So superdad resigns to spend more time with his cabinet

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I used to joke that if I ever had children they would one day say: "All I remember of mama is the swish of taffeta and hint of jasmine as she crept into the nursery to kiss us goodnight." My husband's recollections of his beautiful, long-dead mother are filtered through a 1950s prism of perfume bottles and looking-glasses.

I used to joke that if I ever had children they would one day say: "All I remember of mama is the swish of taffeta and hint of jasmine as she crept into the nursery to kiss us goodnight." My husband's recollections of his beautiful, long-dead mother are filtered through a 1950s prism of perfume bottles and looking-glasses.

Alas, the days when being glamorous was a fair substitute for more traditional parenting skills are now consigned to story books. Cocktail-party mother has been replaced in the popular mythology by beastly, working mother. "All I remember of mum is the click of her briefcase and hint of CK1 perfume as she told the au pair what to put in our sandwiches."

The recent scandal about sub-standard nurseries has put working mum in the dock once more. Cherie Blair said cautiously in an interview this weekend to mark her 50th birthday: "I don't think women should work. I think women should have the choice." Ah, choice! The mot du jour for New Labour. The great gift that's supposed to free us, but in reality leaves us saying: "So it's my own stupid fault, is it?"

And how fiercely we must defend our choices. In a letter to a newspaper a reader recently stirred other mums to fever pitch by writing that women who place their children in nurseries are selfish. Writers Richard Reeves and Allison Pearson have been carrying out an increasingly heated debate in the New Statesman about whether stay-at-home dads are the answer to working mums' dreams.

Pearson says the idea that a full-time father solves "the problem of a loving mother not having a significant presence in her family's life is ridiculous". I have some sympathy with her view. Before I gave birth I imagined that the working mother's twin demons of accusation and guilt could be averted by a judicious sharing of the childcare burden between partners.

In practice, although I am still theoretically on maternity leave, my hours of dedicated mothering have been limited. Since my son was eight weeks old I have been writing three days a week, going to London for at least one day, and spending every spare hour reading, and now re-reading, submissions for the Man Booker Prize.

Even on the two days that my husband spends at the office, my play-mat frolics are interspersed by phone calls and urgent emails. As the household's main earner, I have no choice but to service our hefty mortgage. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the fact that my baby boy now turns his eyes to my husband a second before he seeks me out, and his biggest smiles come most readily for Daddy.

This cuts me to the quick. I tell myself that parenting is not a competitive sport, but I can't quite suppress the notion that I'm betraying some hard-wired version of motherhood. My husband tells me not to be ridiculous; so long as one of us is on hand we are doing our best by him. And our courses were set long ago when he scaled down his workload so that I can pursue my ambitions.

If I feel guilty as an imperfect mother, he says, what about his failings as a breadwinner? It's not the same thing, I argue. My son's and my love for him is not dependent on his salary, but my child's current relationship with me is entirely predicated on how much time I spend in his company. Men are long accustomed to playing second fiddle as parents, but it's a painful new exercise for women.

And while the woman who reduces her workload to maximise time with her child still feels compromised, the man who does likewise is wildly applauded. Alan Milburn was saluted as the hero of the age when he resigned a ministerial post to "spend more time with my family". Images were conjured of a brave new man escorting kids to playgroups. The fact that he still had a full-time job as a constituency MP was conveniently ignored.

And now his return to Cabinet raises no criticisms. No shouts of: "Couldn't stand the heat in the nursery, Alan?" How unlike the jeers that greeted the late Paula Yates when she returned to TV, having once said mums should stay home with their kids.

Guilt is the sea in which all mothers swim, but the burden might be eased if it were shared. I long for the day when a woman or man can say on equal terms and to equal brickbats: "I tried that childcare lark and it bored me rigid - so I hotfooted it on the train back to London."

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