Mummy has to go to work

Children whose mothers have jobs take fewer days off sick. Fran Abrams finds out why
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The Independent Online
Jose Franks knows all about being a working mother. After running a stall at Covent Garden market and managing a youth training project, she now works from home running a fan club for D:Ream, the pop group.

Coping with the pressures of work and bringing up 12-year-old Lucy and 10-year-old Oliver, she is also familiar with the juggling acts women in her position regularly have to perform.

When a child has measles or chicken pox, parents such as Jose have little choice but to take time off work and keep them away from school. But what happens when mum suspects - but isn't sure - that Johnny's stomach ache may really be a case of trying it on? What about when he feels OK but a harmless rash has made him look as if he is at death's door? Researchers have discovered Johnny is far more likely to end up in school if his mum has a job.

Jose agrees that she feels more relaxed about such problems now that she works from home.

"I am probably more tolerant if they are ill now that I am not at work. At one time, I would have felt there was a lot more pressure on me to get them to school," she says.

"Fortunately, my children haven't had many illnesses, and they have always liked going to their child-minder. When I was in business with a partner, I would feel a bit guilty if I had to take time off, so I would pay someone to do my part of the job or do it at the weekend."

Dr Jenny Hewison and Dr Therese Dowswell from the University of Leeds have conducted a two-year study on the phenomenon. They found that children with mothers who did not have paid work missed more than twice as many school days as those whose mothers worked. They say that for women with families and full-time jobs, employment practices in Britain bring nothing but guilt - guilt at missing work to look after a sick child, and guilt at going to work and leaving the child with a relative or a child-minder.

Dr Hewison and Dr Dowswell studied 139 families with children at primary school. Having won the co-operation of five schools in a mainly white, stable, working-class area of Leeds, they interviewed parents about their children's absences. They discoveredthat while children with full-time working mothers had an average of three days off during two school terms, those with mothers who did not work had an average 6.6 days' absence.

The study also showed that children with the most trivial and most serious reasons for absence tended to have mothers at home. The researchers suggested that mothers of really sick children may stay at home as a result of their illness. Mothers who do not work, they say, are more likely to take the safe option and keep their child off if there is any doubt.

They emphasise that they are not saying working mothers send their children to school when they are ill. On the contrary, non-working mothers could be keeping their children off when it is not really necessary. Some children in the study stayed away whentheir mother or sister was ill, when the weather was bad, or when they missed the bus.

There is some evidence that the children of working mothers may actually be ill less often. There are two reasons for this - mothers of delicate children choose not to work, and working mothers may be from more affluent backgrounds where illness is less frequent.

Whatever the explanation, Dr Hewison, a senior lecturer in psychology, believes the working mother often finds herself in a no-win situation.

"Having made the practical arrangements, she has to carry the can when the boss is unhappy because she is off, the sales figures are down and she has to buy Grandma a bunch of flowers because she stepped in at the last minute."

Other countries do things differently, she points out. Swedish parents are allowed up to 60 days' leave each year for family responsibilities, and other countries have similar, though less generous, arrangements. These concessions are open to mothers andfathers, although fathers in the Leeds study looked after their children during just eight out of 282 absences from school.

Michael Russell, headteacher of Malmesbury Junior School in Bow, east London, the school where Jose's youngest child goes, says that while working mothers can find it difficult to keep their children off, stay-at-home parents can have the opposite problem.

"Some need their child to justify their existence. Sometimes a seven- or eight-year-old's mum keeps him off entirely because she wants company," he says.

"Some do bring their children in when they aren't well, but they usually give us a number and tell us to ring them if they get worse. After all, we're not a baby-minding service."

`Schools, Maternal Employment and Child Health Care' will be published in the `British Educational Research Association Journal', available from the Scottish Council for Research in Education, 15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 8JR. It is also described ina book, `Child Health Care and the Working Mother: The Juggling Act', published by Chapman and Hall.