as I started my own journey into parenthood. On the one hand, I wanted my kids to have the same advantages that I had, but what about my career, my needs? I had worked solidly for 15 years before my children came along, and I couldn’t imagine giving up all that I had achieved to become a housewife. I had planned to take my full year of adoption leave and then return to work when my youngest child started school (which fortunately coincided with the end of my leave).

But adoptive parenthood is far from straightforward, and as it turned out when the time came, the summer-born little one was not quite ready for school. We were thankfully able to defer him for a year, after applying to the local authority for permission (for more on this subject, visit http://summerbornchildren.org), then I was faced with the choice of what to do about work. I really loved my job and was truly torn, but I knew in my heart that the right thing to do was to give my son a little more of me. I had already missed three years of his childhood, and our first year together had flown by in a blur of emotions and adjustment. Now I had really started to get to know him, I wanted to build on this intimacy and trust. So I took a deep breath and gave myself over to motherhood, 100%.
Our family, as depicted in Lego by my seven year old daughter.
I can understand why many women need or want to return to work after having a baby. Parenting is tiring and confusing, and you pine for an environment in which you feel confident and valued. You miss the mental stimulation and adult company. Not to mention the salary. But when it comes to making that choice about whether to go back, I do believe most of us know instinctively what is best for our child, in our individual situations. There is a balance to be had between one’s own well-being and the needs of the child. And for those babies lucky enough to be born into a safe, loving home, with strong attachments to their parents, there may be no long term detriment to having some time apart from the mother. I think women should be able to choose the path that works best for their family, and to feel it is a valid choice, without being judged either way.

Leaving behind a lucrative and rewarding career to be a full-time parent may seem like a huge sacrifice, but I see this time less as a career break, more as a new venture that will ultimately enrich my arsenal of life and work skills. Certainly, bringing up my two special and complicated little people is no less challenging or stimulating than marketing books or beauty products, and I embrace the new skills and knowledge that I’m acquiring along the way. I’m learning more than ever before about negotiation, persuasion, time management, planning and teaching, and I’m changing as a person with every new parenting experience. Far from distancing me from vocational aspirations, it is opening my eyes to new possibilities and future career paths I may not have otherwise considered. I do miss bantering with colleagues, but I'm making new friends through the children, building lasting connections with others who are in the same proverbial parenting boat.

So why do I still feel awkward and like I have to justify myself when people ask me what I do for a living? Maybe it’s because of the labels associated with being a full time parent. There needs to be a better description for this life choice than ‘Stay At Home Mum’, because that makes it sound so boring and restrictive, and doesn’t come close to encapsulating all that full-time parenting entails. For me it’s also technically inaccurate because if I can possibly help it, I’m rarely At Home with the kids. We prefer to be running free in the woods, paddling in rock pools, climbing trees or scooting down the seafront. So how should I describe myself these days? Free-range mum? Progressive parent? Adventurer in Chief? Seriously though, you wouldn’t write ‘Sitting At A Desk Person’ on your CV, so why shouldn’t full time parents have a title that better defines their role? Perhaps it’s because parenting is in fact more than one role – it’s like running an entire company. A really weird and hectic company with tiny, shrill little customers.

Surely I can put 'Expert train track and marble run constructor' on my CV?
And this is partly why I don’t feel intimidated about returning to the workforce at some point down the road - because I’m keeping my brain ticking over by doing what is arguably the most significant and varied job in the world. As was ever the case back in the office, I want to do my best and make a success of this role. I take the job seriously, and as I only have another ten months at home with my boy before he starts school, I need to make every second count. Yes, there is monotony and repetition (do I really have to run the washing machine again?), not to mention the snot, tears, mess and angst, but there is also magic, wonder, adventure and love. And that’s not something that you get in the office every day.
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