Andrea Mara

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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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