When you hear of a mother quitting her job to take care of her child, what are your initial thoughts? Those who have been through it know it’s a tough job, while others may think that she’s going to enjoy her life. Some would even go as far as to suggest that she can now enjoy a Tai Tai* life. I too was wondering that the husband must be doing very well for them to afford the luxury of a single-income family. But having spoken to one, I realized that being a stay-at-home mum is not at all a luxury.
Every stay-at-home mum will have different circumstances and more importantly, different perspectives of how a child should be raised. Some are overly concerned, while some are more relaxed. It is important to note that it is not the intent of the article to discuss ways of raising a baby, nor to encourage mothers to be a stay-at-home mum. Rather, this article aims to share the experience of a stay-at-home mum, her heartfelt opinions and her reason for being one, which is just another way of making the best of our 17 waking hours.
This article is written from the perspective of a stay-at-home mum. To protect the identity of the interviewee, we will be using the pseudonym Alice.
* Tai Tai: a chinese colloquial term for a wealthy married woman who does not have to work.
The difference between a Tai Tai and a stay-at-home mum
It’s the dream of many to be become a Tai Tai, where you can relax at home and not be at the whims and demands of your bosses at work. Many would conjure up the image of a few Tai Tais playing mahjong at home, before going for afternoon tea at one of the hotel restaurants.
This almost never happens with stay-at-home mums.
Stay-at-home mums work 24/7, enslaved by the whims and cries of their children. Yes, the child is the boss in this new job. No one said it’s easy to raise a child, and I believe all mothers will agree with that. You’ll have to take care of the baby, worry about their health, diet and development, and even do household chores.
The 24/7 workday
What you do as a stay-at-home mum differs greatly based on a few factors, notably the support you have (e.g. helpers or family members), the number of children at home, and the children's age. Alice, in this case, has a newly born baby boy, a 2 year old girl, and has a helper at home.
Alice’s baby wakes up early at 6am every day, but fortunately for her, it’s the dad that takes care of the baby at this time, since early morning and night are the only times a working dad can spend with the kid. After some breakfast, Alice will bring the older sister to a nearby playground at about 9am while leaving the baby at home with the helper. At about 1 year and 10 months, the older sister can’t really climb the structures or play independently yet, so Alice has to play with her. Sometimes, they meet their friends there too, and the children become play dates after a while.
Meals and feeding can be a great hassle
After that, they’ll head to a market in the vicinity where she’ll buy some groceries for the family. How often you do this is sometimes at the mercy of the child (and how particular you are). Alice does grocery shopping every two days, since she insists that vegetables must be bought fresh. In addition, the older sister is fussy about her meat and much prefers spare ribs.
Alice is quite particular about the food her kids take (trust me, many couples turn into kiasu* health freaks after becoming new parents). She insists that the food should have minimal salt and no preservatives, and that there’s at least 2 different types of vegetables and meat. This means that she has to cook herself, which takes up quite a bit of time and effort every day.
Alice insists that lunch time should be digital free - that means no iPads and no TV. While it's a move that may pay off in the long term, it also means that there's nothing to distract the child now to make feeding much simpler and faster. While adults can gulp down a meal in 5 min, it takes about 40 minutes for Alice to feed her child. She tries at times to let her child feed herself with a spoon but it gets messy.
*Kiasu is a Singlish term that describes the characteristic of being afraid of losing out to others.
Activities to build skills in babies
After lunch, she’ll take a nap from noon till 2pm. If you’re thinking this is a good life, think twice. The morning itself is exhausting, arguably more than a professional occupation and this is the first proper break she gets. She naps together with both baby and toddler. And the baby cries a lot so Alice has to keep rocking her (and waking up intermittently) to put her to sleep.
Afternoon (2-5pm) is filled with activities with wider variety, since both kids are quite awake at this time. Sometimes, she brings the kids to the play gym. If they stay at home, they do activities in either of the following categories to enhance the children’s development. Alice feels that her older child has definitely benefited from these activities over the past year, and is encouraged to keep doing it.
- Motor skills development. Newborn babies’ brains are not mature enough to control their muscle movement. A motor skill is basically an action involving muscles, such as pushing or picking things up between your thumb and finger. Alice guides her child in activities such as scooping water, filling buckets of sand, or building sandcastles, which can help develop their motor skills.
- Pretend play. This is simply an imaginative activity that has the baby playing out a make-believe scenario. For example, when a child plays with a train set, pretending to ‘drive the train’ through the railway tracks. Or it could be to act out the role of, say, a princess. Such activities are highly imaginative and there’s a growing body of evidence to show that it helps in cognitive development.
- Sensory play. Sensory play is any activity that stimulates your five senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. It facilitates exploration and encourages children to create, investigate and explore. For example, you could fill a bowl of rice and let the baby enjoy sifting through the beans through his fingers, picking them up, and pouring them out. Or to place a toy car inside a pail of water and scrubbing it.
- Brain development. Alice tries a form of brain development called the Shichida Method, which is a Japanese teaching method to create a well-balanced child with abilities and creativity using the whole brain efficiently. It is most effective when done regularly, hence Alice does it with her kids everyday. A common activity is to train the baby to recognise and recapitulate pictures and words from flash cards.
- Alphabet recognition. To prepare kids to reading and writing later, a great way to introduce alphabets to them is through using tools such as the Montessori sandpaper letters. This helps kids to gain a muscular memory of the shape of the letters. By feeling the cut-out shape of letters against the background of sandpaper, they’ll learn how to feel the alphabets and eventually write. Or it could be to do some art and craft, with a letter of the week as the theme.
The rest of the day is then filled with dinner and more activities, though there’s some relief as the dad will be home to help take care of the kids too. But do note that as a stay-at-home mum, you job only ends when the baby finally sleeps for the night. In the first few months of your newborn baby, expect to wake up every few hours in the night too!
Do you really have to quit your job?
At the beginning, Alice didn’t intend to quit her job to be a full-time mum. She wanted to place the baby in an infant care service, but she visited a few and decided that’s not what she wanted for her child. She felt that many of them don't offer enough brain stimulation activities and provide only basic care. New parents' expectations, after all, can be particularly high. Furthermore, Alice does not have grandparents who’ve the time and her parents are not ready to quit their jobs to take care of the babies yet. Hence she decided to step up to the role.
It’s a trade off. You get time and income (with your career) if you place your child in infant care, but you may be worried much of the time. Alice decided to take over the child's care and development in this case.
Benefits – Better care and bonding
Alice can't fathom the outcome if she'd chosen not to be a stay-at-home mum instead, as she can't be hundred percent sure of how her children will be taken care of if left to others. Her husband and her tried infant care at the beginning, but they had a bad experience as their children fell sick a few times while there. Adding to their worries, they've heard horror stories of how illnesses such as the hand-foot-mouth disease had spread in childcare or infant care centres.
Alice's personal opinion: If you want to put your child in a childcare centre, you have to be ready for your child to receive less attention and care than what you as a mother can give personally. The ratio of caretaker to babies in an infant care is typically at least 1 to 3, and that itself was not comforting enough for her.
Alice feels that being a stay-at-home mum also contributes to her children's intellectual development. She feels that infant care may not devote as much time to this and grandparents may have less energy to do so. Kids need more stimulation, and research has shown that kids need a lot of stimulation below the age of 18 months.
Bonding, of course, is probably the most satisfying. Her kids are very close to her now, since she spends quality time with them. In her words, “what's three years of my career compared to the bond she developed with her kids?”
Stay-at-home mums don’t get more freedom. In fact, they lose their freedom.
It can feel weary at times being a stay-at-home mum. When you're working, you’re more independent and you’ve more time to yourself. You can go for long lunches with your colleagues or friends, or drop by Starbucks for a cup of cappuccino and quiet reading time. As a stay at home mum, you tend to feel like you lose a lot of freedom. The focus is now on the child. If you want to go out for lunch, you'll ponder whether you can be back in time to breast feed. You don’t dictate your own time anymore. Can you do your nails for 2 hours? What if the baby needs to eat? Face it, it's now kids first, and yourself second.
And you don’t really dress up nor shop for new clothes as much unlike the times when you were working. It'll be a massive lifestyle change if you were a shopaholic. Most of the time, you're likely to be too tired to muster the energy to bring the kids out shopping with you.
Societal pressures are real, but you’ll de-emphasize career comparisons
You may worry you won’t be in the same pace of career progression if you're a stay at home mum. And yes, the worry is real especially in a city like Singapore where cost of living and career pressures are high. But if you view it from another perspective, it’s only about 3 years of your life (kids are quite mature after 2-3 years of age). Interestingly, when you become a stay at home mum, you gradually stop comparing with your friends about career, as you tend to be closer to friends with children. You start exchanging pointers or comparing how the kids are developing, what classes they go to... the topic of children takes over most of your conversations instead of career and work. Your priority changes before you know it.
Career promotion and income are things you can get back again. But you can’t get back the lost time with your kids. Alice feels that although there are sacrifices, she don’t want to regret. Alice already has a few friends who’re at the stage of regretting, because the kids are closer to the grandparents or maid more than the mum. To tell, just see who the child goes to when they are sick.
Make no mistake: A stay-at-home mum is a full time job—one that takes away your freedom and delays your career progression. There’s much sacrifice to be made, but the intangible reward is fulfilling and worthwhile.
It is however not an option that everyone should, or can afford to choose. And other options of childcare can be good too. As this article started at the start, there're too many variables to consider and every family's situation is vastly different. Whatever it is, we hope that this article has provided you a better perspective of the life of a stay-at-home mum.
P.S.: Alice intends to go back to work later, maybe after her younger baby is about 2 years old.