Holidays are the hardest work of all

For career women, juggling the demands of the office with the demands of their children can stop them being bored, insecure parents, but the price could be ill health. As the long school break begins, their stress levels rise with summer temperatures and there's no break in sight

Pauline Heslop is a social worker and the mother of three boys aged nine, seven, and three, whose six-week school holidays have been mapped out with steely precision. Her diary is like a war plan which ought to make the general staff feel proud.

In the first two weeks, relatives will look after the children. For the next fortnight, Pauline, who works a three day-week, will share the duties with a second part-time working mother. They have scheduled the times and dates for a playscheme for the children. Sandwiches and pocketmoney will be made available daily.

For the final two weeks Pauline, by now quite exhausted, and her husband James, a publishing executive, will take the children to a gite in France.

Pauline's is a juggling act which every young working mother in Britain performs each summer during the long school holidays. The women of the "have it all" generation find themselves on the "double shift" - raising children and following a career. It is tough enough during term-time, but the summer holidays are the hardest, most taxing time of all.

A newly published paper in the United States has revealed that working mothers' lives are so stressful that they can cause health problems. Researchers at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina found that stress hormone levels in working mothers rose each morning, remained high through the day and stayed at the same levels when they returned home.

Previous stress studies have focused on men, and have shown that once they arrived home from work they relaxed. So do working women without children. But as Redford Williams, the head of behavioural science responsible for the Duke University study, said: "For working mothers there is no let up."

Dr Williams's team found that the level of cortisol, a hormone released when people feel distress or sense a lack of control, remains particularly high throughout the mothers' day. Regardless of marital status or the number of children, mothers also experienced steady levels of catecholamines, hormones associated with "effort", while for working fathers, these fell when they returned home.

Although most mothers will take comfort in Duke University's findings, confirming that the stress they experience is more than a feeling, and that it can be measured in hard, scientific data, they may well be surprised by some of the findings such as that the number of children makes no difference to stress. The researchers found that mothers with one child at home had stress hormone levels as high as working mothers with more than one child.

Of all the findings, those on cortisol were the most disturbing. Constantly high levels of this "out of control" hormone could lead to severe health problems by suppressing the immune system and heightening the impact of the other stress hormones, catecholamines. The eventual result could be heart attacks, says the Duke study. At least the research suggests that employment outside the home is associated with improved psychological health. The message to mothers seems to be: juggling work and home will stop you being a bored, insecure mother, but the eventual price is poorer health.

The Duke study confirmed a British report by the Institute of Management which revealed that more than half the working women surveyed found arranging chores stressful. One in four were affected by childcare.

BOTH the American and British findings confirm what many women have been saying for years: that the guilt and conflict at leaving children while they go to work is bad enough, but the additional burden of caring for them after a hard day at the office makes the experience exhausting. When the children are at home and bored, it can be barely tolerable.

Monica Lanyado of the British Association of Psychotherapists said: "Mothers don't just worry that their children are being neglected during the holidays. They will feel they're being neglected even if they are not."

One of a mother's functions in the summer months is listening to complaints. Children complain of having nothing to do; they fret at being left when their parents go to work; and they don't like being shunted from one carer to another. But in the age of the atomic family, the availability of a grandmother around the corner, close to an assortment of cousins, uncles and aunts is very scarce.

Some mothers chose local authority playschemes instead. These provide supervised activities such as trampolining and sports for around pounds 5 a day. But these often finish at 3pm, and the alternatives which fill out whole days come at a price. The affluent family can buy time at summer camps. For instance, PGL, one of the biggest holiday activity companies, offers a week at camp with meals and accommodation for pounds 209 per child.

But for the average family, holidays are also a strain on the finances. A trip to a theme park, a snack and ice cream for a family of four leaves little if any change out of pounds 50.

"I've been racking my brains to try and think of things to do which cost nothing," says Anita Garvey, a mother of two, who works part-time as a cleaner while her husband is a self-employed illustrator. "The difficulty is that children are very consumerist nowadays. It's as if what you do isn't valid unless you're spending money. An experience only has meaning if it involves buying something."

The days when a mother made a picnic and waved the children off for a day out on their bikes are long gone. Fear of strangers, heavy traffic on the roads, and the modern parents' belief that they must constantly ensure their children enjoy a stimulating environment has put paid to all that. And in the age of television, the video and the computer, many children seem unable to keep themselves entertained.

"They just ask all the time 'what are we going to do now'," says Finola Berger, a mother of three. "When I was child in the Sixties, I would sit and read. Children now. need you to keep organising their lives. And you can't leave them to go somewhere on their own; they have to be taken, even if it's just down the road."

"I feel sorry for them in a way," says Anita Garvey. "It's as if the only place they can roam and be safe is roaming across a computer screen. They certainly can't play in the street."

WE ARE told that this is the age of the New Man, yet childcare problems, such as school holiday crises, remain the province of mothers. In previous studies, increasing social support of mothers reduced mothers' stress levels, but Duke University's hormone analysis found this kind of backing was not essential. Their scientists suspected that quality of experience of work and family life were key.

"The level of satisfaction at work and home may be what makes a difference. Maybe the only way to reduce the burden on these working mothers is to share it, to more equally divide home responsibility," said Duke's Dr Williams.

It sounds good in theory. But in practice?

"Ask any mother. She'll say she has to organise it all, rather than their father," said Ms Heslop. "If a mother doesn't make sure the childcare is in place for the holidays, it won't happen.

Parents at Work, a charity and campaign group, advocates summer clubs like the term-time operations backed by the Education Secretary David Blunkett and Cherie Blair's favourite charity Kids Club Network. "Summer care is a patchy, piecemeal service. If the Government really wants to help mothers who work, they need to address this," said Parents at Work's joint chief executive, Sue Monk.

In Shavington, Cheshire, Rosie Lacey, a former biochemist, who is spending the summer looking after her two boys, Xavier and Arnaud, says one of the main reasons she has not returned to work is the difficulty of caring for them during school holidays. "Instead I listen to the cry 'what are we going to do today, mummy'," she explains, before breaking off to tell her son: "Don't sit on his head, he doesn't like it. Let go! He's trying to eat his apple! If you do that he'll choke!"

Two hundred miles away, therapist Monica Lanyado has bad news for mothers like Rosie Lacey who have five year olds."The really difficult times are much later on. Coping as a working mother with teenagers of 14 and 15 is very tricky in the summer holidays.

"They insist they don't need looking after, but while you're at work, you know that all sorts of things are going on at home. They're smoking, the whole neighbourhood is in your kitchen, or they're having all sorts of sexual adventures."

And it's not even August yet...

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