I’ve had a rather major life change recently. A few months ago, after being a stay-at-home mum for many years, I re-entered the work force. My field is academia, so I have a job now teaching philosophy at university.
One thing that has surprised me has been the strangely uniform reaction of people when I tell them I was a stay-at-home mum. Conversations are polite, warm and friendly until I drop the proverbial bomb: ‘Yes, my youngest started school recently, so I’ve just come back to work after being a stay-at-home mum for several years.’ Then the smiles freeze, and a shocked, deafening silence ensues.
Some people just stare, others act embarrassed, but the common element in each response has been silence. Am I wrong to think this reaction is odd? Is there really nothing at all to say about stay-at-home motherhood that could be a part of a polite conversation? I’m not one to take offence, but it seems that the most reasonable way to interpret the silence is as an unspoken disapproval of how I exercised my female agency. I’m the prodigal daughter, you see, returning home. Only in this parable, there doesn’t seem to be much forgiveness.
In pondering these reactions, I can’t help but think of an experience I had several years ago in which I received a very different reaction to the announcement of my stay at home motherhood. In 2006, I had the privilege of meeting the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher. I had attended a lecture sponsored by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), where she was a guest of honor. After the lecture, my late friend John Blundell, then the Director of the IEA, offered to introduce me to her.
At the time, I was very much in the thick of stay-at-home motherhood, with four small children, and a fifth one on the way. To his credit, Blundell introduced me as, simply, a mother. I had a PhD from Cambridge and several academic publications under my belt, but Blundell chose to emphasize what he knew my focus was at the time. ‘Here is a very bright young woman with four children’, he said. Without missing a beat, Thatcher smiled and said energetically, ‘How wonderful! Four children! Oh my, you must be very busy! What are their ages?’
She continued to ask questions about them, and me, remarking on how busy a mother’s life was, until finally I managed to turn the conversation away from myself and focus on her. I think I said something stupid like, ‘But you, of course, were very, very busy as Prime Minister.’
‘Oh, yes, well, you know, it was all go in those days,’ she said, without a hint of self-importance.
Now, what didn’t Margaret Thatcher say to me? She didn’t say ‘Well, are you just a mother? Don’t you know that you can be a mum and do big jobs, too?’ or ‘Why are you wasting your life raising your children yourself? What about your career prospects?’ or ‘We need more women in Parliament. How are we going to do that if we let women like you choose to be stay at home mums?’ or ‘I think we should only support working families, and a working family is where both parents work outside the home.’ or ‘As a woman, you are by definition oppressed by your womb. You’ve made a terrible mistake. Stop reproducing now!’
No. She was supportive. She acknowledged the value in my work as a mother. She was not threatened by my choices. And she was not silent.
Now, you could just say she was being polite. And indeed, for all these years, I thought so, too. But then my question is: why are other people are not polite on this score? Why is a sullen silence the best they can muster when faced with a stay-at-home mother?
I’m sure there are scores of people more able than me to write about Margaret Thatcher’s attitudes towards families, mothers, and other women. We all know that feminists vilify her, even though she was the first female Prime Minister and one of the most powerful figures in 20th century politics. But when I met her, what I saw was a woman unafraid of female agency, and unafraid of the power of families. Her attitude towards me reassured me that, as a stay-at-home mother, I had nothing for which I had to atone. And that, to me, seems like the right model of feminism.