“Stay at home, Mum”: Nadine’s Story – on opting out of a career path & valuing a mother’s presence

Work-Life Balance Profile #16: Nadine*

Introduction to Nadine’s Profile

Writing a blog about how differently individuals strike a balance between “work” and “life” has brought me into contact with many working mothers from across a broad spectrum of working patterns, some more flexible than others.

However, it is still very rare for me to come across any that have voluntarily given up their careers to stay at home with their children. According to Nadine, there’s a reason for that: women who have made that choice often feel peer pressured, for many reasons, to keep it to themselves.

This blog is all about celebrating, and learning from, the diversity and complexity of work-life balance choices. So I am delighted that Nadine chose to break her silence (albeit anonymously) by allowing me to interview her for her story.

The write-up of her interview draws on the chasm that exists between “stay-at-home” and “working” mothers. Through sharing her experiences, Nadine calls out some long-standing taboos; she touches on some sensitive issues, and I imagine that some will disagree with – and possibly even take offence at – some of what is written.

Nadine’s intention is by no means to offend or stoke divisions, but rather to share her perspective and express her view that women should be free to choose – without admonition – to opt-out of pursuing a career.

What’s more, she seeks to encourage the child’s perspective to be considered more in the debate around work-life balance. She advocates for children not to be the “after-thought” that she observes they often are; and for women – and society at large – to realise and acknowledge the value of a mother’s presence.

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

Work:Life Ratio

N/A

Order of Priorities:

(1) Family; (2) Self; (3) Work

What really matters

Nadine has a secret. She’s figured out how working mothers can find true balance and fulfilment in life. The problem is, she’s too afraid to tell anyone.

She’s afraid because doing so risks facing the wrath of a generation of people who, for decades, have espoused the feminist ideology that women have as much right and capability as their male counterparts to pursue a career of their choice; that a married women’s place is not solely in the home.

I’m touched that Nadine has chosen to break her silence by sharing her story on my blog (albeit anonymously), and I was moved by her honesty and openness in the telling of it. So, without further ado, I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing into three succinct points her solution to the challenge facing modern families all over the world: how can working mothers find true balance and fulfilment?

  1. Rein in their career ambitions and aspirations, and instead spend more time at home with their children and tending to the demands of running a home.
  2. Release themselves from over-burdensome career commitments, and instead spend any spare time they have on the things that relax them and bring them joy.
  3. Recognise that being present with their children is the most valuable use of their time.

As regular readers of my blog will recognise, this is a pretty unusual viewpoint. In fact, it’s the first of its kind in my ‘Work-Life Balance Profiles’ series. And this in itself is indicative of why Nadine is afraid of vocalising it publicly: she is aware that most of her peers would probably regard it as outdated and unpopular. Some may even find it offensive.

So she often bites her tongue when in the company of her contemporaries, especially the working mothers amongst them, for fear of the judgements and reprimands she knows will follow. It’s partly why she chose not to reveal her identity in this blog, as well as her trepidation about offending full-time working mums she knows. There aren’t any stay-at-home-mum (“SAHM”) role models to speak of in the public eye, she tells me. And I can’t think of any off the top of my head either.

It’s important to note that Nadine does draw a salary from the work she does for her husband, and maintaining some degree of financial independence is important to her. Whilst she isn’t a “SAHM” in the purest sense, Nadine purposefully opted out of pursuing a ‘career path’ and chose a job that she could do part-time. She therefore identifies more with “SAHM”s than with her career-driven contemporaries.

Notwithstanding the lack of role models, Nadine feels unwaveringly resolute in her choice to prioritise her desires for a family over those for a career. She is frustrated at being silenced by critics who infer that her work at home is inferior to that conducted by people in the workplace. Once she started talking, it was as though a stopper had been released, and her passion and anger at the peer pressure that causes her to publically supress her viewpoint flowed out:

“I often feel I’m alone in my opinions in this day and age, when so many of my peers are working full-time mothers. I just want to scream: “There’s nothing wrong with just being a mum! It’s the most important job in my life!*”

Though Nadine does not dispute women’s abilities or the basic rights that women be paid equally for doing the same jobs as men, she argues that once a woman becomes a mother, her role in life – and in society at large – changes. And it is women – and society’s – reluctance to accept the limitations this imposes that infuriates her. She continues:

If you choose to have kids, you should be encouraged by society to raise them, not abandon them to strangers who ultimately do not have their best interests at heart. A childminder is not paid to love your child.

I’m sickened by our greedy society; by the persistent notion that a woman can “have it all” – where does that leave the children? WHY ISN’T BEING A MUM ENOUGH*? I want to be the voice for the children: “What about me?”

*Nadine’s capitals

Nadine’s frustration is palpable and borne out of years of having people react to her life choices with disapproval. She’s lost count of the number of times well-meaning friends and family have suggested possible career paths that she could pursue, to which, she fumes:

I am a very driven person. If I wanted a career, I could have one. But I’ve chosen not to. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that I HAVE CHOSEN MY CHILDREN*.”

*Nadine’s capitals

Let it go

Nadine argues that the benefits of mothers being more wedded to their homes than to their careers go beyond just meeting children’s needs. She attributes the degree of burnout amongst women to be a result of the pressure on women to be firing at all cylinders; to unsustainably be all things to all people.

Where is a woman’s quality of life when she is working around the clock, de-prioritising her children’s needs, playing catch-up all the time, like ordering the weekly shop at midnight? They can’t actually be happy.

If you could bottle the sense of self-acceptance and peace of mind that Nadine describes at her contentment to devote her “work” skills to being a mother, there would be no shortage of demand for it. So many of the women I’ve interviewed for this blog have described the guilt they feel at being pulled in multiple directions at any one time. To this, Nadine argues:

Mums should listen to their inner guilt; they should feel guilty! I don’t mean to be harsh but I care more about the children than upsetting mothers by holding back from saying that. A child needs a parent and society seems to have left children behind.”

Nadine recognises that she is in a privileged position: her husband earns a high enough salary for her not to need to work. And as a family, they’ve decided that there is more value to Nadine ‘working for the family’ than going ‘out to work’ to earn a second income. Clearly this is not a straightforward or viable option for everyone. Many families aren’t so well-off and struggle to fund their lives on the income of one salary alone. And then, of course, there are those families where a wife has a higher earning potential than her husband.

Another privilege of Nadine’s position is that she reached the heights of her career ambition before having children. She feels satisfied with what she achieved in her 20s and does not harbour dreams of further professional advancement. Again, this is a standpoint that many women (some of whom have featured on this blog) would not identify with. 

Take Sarah, Sheara and Jhilmil, for example. These women’s stories all touched on the love they feel for their vocation, of how their identities are caught up in their professions, how continually driven they are by their ambitions at work, and how frustrated and disappointed they feel when their motherhood status works against them in the workplace.

Setting aside the privileges that underpin Nadine’s work:life split, her point here is about choice; about priorities – recognising that families do have choices in how they balance work and family demands, in how much time and energy they dedicate to their families vis-a-vis their work, to what extent they live within their means.

Moreover, Nadine advocates that the value of parental presence is hugely underappreciated. She references how flippant and disparaging society can be about the undertaking of everyday caring acts like making a home-cooked meal, being there to collect a child from school, supporting your child as they do their homework, a kiss goodnight at bed time.

So often these are cast as mundane chores that are shoe-horned around work pressures rather than embraced as a vital investment in a child’s future and wellbeing. Nadine says that she feels like the minority amongst her peers for prioritising those types of tasks instead of pursuing a career: those tasks are the core of her job as a mother. They are important and of value.

She describes her satisfaction at helping her son improve his grades at school, for example, as being immensely fulfilling. She recognises that most other school mums don’t seem to identify with her, and this baffles her:

I know that my son would not have achieved his improved grades if I had not dedicated myself to helping him. I don’t understand how women can’t see the value there.

For Nadine, being a mother is living the dream that she played out in childhood games of “mummies and daddies”. She finds it unfathomable that anyone would judge delivering results for ‘a boss’ more important than delivering results for your children and feels resentful that her standing as a woman in society is looked down upon, or considered less important, than someone one who has a successful career:You can justify it all you want but the truth is your responsibility is to be there for your child.

Women in our society, she argues, are encouraged – and in some cases pushed – to clutch at all the straws they can: the marriage, family, career, home, friendships, not to mention the material goods to match. To achieve a balance, Nadine argues, something has to give. And that shouldn’t be the attention or time that a parent gives their children.

The collateral damage of a work-obsessed society

As a child, Nadine was not one of those pushed to excel. Her parents, she says, were realistic about her academic abilities and noted early on that she was “just an average student”. They did not intervene to provide additional support to what was offered at school and did not pressurise her to attain any more than she seemed capable of. Nadine remembers how her mother, a speech and language therapist, would tutor children at their family home; yet she did not apply the same attention to her own child’s additional needs for support with school work.

The expectations for Nadine to be high-achieving were low from the outset, and by the time she applied for university, the label had firmly stuck. Nadine described how “amused” the family was by the Tourism degree she undertook at university; much as they encouraged her to do it, they laughed about it, she said, as everyone recognised that Nadine’s university attendance was more for the social experience than the academic one. Nadine didn’t take offence at that – she saw it for what it was as well.

It’s impossible to know to what extent Nadine’s poor education came about as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but in her mind, there is so much more her parents could have done to encourage and support her: “My parents didn’t do anywhere near as much as I do with my children.

That said, Nadine argues that not all people can be academically excellent, and she accepts her own limitations, as well as her children’s: “I just want them to fulfil their potential”, she says:

All brains are different – how you retain information differs for everyone. You have to do the best with what you’ve got. Not everyone can be a rocket scientist.

Nevertheless, she still harbours some resentment about how her lack of academic promise led her parents to overlook her educational needs, particularly in maths. “It shouldn’t have mattered that I wasn’t academic”, she argues. “Every child should have a good enough foundation to cope with daily life”. This is something that Nadine feels she lacked:

“As a PA, I managed to get by without having basic maths skills, but it has always felt like a blind spot and something I need to hide. It’s embarrassing, as well as limiting. Parents should be bothered to look out for these things for their kids.”

To this day, Nadine feels frustrated by her meagre mathematical aptitude and will often hide when she does not understand something. This has made her resolute to support her children with their maths, which explains why she goes to such great lengths to learn the material they bring home from school: so that she can understand it to help them, and avoid them suffering the way that she has.

Beyond school, her parents, who were both career-driven, did not set expectations for Nadine to follow suit. Nadine describes her dad as a being a “workaholic” while she was growing up, often working long hours away from home. “He is far more hands-on with my kids than he ever was with me. I find that difficult”.

Her mother, meanwhile, was ever-present, much as she was dedicated to her career. Nadine describes her as her “role model”: “she collected me from school and was always there to speak to, give me advice, and kiss me goodnight”.

The influence of parents in work/life choices has been covered before on this blog, and whilst each scenario is different, there is evidently a strong correlation between the two, as demonstrated in Nadine’s story.

Everyone’s experience, however, is so individual. When I interviewed Jhilmil for my podcast, for example, she shared her account of growing up with a mother who worked full-time and a father committed to his career, albeit the main care provider as well. It was fascinating to hear her take on it, both from her childhood perspective, and that of the grown woman she is now, a mother herself. She was not disturbed by her parents’ preoccupation with their careers, and went on to become a self-professed “workaholic” herself. So, quite the opposite of Nadine’s experience.

However much Nadine’s choices are a result of her upbringing, the fact remains that she is remarkably at peace with her work/life choices and not in doubt of her value as a stay-at-home-mother. She is committed to the work that she does to manage her husband’s business, but it is clearly not the aspect of her life that she values the most.

Nadine is clear about what her purpose is in life and, by not pursuing a career or a job outside of the home, she is available to deliver on that; any spare time she has, she spends taking care of her own well-being, and indulging in the hobbies that she enjoys. Her attitude to doing this stands in stark contrast to the only other “SAHM” I’ve interviewed for this blog, Marsha, who said that she “feels guilty when she indulges in any recreational pursuits that don’t directly contribute to the family’s well-being.

Nadine’s husband, who she describes as a “traditionalist” is supportive of this set-up as well. He is content to take responsibility for providing for the family while his wife fulfils the role of home-keeper, as long as she is happy doing so. And Nadine says she wouldn’t want it any other way.

Nadine feels that children’s perspective should be considered more in the debate around work-life balance. She argues that as long as “SAHM”s are frowned upon as “second-class women”, children will continue to be the after-thought in the whole discussion.

Ironically, the judgements that Nadine feels are cast on her for being “old-fashioned” and “un-feminist”, are reminiscent of the experiences of a full-time working mother that has featured on this blog, Sheara. For almost opposite reasons to Nadine, Sheara cited criticisms from others about her family’s work/life choices, which she found similarly hurtful and infuriating.

Despite her self-assurance, throughout our conversation, Nadine cushioned what she said with a degree of apology: “As mums we all try to do the best we can based on our own childhoods and I should try and be a little less judgemental“.

She does not feel that this grace has been afforded to her, but she hopes that voicing her position will shed some light on the “SAHM” lifestyle as a choice and provide some validation for it. Perhaps if women are encouraged to voice their position, more “SAHM” role models will emerge, promoting a greater understanding of its place on the spectrum of work-life balance possibilities.

Nadine is realistic about the balance that many working mothers establish through part-time working, and the distinction between that choice and the choice to work full-time with young children. For her, the maternal instinct overrides any work interests, and she recognises that this is not the case for all women.

Working at it: the chasm between ‘stay-at-home’ and ‘working’ mothers

Working mothers reading Nadine’s story may well argue that having a career is not mutually exclusive to being a dedicated parent, and challenge her about what her purpose will be once her children are older and no longer in need of her attention to such a degree. This doesn’t seem to worry Nadine, by the way, who says she isn’t one to sit idle: “I always have a big project on my ‘to-do list’”. If anything, she expects that once her children are older, she will have more time for her “hobbies, friendships and socialising”, and even holds a little excitement for the possibility of grandmother-hood in the future.

There is certainly enough in this article to strike a debate on many fronts. Nevertheless, it seems indisputable that career-driven mothers (and fathers) of all working patterns have some wisdom to glean from their “SAHM” peers: they provide validation for the importance of being a present parent (as well as an accomplished professional, if you so choose); they provide a reminder to appreciate the value of the mundane acts of parenthood; and the potential detrimental impact on children who can unwittingly become collateral damage if the ‘fine balance’ is skewed too heavily in favour of “work” over “life”.

I’ll close by drawing attention to the prioritisation that this article opens with: “self” before “work”. Here Nadine’s message serves to validate adults’ choices to commit time to the things they enjoy and that improve their wellbeing. Don’t let those things become the collateral damage of trying to juggle the impossible either, she argues: “You only get one life – it’s not all about work and children. You have to enjoy yourself too”.

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