A few weeks ago, a conversation thread on one of my Facebook mummy groups quickly deteriorated. A stay-at-home mum (SAHM) asked what activities she could do at home with her 2-year-old toddler. While many replied with good suggestions, some also asked her why she’s still at home with her child.
This is an international group, by the way. So, we’re talking a healthy mix of educated women hailing from all walks of life, cultures and religion. Just when I was about brush this off as a handful of nosey mums not knowing when to mind their own business, one of the comments made me sit up and pay greater attention.
A random woman asked this mum how she’s planning on pushing the feminism agenda by staying home with her child. “Are we going to leave it to the men?” she asked at the end of her comment, which garnered more likes than I hoped it would.
Do many women feel this way, I wondered. That if they put their children’s needs before their career aspirations, they can no longer be feminists? Does being a feminist and a SAHM have to be mutually exclusive?
My next question was, how does one define feminism? A quick Google search threw up this definition, which I later corroborated with a few other legit dictionaries. Feminism was “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. So, in other words freedom of choice, no?
If that is indeed the message, then why is it wrong in the eyes of many for a mum to choose to want to stay home with her kids? Why the judgement?
Some days, I worried that my son would grow up thinking I’m a boring housewife who cooks, cleans and serves his papa.
I myself became a SAHM not out of choice, but because of circumstance. When our baby was 10 months old, my husband was posted back to his home country in Scandinavia. So, though I had only just returned to work for four months (I had taken an additional two months’ no pay leave after my maternity leave ended), I was “forced” to leave the job I loved to stay home with my baby whom I loved more than life itself.
As someone who has always strongly believed in female empowerment and whose idea of power walking is sauntering around in four-inch heels, I thought I would never feel fulfilled by “just” being a SAHM. Some days, I worried that my that son would grow up thinking I’m a boring housewife who cooks, cleans and serves his papa. Wouldn’t that look more like regression rather than progression? Was I setting the right example for the future generation?
With hindsight, being a SAHM was one of the most empowering jobs I’ve ever had. When my son was 12 months old, we moved to Scandinavia to join my husband. On weekdays when my husband was at work, it was just me and my little boy. I was his playmate, nap buddy, breakfast, lunch and (somedays) dinner date. We explored our new surroundings together and went on blind (play) dates with other mums and kids.
Soon, my son and I found ourselves part of a mum group made up of an eclectic mix of international women. They came from all over the world ― Cuba, Bolivia, Australia, India, Hungary, Czech Republic and Puerto Rico. One of them was a human rights activist, another a child psychologist. There was also a yoga instructor, a kindergarten teacher and a pharmacist.
We came from different backgrounds, spoke different languages and looked different, but we all bonded over the same purpose ― we’d all given up our careers to care for our kids.
These women taught me that an SAHM’s job description doesn’t have to start and stop with domestic duties. Not only are they their child’s primary caretaker, they also play multiple roles ― they are short-order cooks, nurse, chauffeur, cuddle buddy and teacher. In addition, these women also offer a listening ear to their kids who are struggling to find their place in the world. In short, they are multi-tasking mavens.
Some mums have kids with allergies, so they learned how to cook special meals to make sure their children can continue eating nutritious food, without having a life-threatening reaction to it. Another mum has a child with a speech delay. She pores over books on speech therapy, sits in on all of her kid’s therapy sessions and practises daily with her child.
We also met mums who found their real passion after having kids. Many of them started their own business selling eco-friendly baby products or stylish clothes that embrace women of all sizes. There were also women who became lactation consultants, baby-wearing experts and toddler nutrition advisors. They wanted to be a source of support for other mums.
Small businesses they they may be, but they have big hearts, as many of them give back to society through donations and charity work. When we moved back to Singapore, we continued to meet other inspiring SAHMS. Local mums who gave up high-flying careers to homeschool their children or spearhead charity initiatives.
They might not be shaking up the corporate world, but these mums, in their own way, are making the world a better place for future generations. By observing them in action, their children become familiar with what a strong, modern woman looks like. Isn’t that what feminism is all about?
Women who support other women in their choices will also take the fight for equality to the next level.
I took a leaf out of these mothers’ books as I want to raise a feminist son. After being an SAHM for two-and-a-half years, I’ve re-entered the workforce. My son now sees me sauntering around in my four-inch heels, but I hope he never forgets the feminist activism he was exposed to during the days when it was just me and him.
If you think about it, feminism happens in waves. In the ’60s, it was about women demanding a more level playing field in the workplace and access to education. Every girl got the opportunity to go to school and for the first time, dared to dream big career-wise. In the ’90s, it was about equal treatment at home. Women wanted men to pull their weight around the house, which lead to the birth of hands-on dads ― and us mums will forever be grateful for this, won’t we, ladies?
So, perhaps the next wave of feminism is happening and in 2017, it should all be about the freedom to choose. Whether you have a doctorate or a diploma, it is your choice, mums, to decide if you want to stay close to your children during their formative years.
Don’t ever feel like you’re doing the next generation a disservice by not putting your education to “better use”. By deciding to stay home, you’re telling the future generation that they can and should be anyone and they anything they want to be.
By watching you make your choice, daughters will learn that they too can be a rocket scientist, a Prime Minister or an SAHM, nor is there any shame in choosing any of these roles. Women who support other women in their choices will also take the fight for equality to the next level.
Perhaps, your sons might some day even see the value of being a stay-at-home dad ― and there’s no better way to push the feminist agenda than that, I think!
Jassmin Peter-Berntzen, 36, SmartParents assistant editor, is mum to Andreas Dhiraj, 3.