Counselling psychologist Niamh Delmar on the dilemma mother's face when it comes to choosing between a career and staying at home.
The pandemic and resulting lockdowns put the spotlight on the role of the stay at home mother. A stressful brunt was borne by working mothers. School closures exposed parents’ dependency on them in order to work.
For some women, the role they find themselves in is not their ideal fit, and not a true choice. According to the 2016 census, while the number of fathers has risen, 98% of women stay at home to parent. Womens’ employment rates dropped significantly if they had children aged 0-6 years.
The dilemma to be in the workplace or stay at home is a contributing factor to a woman’s psychological distress. If it is a mismatch, it aggravates stress, anxiety, depression and places a strain on the relationship with a partner.
Following the peak of the pandemic, many women have been reflecting on and questioning their positions. In therapy, many are relating to me feeling trapped with some wanting to work, or be at home, or have a bit of both. I am hearing more mothers describe burn-out, exhaustion and discontent.
Women working hybrid hours may have commutes reduced, but other pressures in the home increased. Research indicates that people with children are generally less happy than those without.
The strain often results in many passing on a lot to grandparents and family members. For others, the cost of créches and childminders is crippling. They may drop off young children at 7am and collect at 5/6 pm ending up rushing and juggling. Being a mother full-time does not necessarily mean the best for children nor does working full-time.
What has been found to be of most benefit to the family is mothers who are fulfilled by what they do, and are well supported. Mothers are expected to perform in many organisations as if they don’t have babies or children. They are expected to carry out most of the domestic chores and childcare as if they don’t have a job.
At work, there are issues with regards to breast-feeding, restrictive hours offered etc. They often report being 'penalised’ after maternity leave. Most surveys reveal that mothers living with partners still take care of most of the child- rearing and domestic chores, even when working full-time. Among same-sex couples, the division of labour is not as determined by gender, and tends to be more equitable.
For all mothers, financial status can amplify or alleviate stress as more outlets can be enjoyed and practicalities such as babysitting or cleaning afforded. And choice.
So what are the stresses and benefits of staying at home or being employed or self- employed?
Stay at home mothers
Being a full-time mother can be isolating and overwhelming for some. There is not enough recognition for the role that supports, not only children, but enables partners’ careers. The mother’s career may be put on hold, or sacrificed. It can be hard to walk away from a profession that was a vocation, enjoyable or had time and money invested in. Women often report losing a sense of identity and confidence.
Research reveals some adverse impact on their physical and mental health, with higher rates of depression and anxiety. The children may become overly dependent on their mothers, and the women overly involved with their children. Some women report a lack of mental stimulation and adult company. Exhaustion may be a feature and there is no respite. There is also a financial hit to the family income, but savings on childcare.
A wedge may evolve between couples, with one not grasping the complexities and stress of work and the other not realising all that is involved with rearing children and running a household. Resentments may build up and relationship difficulties develop.
The benefits of staying at home with children include not having the stress of juggling the demands of the home and the job. Some women experience a relief not having to be in a job. You are involved in it all from the learning, socialising to the play.
Some studies have indicated it benefits the child’s development and academic performance. It provides opportunities to be involved with the school community. Some children may have specific and complex needs requiring more intensive parenting.
More and more working mothers report high levels of stress balancing their job, parenting and domestic roles. Switching the job hat to the mother hat, with no break in between, can be overwhelming. Mothers often describe feeling guilty about missing out on time with their child.
Organisations may not be as mothering friendly as they could be. High childcare costs and finding quality care adds to the stress. It matters with whom and where children are left. Research informs us that long periods in day care settings is associated with high stress levels among children. Poor childcare can have detrimental effects.
A job can boost self -worth, expand identity and develop the individual. It provides a different type of stimulation and purpose with adult interactions. Income offers more independence for women.
A major Harvard study found that daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those brought up by stay at home mothers. It also revealed that sons brought up by employed mothers were more involved in the home as adults.
The American Psychological Association conducted a study that showed mothers employed full-time or part-time reported better overall health and less depression that stay at home mothers. Furthermore, mothers working part-time were involved with their children as much as stay at home mothers.
The way forward: Choice
Better mental health for mothers is associated with the best fit and support for the mother and child: the reduction of stress in the family benefits the whole dynamic. Childcare settings need to be of high quality and be like a home away from home for children, with high levels of individual attention. Mothers need to be validated and receive more recognition for their role staying at home with their children.
While financial support is available towards crèche fees, none is given to those not in employment or using childminders. Even the title "stay at home mother" does not encompass all they do. If working especially mothers need joint parental involvement. Lone parents need to be facilitated further.
Women do not have to be doctors, lawyers or other professionals to feel worthy. Yet society more and more reveres job titles and being the ‘superwoman’ type. Policy needs to be all inclusive and supportive to mothers.
Organisational progress can focus more on facilitating the specific and individual needs of women and offer part-time and flexible working hours. A new way of working is evolving that involves a shorter flexi- hour week, working around childrens’ schedules. Schools could be more mindful of working mothers and avoid last minute big projects, homework and short notice for events.
Recent surveys indicate that more and more women want to stay at home with their children or work part-time, especially during the early years. Mental health services are filling up with mothers struggling and others are silently suffering.
If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, please visit: www.rte.ie/helplines.