The needs of the workers or the needs of society or the needs of the parents are not necessarily the same as the needs of the child
The first thing you notice about Linda’s home is the dog. After a brief moment of ecstasy over the unexpected arrival of visitors, he scuttles back to his basket by the window and looks dolefully out to sea. Rows of misshapen pottery crafted by little hands are stacked over the TV and a clutter of family pictures butt up against colourful pots of homemade slime. A “posh coffee” machine whirs in the background. It’s 10.30am on a school-day and there’s not a breakfast dish in sight.
Linda is a stay-at-home mum, one of a number of women with careers who are throwing in the towel at work, in order to throw themselves into parenting, full-time, in the home.
“It feels good when we’re all together,” Linda says from the other side of the kitchen workbench. This is where she stands, most evenings, to eat her dinner while fetching things for her four children seated at the other side.
“The busyness of it… there’s very little time together,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s any different if you stay at home or go out to work. You’re just swapping one sort of chaos for another. It’s maybe just not as condensed.”
Converse to the idea of the stereotypical 1950s mother, who had no option but to stay in the home, today, staying at home to raise a family can be a progressive choice.
Economists have long recognised the vital human capital that mothers represent to society. Yet there is now an overwhelming sense that women who opt to stay at home are swimming against the tide of social reform. Government policy, such as paid parental leave and childcare payments, is being constructed to keep women in the workforce once they become mothers. It is part of a move to promote greater equality between men and women. And economic constraints — such as the cost of housing relative to income — increase the pressure for households to have two salaries.
So does opting out of the workforce once you become a mother fly in the face of advances being made in gender equality?
When it comes to individual family life, it seems that ‘equality’ isn’t always an objective measurement.
“What do you mean when you talk about equality? Is it in the decisions you make for your family? If I plan and book the holiday and you pay for it, is that equality? I think it is,” Linda says.
How much we seek to defend a mother’s place in the home could be defined for us in an upcoming referendum on the removal of Article 41.2 of Ireland’s Constitution. The article provides for a woman’s right to “her life within the home… without which the common good cannot be achieved”.
Certainly, the clause does not represent the ideal of modern life, where parenting is seen as something that can be shared equally amongst partners. It does not promote current views on gender because it places only women in the home (while denying this right to men). Crucially, however, it does place a value on carers in society, at a time when carers are not valued or rewarded properly for their momentous undertakings. So the removal of this constitutional value on the unpaid work done in the home could only serve to further underline this lack of regard.
Whether we remove Article 41.2 from the Constitution or not, it won’t stem the tide of mothers flowing out of the workforce.
Official statistics from 2015 show that 86pc of childless women work, but this drops to 57 pc of those with children aged three or under. As the children reach age six and over, only 58pc of those mothers are in employment.
Research by Amarach Research earlier this month found that almost two out of three mothers with young children in Ireland would prefer to stay at home to raise their children, if finances allowed. The study came on the back of calls for new childcare subsidies for working parents to be extended to parents who minded their children in the home.
Of the 800 women surveyed, 63pc said they would prefer to be a stay-at-home mum, if they were given the option and could afford it. So for many women the question is not why a woman would give up a fulfilling career to stay at home with her children, but how would she do it.
Dr Claire O’Hagan, whose 2015 book, Complex Inequality and Working Mothers, brought the lose-lose conundrum faced by working mothers to the fore, says that today’s working mothers find it particularly difficult to navigate their roles because they are “charting a new course”.
“These women would all have grown up with a mam at home. So they are the first generation to have this dilemma of career and home. They have no parameters for making their choices and no support once they make them.
“The marriage bar [disallowing married women from working in the civil service and some other jobs] was only lifted in 1973, and today, society still promotes the idea of mother care. In Britain they would have experience of ‘latchkey children’ for decades. This is particularly an Irish thing.”
O’Hagan says that the pull between career and home is also exclusively a middle class issue. “Poor or working class women have always worked, out of necessity.” Single parents who often have no choice but to stay at home, due to prohibitive childcare costs, also find themselves cut out of the debate.
Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council, says that when it comes to paying childcare costs, it often doesn’t make financial sense for women to continue in employment, “so then it’s not as simple as saying ‘the mother wants this’ — to stay at home.
“Women will continue to be the most obvious childcare solution, O’Connor says, until there is a more equal spread of women in employment, with higher earning power. Because up until now, women have been made very unequal in society.”
O’Hagan says the real issue in the lack of progress in the area is the lack of solidarity amongst women, and debates that pit the working woman against the woman in the home. Far from retreating into the home, women, she says, should be demanding en masse a society that enables parents to work.
“The obesity crisis, the rise of anxiety amongst kids… blaming the mother for not being at home, landing all of society’s ills at the feet of mothers is a backlash against growing equality for women. Financial independence is the best thing that happened to women, and they should be able to maintain it through the child-rearing years,” she says.
O’Hagan believes there should be supports for people who have children because they are a societal benefit for a short-term societal cost. But if you don’t have children, why should you care about the dilemma mothers are in, or want to facilitate their work-life balance issues to the detriment of your own? “Rampant individualism is a feature of modern society,” O’Hagan says. “Children are a public good. They are the workers who will pay for the older generation’s pensions, and people should be supported to have them.”
The beginnings of such supports in Ireland can be seen in initiatives such as the affordable childcare subsidy scheme [see opinion, Page 5] championed by minister Katherine Zappone. It is a small but significant step in making it more affordable for both parents in a family to be in the workforce. It doesn’t question if this set-up is actually an intrinsic good.
In terms of managing the care of children, psychologist David Coleman believes society should aspire to having one parent at home. When it comes to childcare, he says group care in a facility “might be your last option”, because “there is something about that environment that puts extra pressures on children”.
Despite this, he says that the group childcare