Becoming a mother is one of the most exciting times in a woman’s life, but along with the joys and responsibilities, an ugly emotion that can rear its head is guilt.
This is especially true in the case of mums who decide to work – and often, it’s fellow mothers who criticise their choices. The promise of a “normal” routine and the salary that comes with a full-time job can be enticing and essential for some, but difficult decisions must be made when it comes to childcare costs, responsibilities and working hours, weighed against the stress of the daily juggle.
It’s perhaps why the US marks September 16 as Working Parents Day, alongside Single Parents Day in March, and the regular Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is a Hallmark holiday that celebrates mums who choose to attend to their children full time. Working women, too, often undermine their stay-at-home contemporaries.
Haifa Malhas is calling time on the ever-raging battle. All mothers are working parents, says Malhas, who has a lot of compassion for “unseen” stay-at-home mums.
The mother-of-two says she has felt judged for being employed, for staying at home and for running her own business. “People judge no matter what, and this is coupled with the guilt and anxiety we carry for doing either. We are all striving for balance.”
Almost every mum Malhas knows has felt taken for granted at some point. “It’s such a lonely place to be,” she says.
A chat with some UAE mums exemplifies just how individualistic parenting is. Nisha Haridasan Kumai says she was shown more respect as a working mum, but struggled with a rigid schedule and having to take sick leave or lose pay to sometimes attend her son’s after-school activities. She now cares for her son as a stay-at-home mum.
“Life as a working mother was so emotional for me,” she says. “I felt judged for not taking care of my son, and I struggled with missing out on the small things. For your mental health, these things are important. At the same time, we should support all mothers, and never generalise.”
Aanchal Rathee, Naz Din and Dyann P Banico are some other mums who gave up careers – or in Banico’s case decided to take “an indefinite sabbatical”. Din ended a 20-year career as a senior HR director, yet she often faces bias from other career mums.
“There is a lot of judgment towards stay-at-home mums from career women who sometimes forget we had a solid career too, once upon a time.”
Rathee, who took a career break after having her first child, echoes Din and says she was shocked to be judged so harshly. “Working mothers assumed I had an unimportant job at a base level, or that I was terrible at my job and hence it was easy for me to give it up.”
Elsewhere, Mona Sachin was made redundant from a job she loved last year. When she became pregnant with twins, Sachin says she had romantic notions about raising a family, but describes the days after the birth as a “haze of diapers, sleepless nights, exhaustion, happiness, anger and more”.
Sachin says she misses her life as a working woman. As a stay-at-home mum with three children and no family support, she feels lost. “My cousins who are working mothers command more respect,” she says. "My girls mean a lot to me, but I miss being more than just a wife and mother."
Working mother Umaima Tinwala became a single parent when her daughter turned 5. She says she felt guilty all the time. “Mothers make each other feel guilty. It’s shameful. Raising a child along with a job is so complex."
She also believes working mothers should be allowed more flexibility. “As a professional, I’ve always been committed to my job. I always delivered, but I was short-changed by money and by title because I would ask to work from home sometimes.”
Another solo working mum-of-two Catherine Harper says it’s incredibly difficult to juggle her full-time job with children, but it’s as hard to be a full-time parent. “I’m sure many stay-at-home mums long to escape to an office some days. It doesn’t matter if you’re a working parent or at home; you feel judged. Whether you work outside the home or not, you have children, so you work 24/7.”
Harper gave up her journalism career to have children and struggled. “I felt like I lost who I was, and when I returned to work, initially I felt I no longer belonged. I’m immensely grateful now that I can combine my new career in PR with a family life, as I can work from anywhere. It does mean I work late into the evenings so I can take time out to do the school run and after-school activities, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s incredibly empowering.”
Mothers can be their own worst enemies, says Harper, as they are often too self-critical. One of the main challenges she faces as a solo parent is feeling she’s not giving 100 per cent either to her career or her children.
“If I’m at work, it’s hard to banish worries about my kids forgetting their PE kits or who is being picked up and when. And when I’m at home, I’m often distracted by thoughts of a work email I haven’t sent or responded to. This increases the guilt factor even more.”
Sneha John, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist with Camali Clinic, constantly strives to assuage some of that guilt. She says there are many advantages for children growing up with both working and stay-at-home mums.
“Children of working parents grow up to be more independent as they learn to do simple tasks for themselves,” she says. “As adults, they grow up to be confident decision makers who take accountability for their actions. Since both the parents work, children have a plethora of life lessons and experiences to learn from. This helps them have a mature outlook and cope with stress better, emerging as resilient individuals, often taking on leadership roles.”
Meanwhile, stay-at-home mums have more time to support their children’s academic development and to keep their family life running smoothly.
“Children receive direct guidance from their parents to ensure that they live in a nurturing and relaxed environment as they grow and develop,” John says. “Having a parent at home to bond with helps children to feel secure and boosts their self-confidence, which helps them grow up to be responsible and well-adjusted adults.”