According to a Harvard study published recently, having a working mother can make girls more likely succeed in future careers, and sons more likely to help around the house when grown up. Seemingly, it took minutes for the papers and social media to slip into generic “working mothers are better” mode, missing the specifics and nuance of the study entirely. As a working mother myself, I think this was supposed to make me squeal in joyful vindication, “You like me – you really like me!” and stand on righteous island, giving myself a faintly superior pat on the back. But most of the news stories around the study just infuriated me. Because, again, mothers were being judged as either superior or not quite cutting the mustard, according to either their carefully considered choices or involuntary life circumstances.
I’ve been “both kinds” of mum. Having been brought up by a very hard-working career woman with whom, for whatever unrelated reason, I didn’t enjoy a great relationship, I got it into my head that I was “going to do things properly” when I became pregnant with my first child. Never mind that I had been working since I was 14, with no periods of unemployment, and been obsessed with my independence throughout (I’m pretty much a chip off the old block in that regard, I’ve come to accept). I was going to stay at home, wash the reusable nappies (let us never discuss this), purée the organic vegetables and never use CBeebies as babysitter. My kids were going to know Mum was always there, waiting for them to come home, possibly with some chocolate brownies in the oven.
I lasted 18 months – and only that long because I was too ashamed to admit defeat. I was bored and depressed. I hated the park; I hadn’t done antenatal or NCT, so found it very hard to make new mum-friends; I missed having my own money and felt utterly bereft of the career that had defined me for so long and which, I now understood, made up the lion’s share of my self-esteem. Nonetheless, I tried and tried to convince myself otherwise, badly acting a role for which I was hopelessly miscast, selling my son short in the process. My husband worked insanely long shifts, so our baby spent his days with someone who loved him very much, but who would often have preferred to be somewhere else. He was everything I could ever hope for, and yet still not enough. By doing what I’d been conditioned to think was right, I simply wasn’t being a good mother.
They can pitch the breastfeeders against the bottle feeders, the home-birthers against the C-section electors, the nanny employers against the nursery mums
Since my moment of clarity (and escalating financial imperative), my kids have had me all day, been in part-time nursery, had full-time nannies, lived with messy and precarious solutions involving me, their stepfather, my website assistant, a friend’s teen son and practically anyone decent I can get my hands on to hold the fort while I earn enough money to look after us all. And you know what? They’re happy. My sons are kind to one another, nice to their friends, polite to their teachers and they walk into rooms as though this represents some kind of lottery win for anyone present.
I am lucky. I’m someone who doesn’t have a boss, or a set shift pattern, or any pressing financial woes. I can generally go to the concert and attend the harvest festival, while countless women would kill for the same freedom. Equally, I know women who’d give their right arm for some office-time away from the kids, but have no choice other than to be the full-time childcarer while their partner earns the cash. And, in all cases, at the centre of their lives are kids who are loved and doing just fine. And who’s to say that while some girls are inspired by their mum’s careers, others don’t thrive and gain confidence nestled under the security of their stay-at-home mother’s ever-present wing? And what about boys who instinctively muck in, because their stay-at-home mums insist on a purposeful life and some old-fashioned manners? With all the dissenting academic studies in the world, people are individuals, life is messy, families are unique. None of us dictates who our babies decide to be – however hard we might try.
At the same time, our lives are not anything like as different as academics and tabloid journalists would have us believe. My best friend, Rachel, has enough money to do what she loves: being a stay-at-home mum to three children. And yet she’s just as likely as I am to be sprinkling convincingly messy icing sugar over a dozen M&S fairy cakes for the school bake sale. On a daily basis, she experiences as much stress, as big a workload, as much pressure and frustration as I do in my job (and as much irritation, boredom and utter joy with her kids). She just doesn’t get paid. I look at her children and think what a credit they are to her. How stable they are, how full of attention, time and undiluted engagement their lives appear to be (unless I’m visiting and we are both drinking wine and ignoring them while they run feral in the garden, obviously). And I’ll admit that, in their home, I occasionally succumb to guilt. Or when another stay-at-home mum at school tilts her head and says, “You work a lot, don’t you?”, or “Ooh, we don’t normally see you here”, as though my poor children spend their lives pining, sad eyes fixated on the front door lock. Or when I forget about yet another sodding costume I was supposed to make and instinctively turn to Amazon Prime and throw money at the problem. But, during these times, I have to remind myself that to pick a team, or take a side, is to help sell us all down an already treacherous river.
And let’s face it, I say all this in the full expectation that, next week, we’ll hear that, actually, stay-at-home mums are better, while working mums are selfishly giving their kids brain cancer. It’ll reinforce my belief that approval for women is ephemeral at best. In reality, there are no winners and so we really must stop playing this utterly pointless game. They can pitch the breastfeeders against the bottle feeders, the home-birthers against the C-section electors, the nanny employers against the nursery mums, the potty trainers versus the die-hard nappy crew. But we can also choose not to feel simultaneously defensive, guilty and woefully inferior, in a way that no dad is ever expected to. Because happy parents make for happy kids and, in time, happy adults. We just need to love our kids, look after them as best we can, and keep making whichever choices are right for our family based on whatever resources are available to us. That’s frankly all there is to it. The rest is mere bullshit.