I have been a working mother and a stay at home mother. I hate both these terms as they imply you only work outside the home. Every mother I know works bloody hard, regardless of location. I prefer the terms 'Major mother' and 'Wonder mother'. Allow me to explain...
Being a Major Mother takes excellent forward planning and the ability to manage every contingency. You have to hold a million things in your head and keep everything on track and running smoothly. You have to plan every day like a military campaign, making sure that there are enough supplies of food, drink and clean clothes to keep everyone going. You have to duck the emotional shrapnel when you've forgotten that it's mufti day, or you didn't bring the biscuit rations to get everyone through that really important meeting. You also require a large spy network; I often relied on my son's friends to keep me informed of what he was doing with he days as he was stunningly uncommunicative about it. It took a couple of sessions of water boarding (well, bath time) just to find out what his topic was for the term. At work you rely on stalwart advisers and dependable gophers to ensure the smooth running of every action. It is exhausting and the barrage is endless but when the campaign goes well you can lean back and chew on a massive cigar and say things like 'I love the smell of copier ink in the morning.' and try not to think about the fact that the kids were too angry/sad/excited to give you a proper goodbye in the morning.
When you are a Wonder Mother, the little things get big. It's like you're living in Wonderland. There's no logic to what happens, you will frequently meet characters who are prone to fits of incandescent rage, engage in conversations that make no sense whatsoever and everything is as repetitive as a jolly caucus race and about as productive. CBeebies theme songs will flap their way into your consciousness and roost like a Jub Jub bird. Nothing ever stays where you put it down. Your child becomes big enough to fill your whole mind and you can feel yourself shrinking smaller than a teardrop. It becomes easy to obsess over the minutiae of your child's life; their relationships with those around them, their likes and dislikes, the exact colour of their belly button fluff. Your life is simply full of your kids. It's baffling and brilliant and often very very boring.
It's easy to set these two positions at opposition with each other, that we are two tribes determined to prove that the path you are on is the best way. In my experience this seems to be something that mainly happens in print, not in the playground. I have been both Major and Wonder and I think both sides have joys and pitfalls to offer equally. Most mums I know understand that kindness is the only way we can all get through it. I know sometimes Major Mums might be put off by not feeling part of the close relations developing at the school gates, I know Wonder Mums sometimes look longingly at the heels and skirts and brushed hair that whizzes past them at drop off time but I also know that we all know that motherhood is a bloody hard job regardless of which camp you are in. A smile and a nod in each direction and the labels melt away and we can get on with being who we are, multi faceted mothers, women, humans.
I blame the patriarchy.
One thing that would make it better would be more flexible working hours for all. It would be wonderful if both parents could work 4 days (and a proper 4 days, not 5 days squashed into 4 which is what usually happens) rather than, as is typical, the father continues full time and the mother drops her hours at work and then shoulders most of the management of the household as well, thereby massively increasing her workload, not diminishing it in any way. If men spent more time at home when the children are babies, as is the case in Norway and Sweden, then they are more likely to become involved in the maintenance of the day to day household tasks and children may perform better at school if their parents share parental leave, though it's early days in terms of research to be stating this definitively.
Flexible work hours and working from home are more common but still more likely to be accessed by women than men. I do no think this is the fault of individual fathers - I no more want a men/women battle than a Major/Wonder one but it does feel that the workplace is struggling to keep up with the needs of families. Most of the fathers I know would much rather have the option of carrying out some of the child care. Amazingly, dads actually like their kids.
I know this piece is very heteronormative and I wonder if employers should be talking to same sex couples about how they are managing the challenges that parenting offers. People who are less constrained by heteronormative standards and need to create their own rules and rhythms probably have a lot of excellent strategies to share with more traditional families like mine. Depressingly the Wikipedia article on same sex parenting doesn't even cover this opportunity, it's all about how having two parents of the same gender doesn't damage the development of children. Whilst it's nice to have a strong evidence base to support this screamingly obvious fact, this in itself shows just how far we have to go in terms of revising how we perceive families and out roles within them.