Ten years ago the Treasurer of Australia Peter Costello urged women to have unprotected sex for the good of the nation. With a sly grin (but thankfully no wink) he told us to have ‘one for mum, one for dad and one for the country’. Realising this was not enough to get us in the mood, he also gave a big baby bonus out as a lump sum – I hazily recall being asked to fill out a form for the cash while still sore and stunned after giving birth. He and his boss, Prime Minister John Howard, also introduced a family tax benefit for households with one income earner and another on home duties.
This social engineering was designed to produce more little taxpayers to support the ageing population and to help and reward women who stay at home with their kids.
Historically, the stay at home mother (SAHM) is a relatively recent phenomenon. She appeared in the 1930s during the rise of the middle class and the fall of hired help. By the 1950s she was the epitome of womanhood and a status symbol that showed a family was well off enough to be able to afford to have a woman at home. But by the seventies she was questioning her role and dreaming of self-actualisation while burning her bra. Come the mid nineties she was a declining species.
The question was could political social engineering halt her possible near extinction?
A decade ago I was a sleep deprived crazed harridan who doubted it very much. I even remember telling a grinning Peter Costello on my television that if he didn’t stop telling me to have another baby I’d leave the one that was screaming all day long on his doorstep.
But while I was immune to his charms and bribes, many were not. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a mini baby boom and 12000 extra babies were born, fed, burped, cuddled and adored. Now those babies are squeezing into crowded school halls, creeping up long waiting lists for afterschool care and costing us more than the baby bonus in Pokémon cards and loom bands.
Now the time of encouraging and supporting the stay at home mother is officially over. The man who once described himself as the political love child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard has given up on the SAHMs of Australia. Tony Abbott’s government budget has drastically reduced the Family Tax Benefit B for single income households and cut it out all together when the youngest chid hits 6. Labor put the baby bonus into a paid parental leave scheme and Mr Abbott’s scheme increasingly favours high paid working gals. This means approximately 600, 000 women will be encouraged to get a hair cut and get a job. The message is clear. Thanks for the babies’ ladies, now go and do some real work!
While this is about cost cutting and ending an age of entitlement created by a previous Coalition government it does show a revealing shift in attitude from a conservative party. It’s recognition that women were already heading back to work anyway. Australia’s insane house prices, the need for two incomes for a rising cost of living, an understanding that it’s wise not to stay out of the workforce too long and a shift in expectations, interests, ambitions and attitudes were also contributing to women’s desire to work.
So is this the end of the stay home mother? And if it is should we mourn or celebrate her dwindling tribe?
The last Australian Bureau of Statistic figures showed 63% of families have two parents working. While more than three quarters of women are working by the time their kids are 15, half of mothers stay at home until their kid settles in at Kindi. While there are 40 000 fathers taking on the role of full time carer, women outnumber then ten fold.
From the sexualisation of the ‘yummy mummies’, to the put downs of ‘what on earth do you do all day?’ the SAHM report feeling attacked, pitied and their very existence questioned. I spent chunks of time not working when my kids were babies and I know the secret shame of having to justify your existence and avoid the ‘what to you do’ at parties. I even had one friend whose own mother told her ‘I didn’t put you through university so you could spend all this time with your kids’.
But the SAHM is working. At home. And while we may not mourn her extinction, we will miss her. Because most of these women are not living a life of luxury in tennis dresses and reading blogs all day (but hi and thank you if you are). They are running the canteen, volunteering on the P and C, taking other women’s kids to sport, going on the excursions, baking cakes for stalls, looking after their parents and their parents in law and volunteering at the local Vinnies. They are studying and they are supporting their children, their partner and their community.
As Hilary Clinton said ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Some don’t work because their kids have special needs, or because they simply can’t earn enough to pay for childcare, transport and costs. Some feel the financial hit is worth less than the emotional cost of being parted from their divine darlings. Whatever the reason they shouldn’t have to justify their decision. We should respect the work these women do at home and for the community.
The fight for equality in the workplace shouldn’t overshadow the right to ‘choose mother work’ when kids are young, or indeed, father work. We should understand the early years are precious and tough and that most women will do their civic duty and go back to work at some stage. Thought should be given to helping them retrain, or re-educate (unfortunately deregulation of universities will make it too expensive for many mothers).
Peter Costello’s mothers are mostly back at work. They are now forming a majority that has become a norm for the naughties as the SAHM was in the 1950s. The part-time worker. Only a quarter of mothers work full time.
But there’s also part of another rising population. There’s a new type of stay at home mother and part time worker. She is studying or working from home while running her own business; she is entrepreneurial, self-employed and independent. She is not having it all, but she’s trying to do it all in a different way. While writing this article from home there was an incident near my kids’ school. Children were told to stay in their classroom and they had to be picked up and signed out. It was a day I was glad to be one of this rising army.
Perhaps the SAHM is not becoming extinct. Perhaps she’s just evolving to suit her environment, with the times and towards the future.