The Office for National Statistics revealed last month that there were 45,000 fewer "stay-at-home mothers" between December and February, down to 2.06m. This increase prompted much debate on whether mothers are being pressured into work by the government, and whether stay at home mothers are being effectively discriminated against through lack of support. The government had also recently announced that working parents earning up to £150,000 each will get up to £1,200 to help with child care. This incentive is apparently because David Cameron wants to support parents with ‘aspirations’. However, many parents who are not in paid work have taken objection to this assumption that they 'lack aspiration', feeling that the value of parenting is increasingly unrecognised. Meanwhile, many parents who have no choice but to work look on enviously at those who are in a position to choose to stay at home. Justifying different parents' choices or their requirement for support unfortunately can often widen the divide between working mothers and stay at home mothers. But there is another group of mothers who don't fall neatly into these two categories; Recently I talked to young mums about their choices around working or staying at home as a parent, and it soon became apparent that a third option was the most common experience for young mums; ‘the studying parent’.

'Student parents' aren't in the position to take either 'moral higher ground' argument of being at home with children 24/7 or out contributing to the economy, yet most student parents felt this option was most suited to their situation, primarily because they valued the flexibility that studying offered them as a parent. They appreciated the time they were able to be at home with children but also knew that they were building a better future for their child through doing something to develop themselves. Many young mums felt that staying at home 24/7 could be quite isolating, particularly when they already felt excluded from society, and attending college or university allowed them to mix with others their age and also helped to increase their confidence. While some young student parents had experienced a lack of support from teachers who assumed low expectations of them as a 'teenage parent', or colleges that refused to allow for time off when children were ill, with understanding and a good support system, most young mums were finding that, if they were to continue their education smoothly, being a teenage parent wasn't actually the life-ending predicament they'd been warned about.
When young parents are supported to fit study around parenting needs and aspirations then options don't have to be limited at all. The choice between motherhood and studying is clearly not a dichotomous one. It is perhaps 'easier', or less detrimental to carrier progression, than the difficult ‘back to work or not’ choice mothers are making in their thirties, way into a career which was never built around fitting in a family. Because young mums have children before developing their career they often find that their careers develop around their children and family life, taking them on new and often exciting paths that they hadn’t even considered before. If more skilled graduate jobs with part time hours and flexibility were available to move into then society could even encourage women to do it this way round and study while children are young before progressing in a career! Maybe we need to start being more honest about why some people really want to discourage young parenthood, and admit that limitations in career choices caused by early motherhood could be addressed by just thinking differently about how mothers want to fit work around family.

Despite research suggesting that young mothers are more motivated to get qualifications after having children, it's questionable whether student parents would be considered the ‘aspiration’ parents who the government want to support while they are not contributing financially to society. It's easy for society to ignore the importance of flexible education for young parents and focus on the welfare bill that allows them this time to study. 'Stay-at-home parents' are usually stereotyped as either rich and privileged or poor and scrounging - ‘Teenage mums’ invariable fall into the second category. The common lack of value placed on caring for children results in the view that if you’re not in paid work you are taking the ‘easy’ or ‘lazy’ option. But we need to be able to promote the value of parenthood while trusting parents more and supporting their needs and choices. The government should support those who are struggling or require a bit of help; Paying for childcare for those earning £150,000 only gives the message that financial contribution is valued more than our children, and that family should fit around our working lives, rather than work fitting around our family lives.