Donna Hartnett’s Letter and the Working Mother SAHM Debate

Amid the strong support for the feelings expressed in Donna Hartnett’s open letter to Enda Kenny, there has also been some “tough luck, you can’t have it all” type responses (on Twitter, and some referenced here)

I don’t think that’s the point at all – I don’t think anyone expects to “have it all” – certainly not if having it all means a stellar career, buckets of money, and loads and loads of free time to spend raising small children. Logically, without the benefit of cloning, or unless you’re a super-model with a once a week shoot, this just isn’t possible.

The problem working families face is the all or nothing rock-and-hardplace dilemma. To continue working full-time, paying a second mortgage on childcare, with small children spending fifty hours a week in crèche? Or to give it up entirely so that one parent stays at home, but potentially can no longer pay the bills or have any kind of future career.

Some employers allow career-breaks, so if the sums add up, and the mortgage can be paid on one salary for a few years, that’s a very attractive option. But if career breaks are not allowed (as is the case in most private sector workplaces including mine) or if one salary doesn’t cover the bills – an unfortunate outcome for many families over the last decade – then this option is off the table.

Some parents choose to resign in lieu of a career-break, with the hope of working again when children are at school, but it’s a decision that many are afraid to take – what if it’s not feasible to get back in to the workforce? Confidence plays a part here too – after a number of years out of work, it can be difficult to believe it’s possible to re-enter the corporate world. And again, I’m in that camp – even if I could afford to give up my job, I would be hesitant to do so.

What about part-time work for one or both parents? It cuts down on the amount of time kids spend in childcare, and should mean less stress, anxiety and guilt for parents. However, even if it’s financially possible, many employers won’t offer part-time hours. Even a four-day-week can make a huge difference to families who are stretched to their limits with commutes and crèche runs (I am lucky enough to have a four-day-week, and it’s made a huge difference) But not all workplaces will facilitate flexible working. So parents – and it’s mostly women – are faced with choosing between full-time work or none at all.

The editor’s comment in the Independent today made the point that this is not about a battle between working and stay-at-home mothers, and it absolutely shouldn’t be. It’s not about saying that it’s a bad idea to use crèche, or to work, and equally it’s not about saying that staying at home is a luxury and an easier option – it’s bloody hard work, and it’s unpaid.

Most people do not want to have their children in crèche for fifty hours a week, and while many parents would relish the chance to be at home full-time, many more would prefer a bit of both – time with family, while maintaining a career – whether that’s on a four-day-week basis. or five-mornings, or job-share or term-time.

It’s about choice. Parents – mothers (because it’s usually mothers) – being able to choose what’s best for their own families. We’re not trying to have it all – we’re all genuinely just trying to do what’s best for our own families. And to that end, the discussion that was generated by Donna Hartnett’s letter, albeit divisive, is healthy and good and keeps this conversation alive.

Office Mum photo of mothers

just some of the many, many mothers interviewed for this blog, about balancing work and family

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12 thoughts on “Donna Hartnett’s Letter and the Working Mother SAHM Debate”

  1. Totally agree – my mother and I just had this exact conversation! I currently work 4 days (my employer lets me take one day per week as unpaid parental leave until my allocation runs out) and even at that I feel that my kids spend too long in creche – I’d love to be able to work in the mornings and have the afternoons with them, but it’s just not an option with my job. I have considered just giving up work until the youngest starts school, but I work in IT and the technology moves so fast I worry that I’d be obsolete after a couple of years. But childcare costs SO much that I am literally working for nothing at the moment! I’m seeing it as an investment in my future career….it makes so financial sense at the moment but it will allow me to maintain my position at work until I’m ready to take a step up the ladder again (very much leaning sideways at the moment!) It’s complicated and complex, my mum maintains that being stuck at home all day with a frustrated and financially struggling mother is just as bad for kids as spending a day in the care of benevolent strangers! No right answer unfortunately, but it was a great letter and it really gets to the heart of the struggle for lots of us out there….

    1. Yes to all of it – everything you said. Giving up is a risk in terms of trying to get back in later – I am in the same position, but like your mum says, staying at home feeling frustrated isn’t a great idea either. And yes, it is absolutely complicated and complex – I think there are many people for whom the reasons for working are not purely black and white. Thanks a million for the comment and best of luck finding something that works for you!

  2. I think you’re spot on. We’re not trying to have it all but just do what’s best for our family. My kids are in childcare only 3 hours a day. We both work full time, but I start early and my husband works in the afternoon. We don’t pay too much childminder but on the other hand I only see my husband at week ends (some say that’s a good thing!! At least we don’t have time to fight… yeah but we don’t really have time to talk either!). For us it’s a small sacrifice which means they get to spend time with both their parents (separately, but still!).
    I read the comments and some people said she was lucky to be able to give up work. Did those people ever sit down and do their maths? In some situation, if you take off the cost of childcare, the other spouse having more tax credit, a lot less petrol costs etc, you might not lose that much. I’m sure they didn’t wake up one morning and said “that’s it, I can’t take it any more, I’m giving up work!” They must have weighted the pros and cons before taking such a drastic decision. Again, it’s all about choice and trying to do the best for your family. Hopefully it works for them.
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  3. Her letter is like a badly written school essay.

    I saw this on boards today written by a woman living in the real world unlike Donna.

    I’m a working mother. Both myself and my boyfriend work fulltime to cover rent and bills and – the big one – childcare costs, with little (if anything) left over at the end of the month.

    I disagree with this woman’s perspective.

    First of all, her comment about “our two children being raised in childcare centres like hens.” A childcare provider is not responsible for “raising” the children – the child’s parents are. I expect my son’s minders in creche to keep him safe, warm, dressed and fed. I expect them to treat him as an individual. I expect them to keep him entertained and stimulated (very easy with a young child – just being around other young children is often stimulation enough.) I do not, and will never, expect them to raise my son for me. If my son turns out to be a bold little brat with no manners, I’ll take responsibility for it. If he turns out to be a good well-mannered well-behaved child, his parents will take the bulk of the credit for it.

    And even apart from that; if I thought I was sending my son off to a henhouse every day, he wouldn’t have lasted a week there before I looked for alternative childcare arrangements. This woman seems to be making it out that she’s making the “right” and unselfish choice, while the rest of us continue to send our children off to some sort of baby jail every day. Nope. My ten-month-old goes off with a smile every morning to spend the day in an exciting safe clean environment, and be fawned over by his loving minders, to spend his day listening to music, and reading stories, and doing paintings for me with broccoli and footprints and all sorts of other arts and craftwork, and eating healthy homemade food, and exploring the centre with his little friends. His development has come on in leaps and bounds since he started there, and I’m just happy to be able to provide him with the opportunity to learn and grow in such a great place. We get evenings with him, we get weekends with him, we both have annual leave (which we don’t necessarily have to take at the same time) so there’ll be plenty of time for him to spend at home with one/both of his parents, too. I think it’s a great balance.

    This woman seems to be implying it’s all or nothing – either she sends her kids off to this “institution”, or she makes the “sacrifice” of staying home to mind them herself. There are alternatives. Apart from other creches, there are au-pairs (a very popular and cost efficient option for some families I know) … there are childminders, who could mind the children either in the family home or in the childminder’s home. Her current childcare arrangements are not her only option. And of course she could always look into part-time work rather than full-time (especially since it seems at least one of her children is in school.) Or working from home.

    She talks about giving her children “the security of a home life that should be an option afforded to every child” … then talks about overdue bills and unpaid taxes. OK, we might not be flush with cash in our home, but I hope that my son will never overhear conversations about utilities being cut off, or about being left homeless because we can’t afford the rent or mortgage. Young children are alarmingly perceptive.

    Many families have a “tipping point” where, after X amount of children, you end up in a position where the financially sensible decision is for one parent to give up employment and take over childcare. Maybe after one child; maybe after three; maybe after seven. But there are all sorts of dynamics that affect this – what childcare is available and affordable; how much a career break will affect your future career in the industry; how suited you are to being a stay-at-home parent.

    Many mothers and fathers make the choice that she’s making now – for one (or both) parents to put their careers on hold and stay at home with their children. But I don’t get the impression that it’s the sacrifice she’s making it out to be. She’s no martyr. She’s in the lucky position that (from what she’s said) she’s actually financially better off working – unlike many of us.

    She’s making a drama out of nothing. I know so many stay-at-home mothers – some through choice, some through circumstances – who do a fantastic job of it, and never felt the need to go to national press with their decision. It works for some families, it’s not the best choice for other families. She’s not happy with the way things are in this country? No one is forcing her to stay here.

    You know, I’d love to have my way on everything. I’d love to work the hours that suited me, I’d love to be paid double my salary for doing nothing more than I’m doing now, I’d love to have no taxes or charges or water bills, hell lets throw in free rent and childcare while I’m at it. But in real life, you pay for a roof over your head and for utilities and childcare. (And – all things considered – I wouldn’t want to live in a country where everything was free for everyone.) So, if you choose to stay at home instead (even when it’s not the financially responsible option) – go for it, and enjoy it – but don’t expect sympathy at the “hardship” of it all. She’s lucky to have the choice to continue work or to stay at home. It’s a luxury that many don’t have.

    Hopefully the woman’s job (whatever it is) will go to someone who will be delighted at the opportunity to earn some income and progress their career.

    1. I didn’t interpret any of the following from the women’s letter:

      1. That the creche is ‘raising’ her children
      2. The implication that it’s all or nothing
      3. That she discusses the anxiety of bills and taxes with her children
      4. She is making a drama out of nothing
      5. There is an expectation that everything should be free

      The letter was written in the context of increasing taxes, the fall-out of which she is trying to balance with other decisions affecting the quality of her family life.

      It is unrealistic to imply, or interpret, ‘raising’ children as a literal statement. It would also be disingenuous not to recognise the trust and good standards of care parents rely on when opting for creche services, or childminders, otherwise we wouldn’t careful in our selection, and seek to ensure they are regulated and provide excellent care. ‘Entertaining’ and providing a safe place for children comes with serious responsibilities. Getting lost in semantics doesn’t seem helpful.

      In recognising that childrearing is a marathon, many parents off-set using paid childcare during their children’s early years against the monetary benefits and security that can be ring-fenced for on-going and future costs incurred. Sizing up the impact of leaving the workforce with the risks of returning is more complex than a simple matter of reaching for part-time or career-break options. This woman is reported to be a community executive. If it’s anything within the realm of community work as I understand it, part-time options are limited, career breaks are unheard of due to short-term funding, and the sector has suffered a massive hemorrhaging of workers competing for a shrinking number of positions due to on-going cuts. The sector has none of the securities of either the private or public sector. It hovers mostly in no-mans land.

      In weighing up the impact of crippling incremental taxes in recent years, the scales are no longer balancing in this family’s definition of a reasonable quality of family life. For her it concerns her children, for others the quality of their retirement, or their inescapable sense of injustice. Tens of thousands of people protesting in the face of water charges can’t be wrong. Tens of thousands of people can’t be making a drama out of nothing.

      You make a valid point about others being worse off. The notion of ‘choice’ is also burdened with relativism. It is not freely available to many sections of women in society. There are a number of underlying assumptions about choice when it comes to entitlement of career and ‘menial’ jobs, as if a college education and previous experience entitles people to a pre-destined place within the divide. That’s a topic that has to be unpicked another day.

      I would have less sympathy for this women if she was from a rich background. But she is part of the squeezed middle-class. We need to hear them, because that is the surest way we get to learn about the reality of many on lower incomes who have been putting up with this and worse for years. From this there is hope for solidarity across all these groups, it’s beginning to take shape. The alternative is for the small man turn against the other small man and lose our reason and empathy completely. That’s when the government really have really won.

    1. Agree – there were lots of different opinions, more articles, more interview, and not everyone agreed, but brilliant that it was discussed at all I think.

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