Filling out your occupation on a customs card, census survey, or any other form seems to be one of life's defining moments. (These days, it seems like you're asked for your life details at everything from the hairdressers to the greengrocers).
For me, it's been seven years of 'defining moments', as my old designation of some 13 years changed from 'journalist' to 'mother', and remains set there. For now, anyhow. And yet every time I write it, it gives me pause for thought.
Yes, I work from home, but I still define myself as a stay-at-home mother because that is my main 'occupation' - the thing that preoccupies me through the day. My work generally has to fit around everything else - and if that means sitting down, blurry-eyed with exhaustion at 8.30pm to start writing articles, or sitting through the odd meeting with gritted teeth at the amount of time being wasted (and having to resist the urge to bring out the fishwife bark generally reserved for the kids when they are lollygagging - "can you please put a bomb under yourself and get going"), that's how it's done.
I've said it before, but I am in the lucky position of being able to work from home and have a husband who makes enough that our daily expenses are covered. So my income - as erratic as it is - can be used for those bills that come from left field - the dentist, the garage door repair man, the cam belt fixer. We are very lucky, and in part that is why I have been able to stay at home with the kids for their younger years. It is, of course, a double-edged sword, in the sense that you trade away a portion of your sanity for doing so, as well as the fact that after a certain number of kids, childcare becomes almost unaffordable.
While I'm reasonably happy I have been at home, I don't feel any superiority about it. My mother was typical of her baby-boomer age bracket for being a working mother; I spent long hours sitting in the back of classrooms or mooching around school playgrounds waiting for her to finish. She would talk sentimentally of her time home with kids, saying it was the happiest time of her life, and wishing she had not had to go back to the grindstone so quickly. But she didn't have an option: financially, her wage was crucial to the household. I made the choice that she would have liked, based on us being quite similar. I also think youngsters love being at home with their mums (and dads). But the actual, tangible benefits for all parties can be hard to see in the day-to-day grind of it.
I know that there will always be a portion of people who say "live and let live" or that one that really grinds my gears, "you have to do what's right for you" (No kidding. Really, does anyone in this day and age not do what's right for them? I've never met him or her, if so). I realise it's all about choosing the type of life you want to live, and living it. If you want to have children, you either sacrifice your career to stay home and care for them or endure the stress of trying to fit work around your family. There is no perfect answer, and each family is different and requires a different solution.
And yet ... the latest statistics from the UK show that fewer than one in ten women are stay-at-home mothers. The assumption is that the full-time mother will soon be a thing of the past (in the UK at least). Apart from the super-wealthy and those on benefits, it seems few others feel they can support the life their families need without two incomes.
We should not judge individual families and individual choices unless they are clearly harmful, but I think it is legitimate to wonder where this trend, in general, will lead. With so few preschool children cared for by their mothers (primarily, or even their fathers, on a full-time basis in the UK, and increasingly here) there has to be an impact somewhere down the track.
To counter any negative outcomes, the obvious questions that come to mind are: do we have the right amount of good quality childcare? Have we done enough to encourage flexible working? And, if we accept that many women would like to stay home but can't afford it (which is what many working women tell researchers), does our tax system support a system whereby a mother or father is able to be home based for a few years?
There are other less obvious things. Do our communities offer the right kinds of services and supports to make sure staying at home isn't isolating and mind-numbing? Is being a stay-at-home mum (or dad) denigrated, or celebrated? Are our post-natal depression and other services up to snuff?
Ultimately we seem unsure, as a society, about whether we should be encouraging at least one parent to stay home while children are little. Perhaps the subject is too emotive; the defences come down on both sides and we are unable to think about it reasonably and objectively. But it is still a debate worth having; especially if the stay-at-mother is under threat, because while the job may be uncool, it is also one with lots to offer even the most evolved of societies.