"What do stay-at-home mums (SAHMs) do all day? Do they just sit at home watching their favourite drama on TV? Or do they gossip over the phone all day long?"
In recent times, there is a continual campaign to retain women talents in the workforce as they have been credited as a key resource to help spur economic growth in the world.
While Malaysia's Female Labour Participation Rate (FLPR) in 2016 increased to 54.3% as compared to 54.1% in 2015, it is still regarded as one of the lowest in the ASEAN region.
According to a report in 2015, two out of three women cited family and their commitment to looking after their children as their main reason for leaving the workforce.
Unfortunately, there are perceptual beliefs that SAHMs are lazy mothers who "do not like to work" and they are being accused of "not contributing to the society" even when they may very well be self-employed or work-at-home mums (WAHMs).
To find out more on this issue, SAYS spoke to five young SAHMs in Malaysia to get some insights from these parents
2. Klang-born Deepalakshimy Paramanathan has been a SAHM for six years as she decided to quit her job as an audit assistant at an audit firm when she was pregnant due to work stress. The 33-year-old currently resides in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan with her husband and daughter.
4. Ong Sook Yee decided to be a SAHM when she was pregnant with her third child. The 34-year-old was previously working as a dental nurse and a freelance make-up artist.
5. Mindy Yu grew up in Brunei and moved to Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne before she finally settled down again in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. The 32-year-old has two children, having welcomed a newborn baby recently. She used to be work in the media industry and was running her own property management firm before she decided to be a SAHM after her son was born about three years ago.
There have been talks that women pay a heavy price for motherhood, and sometimes it would mean letting go of their professional hopes and dreams
So we asked these mums if they had decided to go down this path of being a SAHM because of their own choice, or the lack of one
A few of them shared with us that they decided to become a SAHM on their own, although their reasons are different.
"It is a voluntary choice I made after considering so many factors, including the need to always be there when the kids needs us like when they fall sick, and again, the irregular timing of my working shifts that made me miss out on so many great moments," Fatin said, adding that her husband was very supportive of her decision.
Deepalakshimy said, "I have always told myself that being a mother is to enjoy motherhood. See and experience what it is like to be a mother. I did not want to blame myself if my child got hurt because I wanted to find money."
Sook Yee said that she chose to become a SAHM because it would burden her family if she relied on them to take care of her three young children. She pointed out that the fees for childcare are also extremely expensive and it would be more economical to have her mother help her take care of her three children whenever the need arises.
Meanwhile, Mindy said that she became a SAHM due to "lack of choice".
"What do you do?" is perhaps a SAHM's most dreaded question. But we asked them anyway, wanting to know how a normal day for them looks like.
Some people find it difficult to fathom when SAHMs say that they are busy and that they have no time for themselves. Some of these SAHMs' own spouse have even complained and said things like, "Why are you busy when all you do is just stay at home?"
We asked the five mummies to share with us how a typical day for them looks like and it's not surprising to find out that these mummies spend most of their days and nights on their young children, who still need a lot of care and attention.
For Sook Yee, her routine revolves around the children and house chores as well, but extra attention needs to be given to her youngest son, who was born a premature baby with hearing problems.
On the other hand, Mindy expressed her gratitude as she could rely on a helper to handle the house chores, giving her more time to spend on her children.
"I'm thankful to have a helper who can manage the housework, which otherwise I probably would be doing," Mindy said.
When asked what do SAHMs do during their spare time, all of them said that they would only have extra time in their hands on a rare occasion. One of them even said that she doesn't have time to meet her friends or even visit the salon for self-grooming.
"Extra time? That would be a luxury for any SAHM with young kids. I could probably spare half an hour in a week, when the kids decide to nap in the afternoon together, just enjoying a cup of coffee and sinful sweet dessert. That's the kind of 'me time' that not many SAHM could enjoy," Fatin said.
Is it difficult to be a SAHM?
There's a perception that SAHMs have it better because they could wear anything they want whenever they please or even avoid that crazy rush hour traffic. But in reality, nothing is ever a bed of roses.
"I would not say difficult, but I will not say that it is easy either. It has its own challenges, just like the working mums have, especially when you do not have extra hands to help you. But in time, we manage," Fatin said.
Deepalakshimy said that it is difficult, especially if a SAHM is the only one who's around to manage the whole household.
"My husband is working offshore and from this year, he is working in Johor and we are staying in Mantin. I have no maid as well. Cleaning is very difficult because we are staying in a double-storey house," Deepalakshimy said.
Meanwhile, Lily said that she copes better as a SAHM because of her outgoing personality.
What are some of the biggest challenges that SAHMs face?
The five mothers each cited different kinds of things that they find most challenging as a SAHM, ranging from personal mental health to financial needs.
Fatin said that the most challenging times are when she falls sick and struggles to take care of her kids.
"We SAHM don't really have medical leave, and I can't send the kids anywhere (like nursery or school), so looking after them when you are at your worst state, is just really hard," she said.
Deepalakshimy said that, "Cleaning and having no one to talk to other than with my daughter. Sometimes losing sanity because kids can have their own mood."
Lily voiced out her concerns related to household expenses and when can’t do her chores as planned.
We've heard the saying, "leave your problems at the office door" but for these SAHMs, there is no such thing as detaching from ongoing problems.
"There's nowhere to hide when sh#t hits the fan. Unlike work, where there are breaks. Staying at home is literally a job that has no breaks," Mindy said.
How much money should the other half be earning to be able to afford to have a stay-at-home parent?
All five of them said that there are many things to factor in and there are no hard and fast ways to determine how much money is needed to sustain a family.
"This depends on the family's need. I could not give you a figure. It depends on commitments (like education loans, housing loans, and car loans) and their lifestyle (stuff they buy, meals they are having, etc). So really, if you think it's enough, you will make sure it is. Because maybe for some, they could be earning more than RM10,000 per month but couldn't make the cut," Fatin said.
Meanwhile, Deepalakshimy said that her husband only earned RM4,500 initially when she first became a SAHM and they survived.
"It all depends on how we manage our finances and prioritise our needs," she said.
When asked if it is possible for both the husband and wife to be stay-at-home parents, all except Fatin said it is not possible.
"Yes, of course (it's possible to have two stay-at-home parents). Maybe they are work-at-home parents. They choose to work at their own time and with the family," Fatin said.
Is it a lonely journey? Do SAHMs have friends?
Today, modern SAHMs have no trouble connecting with friends and their network of SAHMs thanks to the Internet but most of these relationships stay virtual. On top of that, they tend to "do their own thing" as their peers would be preoccupied with their own family and personal activities.
So despite the increased connectivity, all five of the interviewees said that it could be a lonely journey being a SAHM sometimes.
Fatin makes it a point to break out of the isolated environment at home and meet people whenever she can.
"Sometimes it is because you start and end the day only with the kids, and some part of it with the husband too. That's why sometimes I'll bring the kids out, just so we will meet people and see the world," Fatin explained.
Many SAHMs long to hold more meaningful conversations with their peers and are desperate to find companionship after an exhausting day with their children.
"When my daughter sleeps and if I am not tired, I will start to cry because I would be feeling very lonely, with no one to talk to or share my day. My husband calls but does not talk much over the phone. I have friends but they too have their own family. Single friends are also busy with their career. I think twice when calling anyone, especially friends," Deepalakshimy said.
That is also the case for Lily, who feels left out sometimes.
"99% of my friends are working mums. We don't have same interest and topic, and I'm not aware when they call for a gathering," Lily said.
Mindy said that some days could be hard to get by but little encouragements from her kids made her day better.
"It can be (lonely) but when your kid tells you, 'I love you mummy', it's totally worth it," she said.
Is there any tension or competition between SAHMs and careers mums?
Dubbed as "mummy wars", there have been extensive articles and books about SAHMs versus careers mums, as each goes into their own defensive mode or try to have the last say over who's the better parent.
Deepalakshimy pointed out that the competition lies in the societal expectation that is often based on the upbringing of a child, whereby people are judging parents based on a child's behaviour and performance at school.
"If the child turns out to be well-behaved and smart, then it is strongly associated with having a mum at home to care for him or her, whereas career mums who have to rely on others to take care of their child, hence that child might turn out to be rebellious."
"In my opinion, it does not matter if it is a SAHM or not. If there is proper communication between a child and the parents, then the relationship will be great and the child will grow up with good behaviour," she added.
Meanwhile, Fatin said that there would always be comments from either side but at the end of the day, these mothers share a common goal, which is to contribute to their family in their own ways.
"There is always some that try to compete and make statements. But see, we mums are just trying our best for the family, working or not," she said.
As Mindy and Sook Yee put it, whether it is a SAHM or a career mum, both have their own challenges and they'll always want what is best for their family.
How are stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) viewed in Malaysian culture?
In traditional Southeast Asian families, a father is expected to provide financial support for the family while the mother's primary role is to take care of the children. Like mums, dads too are subjected to certain societal standards and ideals on what a father should be even in the 21st century.
"SAHMs are weird enough for our society. Well, stay-at-home dads would be more alienated, I guess. It's always the dads that should provide for the family here," Fatin said.
Besides Fatin, both Lily and Mindy too agreed that SAHDs are not very well accepted by the society.
However, Sook Yee said that the view towards SAHDs is "not bad". She explained that she is part of Facebook parenting groups and it's not unusual to find stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) within the groups.
With SAHMs being a "full-time mum", what is their spouse's role in parenting their child(ren)?
It's encouraging to know that despite the differences in their roles and responsibilities, these mothers and fathers do work together as partners when it comes to parenting their children.
"Daddy is definitely more lenient and obliging but when it comes to serious disciplining, we are on the same page," Mindy said.
That is also the case for Deepalakshimy and her husband.
"We both discipline our child the same way and nothing different. His role to the family is that of a provider and protector, and the person whom both my daughter and I seek for advice or opinions," she said.
Do SAHMs ever think of going back to work?
The topic of women being uncertain of making a career comeback due to employment gap has been well-documented.
One of these mothers, Lily, actually went back to work last year, but it only lasted for a month. She said that she does not have any plans to go back to work in the future.
The rest of the interviewees said that they do want to pursue their own careers in due time, but only when their children are older.
"I would not want to work for someone. I will pursue my dreams. I love cooking and hope to be successful in the culinary industry," Deepalakshimy said.
For now, all of these mummies are focused on giving their 100% on nurturing their kids. Some of them have even taken up jobs with flexible work arrangements to earn some side income.
"Growing the family big, and watching the kids grow in front of me is my biggest dream so far," Fatin said.
Through it all, these supermums do not have any regrets
In all honesty, one of them did feel a tinge of regret when her spouse complained that she was not "doing anything at home" but "kept asking for money".
They admitted that there were moments when they felt defeated by daily stress and problems. However, none of them really regretted in becoming a SAHM, whether it was with their own voluntary choice or not.
"One of the best blessings would be to have the privilege to watch the kids grow right in front of me. And to cherish the times with them because they only grow once," Fatin said.
For these mothers, being a SAHM has given them the opportunity to play an active role in nurturing the kids and they think it's a privilege for them to be at their children's side in every step of the way. This is also an opportunity for some of them to explore the possibilities of starting their own home business.
Much have been discussed on women choosing between career and motherhood or the possibility of "having both". However, the fact of the matter is, things are not that simple.
As women continue to be bogged down by the pressures to become the "perfect mother", the society as a whole should be more sensitive and move away from making motherhood a flash point for envy, resentment, and guilt.
While the experiences of a SAHM and career mum may differ from one or another, know that no mother is more superior than the other, regardless of their circumstances or choices.
So, the next time you meet someone who is a mother, encourage her and tell her that she's doing a great job.
Are you a stay-at-home mum? If you are, how has it been for you? Share with us your experience as a SAHM in the comments section below!