“Does your wife work?” my husband is asked. “Yes” he replies.
“What does she do?”
“She looks after our two small children.”
Polly Dunning with baby Alfred.Credit:Martine Payne
“Oh. But she doesn’t have a job?” persists his inquirer. “That is a job,” he comes back. And yeah, it is.
In fact, for far too many stay-at-home-mothers, it is more than one job. According to a survey of 2000 American mothers in 2018, mums are working an average of 98 hours a week. That’s the equivalent of 2.5 full time jobs. Another survey last year put the dollar value of a stay-at-home-mum at US $162 581 (approximately AUD $225 000) a year.
And while it strokes our ego to tell us how valuable, acknowledged, and appreciated we are, it’s also a neat little way of keeping mums working harder than we should for little tangible benefit. And it is a terrible example for our children; acknowledgement and appreciation (but mind you, no status), are not adequate compensation for doing far more than your fair share.
What we expect of stay-at-home-mums (and it is largely mums – stay at home dads make up about 14% of stay-at-home-parents) is often ridiculous and, in fact, exploitative. Many seem to believe that the role includes both childcare AND the full running of the household and housework.
I am a stay at home mother, not a stay at home mother/housekeeper/cleaner/cook/personal assistant. My role is to provide childcare during business hours. That’s it. And that is enough. That is a full-time job. Just ask a nanny.
But take a look on any online parenting forum and you’ll see great debates about whether it is okay to have a cleaner when you’re a stay at home mum (of course, if you can afford it. In fact, I find it necessary!), or whether SAHMs should be making their husband’s lunches and organising and preparing all meals (No. You’re not a personal chef, nor are you your husband’s mother). Of course, if these are the chores you choose to do as part of the split of household responsibilities, fine, but it is not part of your role as a stay-home-parent.
To put it simply: if you would have to hire more than one person to replace you, you’re working too hard.
And you would seriously struggle to hire one single person who would look after your children, clean your house, do your laundry, run all your errands, and plan, shop for and cook all your meals. And then get up to the baby umpteen times in the middle of the night.
Millie Zinner, co-founder of flexible childcare app Motherhood, with over 20 years experience in the industry, is clear about the role of someone charged with looking after children:
“Most nannies are expected to care for the kids, entertain them, feed them, keep them safe, and fit in with the family’s routine and schedule … nannies should not be expected to do the groceries, cook the meals and do the family’s washing … it’s not the typical role of the nanny”. She accepts that some may perform these duties, but says they should be “paid very well”, would be working more than full time hours, and they should be given weekends off.
Expecting a stay at home parent, whose full-time role is childcare, to also run the entire household, is a clear indication that we simply don’t recognise the work that childcare takes. It views traditionally feminised work as not really work at all. And it is a large part of why childcare professionals are so notoriously low paid.
As Dr Inga Lass, co-author of the 2018 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia report, identifies, “a first child establishes a more traditional arrangement.”
“Many women then focus on full-time caring while men maintain employment and help out when they’re at home. In the year after the birth of a child, women’s employment share drops to an average of 14 per cent of total couple employment time, but they do 72 per cent of care and 64 per cent of the housework.”
And this uneven split lasts well after children are no longer babies, with women still doing 63% of the housework ten years after the birth of their first child, even though they are also doing 66% of the childcare and 30% of the paid work.
Only when we view childcare as the full-time job of a stay-at-home-parent will we recognise the need to split all household chores evenly.
Doing most of the childcare, while one’s partner does most of the paid work makes sense for some families, but why are women bearing the burden of the housework too? Could it be because we just don’t value childcare as real work and so expect the parent charged with it to also do all the household chores?
Only when we view childcare as the full-time job of a stay-at-home-parent will we recognise the need to split all household chores evenly between parents. Only when we view all mums as working mums, whether providing childcare to their children, or in paid employment, will we stop demanding they pull a double shift and manage the household as well.
Only when we value traditional “women’s work” as equally as important and “real” as paid employment will women, both those in and out of the paid workforce, do their fair share. And nothing more.
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