In Defence of the Stay at Home Mum

Kerry Fender by Kerry Fender Additional Needs

Kerry Fender

Kerry Fender

Down’s Syndrome, my family and me – one mum’s account of family life with an extra chromosome.

Mention that you are a stay-at-home mother from Stoke-on-Trent and nobody will imagine anything good about you.

But add the information that you have a disabled child and you will be assumed into heaven, or at least promoted from ill-educated fecklessness to martyrdom – a state of shabby grace.

It might sound like an improvement, but the upgrade from stupid to sacrificing isn’t one I care for when both are equally inaccurate and damning.

I once had someone manage to incorporate both assumptions into one, single, condemnatory sentence: ‘Are you really so bovine that you can’t see how s*** your life is?’ (I should point out that this person wasn’t a complete stranger).

I gave them that stare – you know, the one Paddington Bear only wishes he could do.

Nothing I have done for any of my children, disabled or non-disabled, has been a sacrifice.

If anything had felt like a sacrifice, then I would have known I was making the wrong choice. Because that is all I have done: make a choice.

Admittedly the choice was initially presented to me by circumstance.

I had intended to return to work full-time when my maternity leave ended because ... well, to be honest, just because that’s what everybody else does.

I knew that at first I’d be working for nothing, my wages would just cover the cost of childcare.

Although it seemed silly, and rather sad, for me to go to work to earn the money to pay someone else to do a job I desperately wanted to do myself, I never questioned it.

Returning to work after having a baby is what is expected of a woman these days.

Then, one day, a few weeks after my maternity leave started, I got a phone call saying that my employer had sold the business. I was effectively redundant.

I’d had several miscarriages before my longed-for baby arrived.

My husband suggested that it might be good for both myself and our son if I were to take a year out before looking for work, and just concentrate on being a mum: if we tightened our belts we could manage on his wage.

Later we decided that it would make sense to have our second child while I was still at home.

I did make a tentative foray back into the world of work when the children started school, but my eldest, who had been such a contented child until he went to pre-school, had real trouble settling into classroom life.

There were plenty ready to make assumptions then, too: to point the finger at me, for not sending him to nursery when he was a baby.

But I knew that there was something more fundamental at the root of it; after all, my daughter did not have the same problems.

At seven he was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

I know there are many mothers out there in just this position who do work, but for us it just didn’t add up.

There were times when he just could not cope in school, or when school could not cope with him, and I would get a phone call asking me to pick him up even before the lunchtime bell had rung.

Not best practice, granted, strictly not even legal if I had objected, but School and I both agreed that during these times he needed to be in a predictable, low-stimulus environment where he felt safe, with a person who understood him and his difficulties very well, and was supportive of his needs.

In short he needed to be at home, with me.

I could see him through a meltdown, or help him to calm himself better than anyone, and if he had to be off for a couple of days I’d make sure we used the time constructively.

Even when he managed a full day at school, by the end of it he’d have steam coming out of his ears from the effort of holding himself together all day.

The last thing he needed was to have to then go to a childminder or after-school club, and cope with other children in an environment less orderly than a classroom.

Help for autistic children who do not also have learning difficulties was not then, and still is not, readily accessible.

I was the best resource available (and the cheapest): and the only one that all parties would trust implicitly.

We might have been slightly better off financially if I had gone back to work, but in no other way would our family well-being have benefitted.

I know what you’re assuming – something along the lines of: ‘Oh, that’s all very well if you’re a nice middle-class mummy whose husband has a well-paid job.’ But that isn’t how it was with us.

Our one income was relatively modest, and still is. But we didn’t have to make sacrifices, we just had to make choices about what was most important to us as a family.

I don’t think there can be many families in the land who don’t have to prioritise how they spend their money; we just had to be a little more rigorous than most.

We never had to do without the essentials; if we’d ever faced a choice between paying the mortgage and paying the gas bill, it would have been time to rethink our arrangements. But it never came to that.

In fact, in the end we realised that we weren’t substantially worse off than most of our two-income neighbours – possibly because we weren’t paying out a big chunk on childcare, or after-school clubs and holiday play-schemes.

And we only had to run one car. I don’t need a work wardrobe either.

We also never had to juggle whose turn it was to take leave if one of the children was ill, or who would take which week in the school holidays to try to reduce costs a bit.

We got to spend a lot of time with each other, and with the children. Freddie coming along when he did was a surprise for a whole host of reasons.

Because he has Down’s Syndrome we were inundated in his early years with appointments for various check-ups and therapies on a weekly basis.

I’ve never had a problem fitting these in around my work schedule, though (because I don’t have one), nor the hassle of trying to find affordable, inclusive childcare that is both willing and able to meet his additional needs.

So please do not assume that because I have chosen to be a stay-at-home mum that my life has been sacrificed, that it is less than.

A child’s first school is its mother’s lap, and you would not assume that a Nursery Nurse or Early Years Practitioner was bored with her job, or stupid, or that she had wasted her life.

was Nursery Nurse to my own children, I did everything with them that any decent childcare provider would do, and in the process I had the inestimable privilege of witnessing, and being heavily involved in, every moment in the development of these fascinating little beings.

I realise that the choices I have made are not possible for every family. Many mums have to return to work out of cold, hard, financial necessity.

Others are engaged in professions that require them to undertake Continuous Professional Development in order to keep practising in their chosen field.

For them, being a stay-at-home mum is not an option. But for us, my choice to stay at home has been our saving grace.

Although we have less disposable income than other families, we also have less stress, and more time.

This alone may well have saved us from imploding under pressure.

As far as I am concerned my family are my life; therefore, nothing I do to preserve the wellbeing of the family is a sacrifice.


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