Of all the mad questions I was asked after I had my daughter, the one about whether I would return to work always seemed the maddest. Midwives, health visitors, family and colleagues all asked as if it were a sensible inquiry. Because, for new mothers, going back to work is still seen as “if” rather than “when”.
For me, there was no question about it. Childcare costs meant it was barely worth the effort but working was as much about my wellbeing as financial considerations. My sanity depended on me having something else with which to fill my head.
Eight years on, the benefits of my girl having a mother who works full time are already clear. She’s adaptable, she makes her own fun and she understands that her needs will sometimes go on hold while I meet a deadline.
She has sat quietly while I’ve interviewed celebrities and yawned ostentatiously while I’ve delivered lectures. She sees me enjoying my work and talks excitedly about a future in which she might follow her interests and work as a chef or a scientist. There are, for the time being, no “ifs” in her mind.
So I wasn’t surprised last week when a Harvard study found that the daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those reared by stay-at-home mums.
Role models play a crucial part in our children’s value systems. Forget Taylor Swift or Tracy Beaker: there can be no more powerful example for a girl than the woman who raised her. So why is it that mothers who work and who have a raison d’être beyond their children’s lives are so often painted as neglectful and selfish? (This is not to suggest stay-at-home mums have it easier; they face their own set of wrong-headed assumptions, too.)
Whatever their choices, women are constantly pummelled with the notion of “having it all”, an idiotic concept exploited by joyless self-help books urging us to get our lives in order (the latest abomination: I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time). I don’t want to have it all, I just want the right to work and be a parent and not have to sacrifice one to do the other.
I know I’ve been lucky. My husband and I split childrearing pretty evenly. I’ve also had kind bosses, happy for me to down tools to see my child through a fever. But that hasn’t alleviated that gnawing guilt, stoked by women’s magazines and the right-wing press, when parent-teacher meetings are missed or my daughter is dispatched to a childminder until my train gets in.
All of which leads back to the enduring stereotype of the stressed-out, time-poor, terminally inattentive working mother forever defending her choices rather than taking pride in them. Instead of piling on the guilt we should be easing it – if not for the mothers, then for their children.Reuse content