Working mum or stay-at-home parent? Four women explain how they made a life-changing decision

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Harriet Hall
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For a long time, women have struggled with the decision of whether or not to return to work after having children. There has always been a stigma surrounding the image of the mother who’s too focused on work to make her child’s fancy dress outfit, or be present at big events (think Miranda in SATC).

Pangs of guilt surround leaving children to be reared by a nanny, or not being around for every baby milestone - whilst men have traditionally returned to work without second thought, or the same social obstacles. Although this outlook has certainly faded in recent years, with the introduction of new paternity laws and an increased awareness of the importance of gender equality, it has been existent for generations and remains ingrained in the minds of many mothers.

It is women who have to make the monumental decision whether to further their career or look after their children, rarely men.

A study conducted by Harvard Business School has revealed that, in fact, daughters of working mothers go on to reap more success in their careers, receive higher pay and have more balanced relationships than those whose mothers stayed home to bring them up.

The study, that investigated “how inequalities in public and the private spheres are affected by childhood exposure to non-traditional gender role models at home,” examined data collected from the International Social Survey Programme in 2002 and 2012 from men and women from 24 countries in North and South America, Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East – as well as the UK.

According to the results, daughters benefit most from a working mother - using her as a positive role model. On average, daughters of working mothers were paid around 4% more than those raised by stay-at-home-mums, and were more likely to have been promoted to managerial positions.

The study also showed that 33% of daughters of working mothers held supervisory roles, compared to only 25% whose mothers had stayed at home.

Kathleen McGinn, lead author of the study was surprised to see that the results also affected the role women took at work: “We did expect that it would affect employment but we didn’t expect that it would affect supervisory responsibility” she told Quartz.

“What I take away is that employed mothers create an environment in which their children’s attitudes on what is appropriate for girls to do and what is appropriate for boys to do is affected,” McGinn said.

It seems that working mothers present gender attitudes that teach girls a set of skills they then translate to the workplace and into leadership roles.

The differences were particularly noticeable in the UK and America, where it is believed social attitudes toward working mothers had remained relatively unchanged since 2002, rather than in countries such as Sweden where equal parenting roles are now widely encouraged and adopted.

The study also showed that sons with working mothers were more likely to have a positive attitude towards women in the workplace, play a greater role in parenting and help out more with the housework.

It said: “Sons raised by an employed mother spend more time caring for family members than men whose mothers stayed home full time, and daughters raised by an employed mother spend less time on housework than women whose mothers stayed home full time.”

The researchers were keen to state that whether or not a parent works full-time or part-time, this should be their own choice and concluded:

“Whether moms or dads stay at home or are employed, part-time or full-time, children benefit from exposure to role models offering a wide set of alternatives for leading rich and rewarding lives.”

Being a working mother or a stay-at-home mother both have their own advantages. We spoke to four women on the choices they made - here’s what they had to say:

The working mum

“I am that mother at sports day with one eye on the race and the other on my emails”

Libby Coates, 26, from South London, is mum to five-year-old Harriet. She works full-time in counter fraud.

My daughter, Harriet, is five years old and in reception. I work in counter fraud full-time and my partner works in business development. It’s important to me to have a career and something that I am passionate about outside my home life. I want to instil in my daughter that women can have a successful career and be good mothers. I was brought up by a strong single mother, so I never doubted a woman’s ability to be able to juggle work and children. Having said that, it is a constant compromise and it was only after having my own daughter that I realised how difficult it can be – I am that mother at sports day with one eye on the race and the other on my emails! My job is fascinating and I’m lucky because my boss, also a mother, is incredibly accepting and understanding of the ‘struggle to juggle’, so she gives me flexible hours when I need them. My mum also does two pick-ups every week. I don’t think the idea of working mother’s guilt is something society creates, I believe it’s ingrained in all mothers who strive to be a good parent and handle whatever else life throws at you.

The part-timer

“I overheard my son showing off to his friends about my job – it made me feel really proud.”

Martha Buckley-Flynn, 40, from Bath, is mum to two sons, and works part-time as a TV news producer.

I never considered not going back to work after either of my sons (aged eight and six) were born. I value my career and independence and my job is part of my identity. I was also the main breadwinner so, financially, it made sense. I think it's important that I am a role-model for my children - in terms of working hard and being ambitious in life. But it is always a struggle working and trying to organise childcare. I am also now a single parent, which can be quite exhausting and I work shifts, which makes things difficult. I have felt guilty at times but this is very rare - either during the one or two occasions my home life has encroached on work, or when I’m not home for the kids. I began working part-time when my younger son was about three years old. He stared begging me not to work every time he saw me pick up my handbag! On the other hand, I have overheard him asking his friends “What does your Mummy do?” instead of the traditional “What does your Daddy do?” and then showing off to his friends about my job – so this makes me feel really proud.

The works-from-home mum

“I was glad I could be there to provide her with the emotional support she needed.”

Siobhan Orr, 29, from Somerset, is mum to two-year-old Sophia and 10-month-old Arthur. She’s a stay-at-home-mum who has recently launched a childcare business which she runs from home.

When I had my daughter, Sophia, I felt it was important for me to be at home for her and be available whenever she needed me. After my second child was born I felt even more strongly about staying at home, and when Sophia begun nursery I was glad I could be there to provide her with the emotional support she needed. My partner is a commercial manager in construction and earns considerably more than I ever did. He also loves his job, so we decided he should keep working. I did feel, though, that I wanted to show my children the importance of both parents working, so I decided to set up my own childminding business which I run from home. It means I can work and also be around for both children – it’s working perfectly.

The stay-at-home mum

“I have complete control over how I want my child to be raised.”

Joanna Snellin, 26, from Surrey, is mother to two-year-old Fred and expecting her second son in September. Joanna gave up work to take care of Fred, full-time.  

I worked in production until I had my baby. It was my first proper job, so it’s difficult to say if I would have stayed there if I hadn’t had a child. When I got pregnant it was my only option to stop working - I lived far from the office and it wouldn’t have been financially logical as I’d have earned less than the cost of childcare. Also, my husband earned more than me - so that was a deciding factor. As a director, he is often required to work abroad or in different cities. Even when he is in London, his hours are hugely unpredictable so I was the only person in my son's life that could be fully relied upon to be there all the time for him…for free! Although it was initially a practical decision, I now wouldn’t have it any other way because I feel I have complete control over how I want my child to be raised. I don’t hear the word guilt among my working friends who are mothers, but I do get the impression they miss their children whilst at work. I think that’s how I would feel. I don’t want to be a stay-at-home-mum forever. Eventually, I’d like to get involved with my husband’s production company - but for now, it’s perfect and completely fulfilling.

Images: Rex Features

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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.