The mainstream discussion about stay-at-home mothers is framed as a choice between a woman devoting herself to her children on the one hand and pursuing material gain and status through a career on the other. It’s a false binary that obscures the reality of the lives of many women.
There are so many assumptions bound up in this narrative. The first one is that the woman has a choice.
The narrative goes something like this: educated professional woman elects not to return to work but to take on the role of caring for children and running a household full time. She has been able to arrange her life how she wants it. The infrastructure is in place. She has support. She has agency. She’s been able to negotiate the arrangement with her partner.
She derives enormous satisfaction from her role and confidently defends her choice against people she perceives don’t value it.
She’s secure in her knowledge that she can return to work should she choose. She finished her education and had time to establish a career before making the decision to start a family. Despite a break from the workforce, she will still have marketable skills. She might also have options for working part-time or from home.
It’s a comfortable position far removed from that of the mothers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s who for the most part did not have a choice but followed a predetermined path and made the best of it. The fact that their children brought them joy does not take away from the fact that their opportunities were significantly curtailed.
For women of today who choose to be stay-at-home mothers, there’s almost a fetishization of the housewife chic of the era: the baking, the apron, the craft sessions. It’s easy to take on the stylistic trappings when you’re not actually burdened by the structural constraints of traditional gender roles.
The mothers of yesteryear couldn’t choose to go back to work after having children because they were legally obliged to resign from their jobs when they got married. They may not have finished high school because what would have been the point when so few occupations were open to them. Once married, they couldn’t buy a car or obtain a bank loan without their husband’s consent.
Their children may have been their one glimmer of joy in an otherwise bleak existence. A husband habitually returning home after spending the housekeeping money at the pub only fly into a rage when the meal waiting for him was not to his liking.
Yet we continue to idealize this era as a golden age of family togetherness and motherly contentment. We hold up the simplicity of the times as a virtue rather than acknowledging how limiting it was. Nostalgia will do that. It’s very selective.
Women now have a choice, especially if they’re white, middle-class, healthy and able-bodied. But there are still some women who aren’t able to freely exercise this choice. Because being able to do so assumes so much.
It depends on having a supportive partner and an equal relationship
The stay-at-home mother dream is based on a joint enterprise between two adults pooling their resources for the wellbeing of the family unit. It relies on give and take: each make financial and non-financial contributions, perhaps in different proportions; perhaps shifting at different times throughout the life of the family. There’s a partnership, sharing a life in pursuit of a common goal.
When the enterprise is set up in a way that involves one person providing all the financial contributions and the other providing the homemaker or caregiving contributions, the stakes are higher and certain things need to be in place to make it work.
Firstly, you need a partner who has a stable and reliable income that is adequate for supporting a family, possibly in an expensive urban area. They must be willing to share their financial resources and not spend their wage servicing an addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling or at the other extreme, squirreling it away in a secret account. They need to provide you with access to the family funds, not ration, control or monitor what you’re spending. You need a partner who will be open with you about family finances and involve you in the decision-making process. Then that partner needs to support your decision to earn an income when you decide the time is right for you to do that.
You need a partner who supports you in having the kind of lifestyle you want to have as a stay-at-home mother. This means someone who isn’t threatened by you having interaction with people outside the home and doesn’t dictate where you go and how long you spend there. You need a partner who can trust you to carry out your parenting role as you see fit and respects rather than undermines or devalues it.
Among the stay-at-home mothers gathering around the park cafe on a sunny afternoon, there is probably one who is growing increasingly anxious from the text messages from her partner checking up on her and the need to get the house in shape before he returns home. She may have had a late start to the morning because his tirade of verbal abuse before bed robbed her of her sleep as she worried about what the children had heard.
Staying at home doesn’t always make you the best mother you can be
And there’s another false binary: between the devoted, caring and nurturing stay-at-home mother and the self-absorbed emotionally distant career mother. Trust me, having a mother at home twenty-four-seven is no guarantee of parenting ability. My mother stayed at home when my brothers and I were young. She cooked and cleaned and we stayed out of her way. Despite her constant physical presence, she was emotionally unavailable.
Some women are loving mothers stripped of the resources available for parenting because they are living with domestic violence. Operating constantly in survival mode to manage a violent partner doesn’t leave much room for play dough and building forts, let alone the emotional labor involved in raising children. Living with a violent partner steadily erodes parenting capacity and impacts on mental health. This is even more the case when her partner seeks to undermine her role as parent.
Financial dependence in a relationship is a high-risk proposition
Women are more likely to stay in abusive relationships if they are financially dependent on their partner. The financial cost of finding alternative accommodation for herself and the children can be prohibitive. There may be nowhere to go if the violent partner has isolated her from her support network. Leaving may be downright dangerous: separation is known to escalate the risk of violence. The stay-at-home part of being a stay-at-home mother is a prison from which she has no ready means of escape.
If she does manage to leave, she has to pay set up costs and rent which usually means dipping into savings or superannuation or borrowing from extended family. She may also be saddled with debts from the relationship because her partner has persuaded her to put them in her name due to his poor credit rating.
In a heartbeat, she goes from having a relatively comfortable standard of living to being on the edge of poverty. Her partner is able to continue working and may or may not pay child support. The extent to which her education and workforce participation was disrupted makes it difficult to re-enter the workforce. Her choice of job is further constrained by childcare responsibilities.
For these women leaving abusive relationships, obtaining employment is a lifeline to setting up a secure future for their children. It also provides access to a social support network that a woman who has been isolated by her partner desperately lacks. It gives her a chance at rebuilding a sense of self that has been relentlessly beaten down by emotional and psychological abuse.
Getting a fair property settlement is an exhausting battle
On separation, the consequences for a woman who has been financially dependent on her partner are stark. She can pursue a division of the family property but this is by no means assured.
When financial abuse has been part of the landscape of domestic violence, her ability to obtain financial support from her partner is probably limited. It’s difficult to build a case when she can’t access financial documents such as bank statements and valuations. There may be accounts she doesn’t know exist.
He’s probably going to play hardball and minimize her entitlement to the assets of the relationship despite her making an equal contribution in terms of her homemaking and childcare role. He may or may not get legal advice. He may not heed it if he does.
She needs to engage a lawyer and the longer it takes to reach agreement, the more the fees escalate. If they have to go to court, the costs are astronomical. For women who have depleted their financial resources just by leaving, this may well be beyond them. If they go to court, her ex-partner is able to harness the adversarial power of the court to further the abuse. The barriers to women pursuing their family law property entitlements are considerable.
The only other option is to accept a sub-optimum settlement that her ex partner agrees with. It may or may not be enough to provide financial security for her and the children. It may not even be safe to negotiate with him if he doesn’t have a lawyer.
Fathers are less equipped to care for children after separation
The gender-binaried division of labor not only deprives women from workplace participation and financial security but means that men are less involved in caring for children. They might do some of the fun stuff but the serious caregiving is left to the mother. She takes the kids to the medical appointments and goes to the school events. She organizes the play dates and the school projects. She’s left to make all the decisions about the children because he dismissed it as women’s work.
On separation, the father demands to spend time with the children because it is his “right,” perhaps leveraging it against the property settlement. But his lack of involvement in the children’s lives means that he has limited understanding of their needs and is ill-equipped to meet them. The mother tries to communicate this information to him and he accuses her of being controlling.
How do I know all this? I’m a family lawyer and mediator. I manage a property mediation program in the government sector as well as mediating parenting matters and I see this scenario being played out day after day. It has highlighted the importance of women maintaining financial independence in their relationships.
Prioritizing your children doesn’t preclude maintaining financial independence, it demands it. If women with children don’t take care of their financial security, it’s their children who suffer when the dream falls apart.
Financial independence is one of the most important lessons we can give girls. Supporting their female partners by taking on an equal share of the caring and household responsibilities is an equally important lesson for boys.