Kitty Holland: Flak at the school gate from stay-at-home mums | Broadside

My friend is going back to college. How depressing it is that the supportive actors in her scenario have been the men

A friend has just started a master’s degree in a Dublin university. Having left her job with an IT company nine years ago, after the birth of her third child, she is now almost giddy with excitement to be out of the house and among books, students and lecturers. She is savouring opportunities to come in to the city centre to meet up with friends she has seen little of in recent years and she is talking about future internships and possible career paths.

She has arranged for her youngest daughter, now eight, to go to after-school care. Her husband has rearranged his work schedule to do several school pick-ups per week, and the principal of her daughter’s school says he’ll keep an eye on her “during the transition” to a longer day.

Over a coffee between lectures last week, however, she described the dispiriting reaction of some other mothers in her area.

“I have got such flak,” she said. Most of these mothers, in a Dublin suburb, are educated to third level. All are full-time, stay-at-home mothers.


They commented, she says, not on how her daily life was about to change, but on the news that her daughter’s day out of home would be extended by two hours.

“God love her,” said one. “Oh my gosh, do you want her to come to our house after school? At least she’d be in a home,” said another.

“Why would you do this to yourself, at this stage in your life?” asked another. My friend is 40.

Some offered the sympathetic comment that they were “lucky” they didn’t “have to go back to education or work”.

Stung by the comments from some of her sisters on the school run, she says she began to doubt her decision to step back into the public realm.

“But I know I need to do this,” she said. “I need to know I am not going to sit at home arranging play dates for my prepubescent daughter until she doesn’t need me any more. I want conversation that doesn’t revolve endlessly around children. Why shouldn’t I do this?

“It isn’t just for me. I want my daughter to see there’s more to me than just ‘mother’,” she said.

Just mother. The comment is replete with judgment, as are the comments she has received about her decision to embrace being more than “just mother”.

But how depressing it is that the supportive actors in her scenario have been the men – her husband and her daughter’s principal – while women have been the chastising cheerleaders, promulgating the notion that she should not engage in such self-actualisation “to the neglect of her duties in the home”.

She is not, she said, "an extended vessel" whose raison d'être is the actualisation of her children .

My friend is lucky

My friend knows she is, like her suburban sisters, lucky. She is in a position to choose to go back to education. She can afford the extra childcare costs and the cost of the course.

For too many mothers, decisions about working and training are less choice than necessity.

We know thousands are forced out of employment in the absence of State-subsidised childcare. Others are forced to stay in work to retain even a meagre income over and above childcare costs.

What we also know, from 2013 CSO data published last year, is that the decision about whether or not to remain in work after children arrive almost always falls on mothers’ shoulders.

When there are no children, the employment rates of men and women in couples are almost identical: 86.2 per cent for men and 85.6 per cent for women. When their youngest child is between zero and three years, however, employment rates are 81.9 per cent for men, but fall to 59.5 per cent for women.

When their youngest is aged four to five, the rates are 76.2 per cent for men and lower again for women, at 51.7 per cent.

More women, whether by choice or compulsion, are back at work when the youngest is aged six or older, with male participation rates at 80.2 per cent and women’s at 59.3 per cent.

We also know the implications for women of these disparities: a 37 per cent gender pay gap in 2012, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality; lower pension contributions and greater poverty among older women, according the Department of Social Protection; and that 63 per cent of lone parents, the vast majority of them women, experienced material deprivation in 2014, according to the CSO.

Budget 2016 is published tomorrow. As the Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, rises to speak, organisations such as the National Women's Council of Ireland and Start Strong will be hoping for a strong package of supports for parents and children, including steps towards affordable, quality childcare and the introduction of paid paternity and parental leave.

If we see this, perhaps then we will begin to see less of the decision- making burden and guilt around childcare falling to women.

Mothers, generally speaking, do their utmost for their children, often with little support. Some will decide the best is achieved by staying with them, full-time, at home. Some will decide they are better mothers for going to college or work.

None, however, is served by the misogyny that says her needs are less important than her children’s. And when that misogyny comes from other women, the only beneficiary is the patriarchy that would keep us all at home.