You made the decision to become a stay at home mother – a SAHM. You were brave, lucky and maybe it drove you a little crazy – but you chose this path, and you made it work.
On the day your four-year-old child walks into school for the first time your heart is bursting with feelings – pride, joy, perhaps relief – but also fear, confusion and sadness. Those special, intense years of full-time mothering have come to an end. What are you supposed to do now?
There’s no rule book any more
Sixty years ago, your path would have been mapped out. You’d have your children, stay a housewife – and that was (usually) that. These days women have the freedom to do whatever they want – but it’s seldom that simple, is it?
I’ve found that there’s a general expectation that once your children start school, your status will change. Suddenly, staying at home seems less admirable, and more self-indulgent. Now that I’m in this position, I feel like I’ve entered a social no-man’s land.
Things don’t change overnight
You don’t stop being a mother just because you’re not with your children. A mother who works wouldn’t say she was a part-time mother, would she? Every mother is full-time mother, but some do more outside the home than others.
After those intense years at home, it would be crazy to say that things are going to change overnight just because your children have started school.
You’ve spent years with children attached to your hip. You may have become defined by them to the extent that you don’t know who you are any more. If you’re lucky enough not to have to find paid work straight away, it can give you space in which to re-define yourself. You’ve barely had a minute to yourself for the last few years, so you’ve definitely earned it.
I decided to talk to some other women who have experienced this transition.
“My youngest son started school full time last year, and I wanted to be a constant,” says my friend Jo – a mother of two. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t have yearnings to do my own thing, make my own money – but I’m very lucky that I don’t have to. I decided to spend the first term having coffee with friends, reading books and trying to remember who the hell I was.”
And that time can be an unbelievably positive opportunity to tackle the inevitable to-do lists that go with motherhood.
“This is your opportunity to lighten that load,” says Katie – who’s been using her child-free time to feel more on top of things. “You cannot underestimate the benefit to your mood, mental health and mothering from ticking those things off and feeling successful and competent again.”
Allowing yourself a period of peace and rediscovery is ok.
But what do you do with yourself all day?
Having a tidy house makes me happy. Do I want to spend my whole day achieving that? No.
At the moment, I feel that in exchange for me doing the majority of the childcare and the housework, it’s ok to spend parts of my day doing things that make me happy. Writing this blog, crafting, meeting friends. As long as I can keep the house running smoothly, I don’t feel too guilty.
I know deep down, though, that I can’t play the homemaker forever. I was brought up by a working mother, and all around me are examples of fabulous women who are achieving more. And I’d like to do more – earn money, have stuff to talk about, spend time with new people.
So what are your options?
Going out to work is the obvious choice. It’s not simple though, especially for those who have chosen – until now – to stay at home with their children.
My mother-in-law Ruth explains how those complications quickly became obvious when she was in this position 30 years ago:
“Just as a woman begins to feel as if the world might start to open up, it dawns on her that very few jobs fit well with the school day, school holidays, and children being ill. Unless she starts using a child-minder, these three factors make full-time work pretty well impossible.”
If your children have only ever known you as a SAHM, rushing out to get a job feels a bit like pulling the rug out from under their feet. My children are occupied by school between 9am and 3.15pm, but the time that they’re with me is still pretty intense. For my eldest, there’s the ever-increasing homework. My youngest son’s expectations are more simple – warmth and familiarity at a time when everything else is changing for him. Stepping away from their needs is difficult.
Otherwise known as the Holy Grail.
Finding a job that can fit in with school hours is a perfect choice for many mothers. It might not be the role you want to do forever, but it’s a great way to ease back into work and rediscover yourself.
Most mothers I know juggle a part-time job with looking after their children. Sometimes this is a long-standing career like nursing, and sometimes it’s a job in a shop or an office. Unless you work in a school, the holidays are always going to be tricky. But people manage. It takes some rock solid planning, and sometimes a childminder or family support, but it is possible.
It’s certainly a lot easier if your employer is flexible. “I’m lucky that I work for a company where I can vary my day-to-day hours,” says Rebecca, a mother of two with a demanding job. “They go to breakfast club at school every day, and when I work full days they go to after school club. Working flexibly means I can pick the kids up three days a week.
“The culture of the company that you work for – and the attitude of your manager – is very important if you’re a working parent. Parenthood is full of guilt, and you don’t want the added stress of raised eyebrows when you have to dash home because your child has been sick all over the carpet at school.”
Meanwhile, Katie’s story is a good example of how life becomes a bit less complex if you can find paid work that you can do from home.
“I love running my own sewing business,” she says. “I make curtains, cushions and blinds. I can work from home and fit my hours in around the children, so it’s certainly the best option for them time-wise.”
Whatever you do, there’ll be an occasional spanner in the works – a poorly child or clashing schedules – but that’s life, isn’t it?
You can’t put off something you want to do just because it might be tricky sometimes.
Pursuing a new career
Having children young gave me a chance to postpone career decisions. I always thought that by the time I was in my thirties I’d know what I wanted to do when I grew up. Predictably, I still don’t know what career path I’d like to take, but I’m incredibly lucky to be a position of choice.
Re-training to do something practical like teaching or nursing is clearly a great option. You could choose to start from scratch or if you already have a degree, add on some practical vocational training – like a PGCE or a law conversion course. But it has to be said that trotting off to do this is not as easy as it sounds: there are childcare costs to consider, not to mention the fees. And then there’s the confidence issues.
Back to Ruth. Her story is an interesting case study:
“For me, with A-levels, but no vocational qualifications, the possibilities basically came down to part-time cleaning, bar-work in the evenings when my husband could take charge, jobs in schools, and self-employment. By the time my son went to school, my confidence and self-esteem were pretty well zero, and I really didn’t know who, or what, I was, so it took me a long time to get going.
“To begin with, I did cleaning, gave casual violin and recorder lessons, and worked in a pub. I did musical games at children’s parties, and also tried working in the kitchens of a factory and a school.
“A lucky break eventually led to a job in a band. The deeply unsocial hours were difficult, but we managed, and I gained some confidence from travelling, and from playing on stage. By the time I was 37 I could see that my career as a musician wouldn’t last forever, so after a lot of thought I began training part time to become a counsellor. During my training, which lasted seven years, I did a lot of voluntary work as a counsellor and supervisor, and an MA in counselling finally enabled me to secure paid NHS work that fitted around the rest of my life.”
There are so many success stories about women who have returned to education after having children. It’s not going to be easy path though, and I know that if I go down this road I have to do some serious research.
Don’t define your value solely in terms of the money you (don’t) earn
Don’t be ashamed to stay at home if you can – as long as it brings you happiness. It doesn’t make you a failure. Looking after your home and your children’s needs are enough to keep anyone occupied, and you’re worth more to your family than any salary.
But are you using your children as an excuse to avoid challenges? In reality, children are very adaptable. I suspect it’s usually much harder for the grown ups.
And if you do want change, remind yourself that it’s ok to feel scared about stepping out of the cosy bubble of family life.
I need to follow my own advice here and start making sense of my future. For now, that’s going to mean carrying on with my blog – and finding some voluntary work. I’m going to see where that takes me in the short term and stop beating myself up about the long term.
What’s right for me might not be right for anyone else. We’re individuals. But for every one of us, the important thing is to be self-aware – to recognise that we have choices – and to make positive decisions that are driven not by the fear of the unknown, but by our hearts.