Why the working mother/stay home mother debate hurts us all

Photography: Georgia Russell

By Lauren Keenan

I’m sure I’m not alone in being completely sick of the stay-at-home vs working-mum debate. Although, in this context, “debate” makes the whole argument sound far more civilized than it actually is. Perhaps I should call it a mud-slinging match instead? Or, a version of fisty-cuffs in which parents throw figurative filthy nappies at one another?

Whatever you call it, though, the whole thing’s daft. Here’s why:

  1. We all love our kids.
    We all want what’s best for them. We’re all making the best decisions we can, with the resources we have and taking into consideration the support, job options, and children we have. And, whether we work or not doesn’t change how much we love our kids. It’s not like parents sit around and decide on a course of action after detailed analysis indicates they only love their children 75%. In the sad cases where parents don’t love their children, whether or not these children have working or stay-at-home parents is the least of their problems.
  1. We all have different pre-children selves.
    Again, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s remarkable how many people seem to approach this issue like we’re all robot clones. Someone who loved their job and career path pre-children is much more likely to find going back to work rewarding than someone who wasn’t in a career path or profession they enjoyed in the first place. Someone who loved being a domesticated goddess before having children is more likely to enjoy staying at home once they’re born. We also have different partners, and earn different amounts of money, so the decision to be a working or at-home parent is – you guessed it – different for each woman, and has different implications for each child.
  1. In this case studies can prove anything, and say all sorts of things.
    Not only that, but selection bias will mean that we’ll gravitate toward the deep corners of the internet to find those that justify our own life choices. There are also many mitigating factors to be taken into consideration in studies looking into this issue, such as the quality of care outside the home, the quality of parenting inside the home, and who’s being studied. Nor is anecdote a fact. I wore a blue t-shirt today and it rained. That doesn’t mean that everyone who wears a blue t-shirt will always get rained on. Just like one example of a child’s experience at home/in care doesn’t make it representative of all children.
  1. There are 2,134,983 different factors that will influence the adults that our children will become.
    Genetics, parental income, parents’ temperaments, children’s temperaments, experiences, birth order, number of siblings, and so on and so on. It doesn’t make sense to hinge so much on just one of so many factors.
  1. We’ll probably be both at some stage anyway.
    I’ve worked full-time with my husband as the at home parent, worked part time, been on parental leave, and been a bona-fide no-end-in-sight stay at home mother. Between now and when my children fly the coop, I imagine that between my husband and I we’ll have any number of arrangements to make things work out for our kids. It’s not like you are in one tribe or the other, and have taken a blood-oath that you will sit in one camp until you die. Most women will be both working and at-home mothers at some stage of their children’s lives, and often their husbands will be too. Nor does the debate account for women who work within the home: freelancers, writers, and some small business owners. Before chucking those figurative nappies into the other camp of the working/at home divide, it’s worth remembering that you might be just criticizing yourself of the future.
  1. It’s not all or nothing.
    It’s really not. I know working mothers who are with their children over half the week, and women who call themselves stay-at-home mothers yet work casually, on the weekends, or work from home. It’s not black or white, especially given how many women earn a living doing something other than the corporate 9-5. There is also a difference between time spent with your children, and quality time spent with them. I spent much more time with my kids when I was at home with them, but they also watched much more TV as well. Having done both, I honestly believe that the quality of my parenting is the same either way.
  1. What about the fathers?
    It’s as if, in the course of all this bickering, everyone seems to forget that it takes two people to make a baby. And, whatever the mum ends up doing, the father is probably part of the decision-making process as well, so if you’re going throw nappies at each other, you need to at least be even-handed and throw some at the man as well.
  1. Judging other people’s parenting is mean.
    Especially when you are judging decisions they’ve made with their family in mind, and giving yourself a smug pat on the back in the process. Or taking snapshots of their lives (He watched too much TV that one day a month we spent together! She hit another child at nursery once!) and assuming it’s representative of everything.

At the end of the day, what we should really be doing is celebrating that, unlike many women who came before us, we have a choice at all. Wouldn’t that be much more fun than looking at each other with scorn and judgment? At the very least, it will be much more pleasant for us all, irrespective of what our own decisions may be.


Lauren is a Wellington mother of two. She blogs at Modern Mothercraft, where she applies a 1945 handbook on motherhood to parenting in the modern day, as well as writing about other topical issues.

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