The Perennial Debate

Every mum’s Rubicon. To work or not to work?
Or to put it more politically correctly, whether or not to work full-time outside the home, and thus (in a sense) relinquish the role of primary care-giver to your child.
One crucial thing that ante-natal books don’t tell you to expect (even the encyclopedic What to Expect) is the Guilt that will now forever feature in your psyche, even if you have hitherto never done a thing you were vaguely ashamed of in your squeaky-clean life.
I used to have very strong views on the role of a mother. More pointedly, I used to feel (and say) that there was no point for a woman to conceive if she were not prepared to care for her offspring full-time. I felt that motherhood was a core responsibility, and those who were not primary care-givers were shirkers. *ouch* I used to be especially disapproving of those who declared that “Oh I couldn’t possibly stop working – I need to finance my shopping habit. I just can’t give up the clothes and shoes.” “Luxury goods over spending time with your offspring?” I’d tsk.
From the start, my hubby and I shared the same views. Due to our beliefs, we decided early on (even before we tied the knot) that we’d plan our expenses based on one income, so that either one of us would always be free to stop working to care for our child. “There can be no better caregiver than a parent, and why should any child be shortchanged?” we mused from our high horses.
When I gave birth to my first child, I decided to take no pay leave, such that I was a SAHM with no helper until she was 1 year plus. My mum helped out, but sometimes that caused more stress. I experienced the SAHM life, albeit not the whole hog of three kids and a dog (like a neighbour I often bumped into did).
Being a first-time mother, I was enthusiastic about experiencing every moment, and being there to catch every milestone, and felt extremely grateful that I had the option, nay the privilege of doing so, since my hubby was so supportive (emotionally and financially, even helping maintain my contributions to my rather needy parents).
After a while, we considered that it was probably worth the while for me to go to work for a decent period (significantly more than the min 90 days requirement) before we conceived our second – 4 months of fully paid maternity leave was too good to pass up. I went back to a job that I loved, colleagues that I loved, and a pace that was not too punishing.
On the home front, I felt at ease since my parents had volunteered to look after K, without the need of a helper. My dad had always commented that I should work.  The usual ‘don’t waste your education’ reason was one. Granted he had a case since I had a good UK degree and a prestigious Ivy-League Masters, but I had always held the position that this was a weak argument.  Because education is never wasted on mothers, mothering is a calling far more valuable than any economic work contribution yada yada.
When I said that it would be quite pathetic to only get to see one’s baby daughter for only about 2-3 hours every weekday, he said, there’re weekends, there’s annual leave, there are public holidays (ok we get where he stands)… where I could spend the WHOLE DAY with the kid(s). I guess my parents also felt that I would be in a better position to support them if I worked, since even my part-time salary would exceed what they could both command, cumulatively. So from a dollars-and-cents perspective, it made economic sense for me to work.
My mum had always nagged me to start having kids, and had volunteered to help look after them from the start. Even after she experienced how tiring looking after a toddler was, she still pressed me to have a second, and volunteered in advance to continue looking after both, so long as my dad was there to get arrowed by her to help out.
So with the blessings of both parents, and elation from my former company, I went back to work. And really, really loved it. Firstly, it was liberating. I had forgotten how much I missed not having to gulp my lunch in 10 hurried minutes. I had forgotten how much I missed debating social and political issues of the day (I completely did not read the newspapers when I was a SAHM – no time nor inclination. Any free 10 mins was better spent getting a much-needed shower).
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed my work. I had forgotten how much less I’d bleed from my CPF account in paying my housing installments, even without monthly credits. Secondly, my dad was right. Weekends, annual leave, holidays, in some bizarre way, WERE enough. In fact, I felt that I was in a better (more significantly, less tired) frame of mind to engage K after I returned home from work.
In my SAHM days, I’d be ready to crawl into a hole by 6pm, but on a work day, I’d actually feel energetic enough to shower K when I got home, feed her her dinner, eat my own, and read story books to her or play with her, before tucking her into bed. So I reflected. Perhaps it also depends on how each mum is wired. What’s the point of having a disgruntled, snappy SAHM 24/7? As opposed to a child having a balanced, nurturing-frame-of-mind FTWM for 2.5 hours each day.
Further discussions with mummy bloggers and a wide spectrum of friends confirmed something else. Staying at home does not guarantee a close mother-child relationship. My own experience was a case in point. There were also enough friends with strained relationships with their SAHMs, and friends who not only did not resent the fact that their mums worked, but also had healthy and close relationships till today.
Of course there were some who felt that their mothers who only “took them back” at Sec 1 were really not quite their mums, but that’s one extreme form of parenting I guess. Of course a part of me felt that I was just trying to justify away what I wanted for myself, against what was best for my children. But in some ways, who can say that only SAHMs are best for their children? I suppose to a large extent it probably is, in terms of the quality of care and attention that their children get, but I’d confidently say that an unhappy, dissatisfied SAHM is certainly no boon to any child. So it’s a balance, between what the mum can cope with, and the quality of alternative care the child is receiving.
In my case, I felt very blessed with the latter. Not everyone, in fact, very few people, could get that arrangement. And my heart was all the more at ease, since K would wave bye-bye happily each morning (since she was already used to my mum who has been coming over to help from the start) so there were minimal drama teary-wrenching away at the gate scenes. (My friend once told me about how her 5-year-old tried to wrench the lift door open, screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO don’t go to work! you can imagine how HORRIBLE that made her feel. Guilt is probably an understatement. And she only worked PART TIME!)
Guess what I’m saying is that there’s probably no one absolute right way. Some ways are better than others, but even then it’s not always that the SAHM way is better. Overall, mothers really don’t need any help to feel more guilty than they already are. Even SAHMs feel guilty when they choose to go on FB for 10 mins to retain a bit of sanity, instead of colouring unicorns with their kid. Why disparage each other, when we are all in the same great struggle?
Ultimately, I realised how important it was to acknowledge that everyone’s circumstances are different. To those who said they needed the money, it would not be financially possible to have one spouse at home, I used to retort (silently or otherwise): “It’s about what lifestyle you want, what you are willing to sacrifice. Why do you need to have a car, etc? Why can families with more children on much lower single-incomes survive and look so happy playing at the beach every weekend? Perhaps it’s just about having slightly less savings. Perhaps it’s a lack of focus on what really matters!”
But with experience, and with knowing more mums, I realised that it’s neither right nor fair to say that all weekend parents are pathetic, irresponsible, me-first, fun-seeking parents who cannot give up their ‘former’ lifestyles. Who knows what tough circumstances lie behind their decisions? A FTWM of three may be working, NOT to finance that one-more branded bag, but because she needs to give her parents one third of her take-home pay, contribute towards the HDB (bare minimum, not even some condo) mortgage, help her hubby with the household finances because his pay is no more than hers… etc.
Mums seem to tend to be split into two camps, each lamenting about how they are always being hard done by. My SAHM friends say that they are looked about with little worth, dismissed as having no life, nothing to contribute to adult discussions on the issues of the day because they have no time to keep up with the latest, looked upon as wasting their education (esp if their parents financed hefty sums on overseas medical courses), not helping their husbands financially, squandering their husband’s hard earned money whilst relaxing at home… (which could not be further from the truth. No real SAHM is anything short of mostly tired. Always.)
FTWMs feel that SAHMs look askance at them, with hidden sniffs of superiority, from some moral high ground that ‘Hey, though I don’t look as put-together, at least I don’t abandon my own kids on a daily basis in pursuit of Mammon’, ‘At least I don’t try to compensate for my absence with fancy toys that kids don’t care for anyway. I give myself and love that money can’t buy’, ‘Kids spell love as T-I-M-E don’t you get it?’, or lastly, ‘How can any Christian mother not stay at home? And all the more woe-to-you if they are So Young!’ The last can sometimes be the most cutting, whether it is overtly said, or implied at a sublimal level, since it hits at my core beliefs.
Which is why I felt quite comforted when I read this book “Growing Strong Daughters” by Lisa McMinn which I picked up when the Logos Hope docked at Vivocity. A Christian lecturer with degrees from sound seminaries, she wrote about the huge bias in Christian circles towards the SAHM, which made mums who were not so for one reason or another feel second-best.
Her thesis was that mums had always worked / contributed to the family income up till the Industrial Revolution, where it became less possible to work from home through cottage industries or through farm work with their children within shouting distance. Then a more distinct difference emerged between the mum who went out to a factory to work, and the mum who stayed at home with no real ‘work’ that provided a steady stream / meaningful amounts of income.
Before the industrial revolution, only women from very wealthy homes, or who had husbands with large incomes, could afford to be full-time mothers. And for these women, they weren’t quite mothering all the time either, having access to nannies, governesses and the like.
Guess her point was that even the Proverbs 31 mother worked, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a mother working. The only thing that has changed through the centuries is that it’s become harder and harder for a woman to work with her children nearby. So I guess, I felt less completely condemned.
I’m not knocking SAHM-hood, because I’ve been there and I know how much self-sacrifice it entails, and how totally DRAINING it can be. It’s at once mundane but exhausting, routine as well as unrecognised. (Of course, there were the irreplaceable moments of joy and sweetness too. But I found it hard to believe, from experience, folks who say those moments make Everything worth it.) In fact, I have nothing but the highest respect for SAHMs because it is the harder path, certainly not the easy-way-out or a slacker-route.
To the dads who say that they can’t help with middle-of-the-night-time-care because they “have to work tomorrow”, all I can say is, the SAHM also WORKS TOMORROW. In fact, her work is more physically demanding, emotionally draining than anything any husband could face at work. You have your lunch hour, your time to space out and veg in front of the computer, even if it’s 15 mins. The SAHM has no such luxury. Getting to go to the toilet when you simply can’t hold it in anymore is a luxury. Sometimes even then, you can only go whilst carrying a baby!
The scary thing with SAHM-hood, which I felt acutely, was the sense of martyrdom, and the danger of expecting one’s children to be grateful, and to pile on the guilt on THEM if they did not grovel with total appreciation for the rest of their lives, and promise to look after them or live with them in future, because “I gave up so much for you”. Because it just doesn’t always happen that way.
As a few friends have wisely said, I’m doing this for me. It’s what I want, and what I feel is best for my situation at this moment. That is so important. Then one would not feel completely lost when the children fly out of the nest, or decide to reside overseas, or for some reason turn out wayward, or does not achieve the highest grades in school. Mums who did would feel completely lost, as if their “sacrifice” had all been in vain, and that all their hard work was for naught, and thus experience a complete collapse of self-worth. It would also help FTWMs if SAHMs understood the underlying guilt that nags at them, and did not harp (too much) on how they have done what’s best for baby, as if everything else is obviously a second-best compromise.
I believe that 95% of mums are trying to do their level best for their kids.  And who is an outsider, to judge whether they are doing enough or not? For now, I guess I should just speak for myself, and say that I’ve arrived at a good balance on time with my children and time away from my children, and that my current state could still change, as seasons of life at home and without slowly evolve.

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  1 comment for “The Perennial Debate

  1. April 1, 2013 at 2:55 am

    I’m still in this struggle, oh my… but agree that no outsider can judge which is the right or wrong way for each family’s needs are different.

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