I was fired; now mothers have a choice

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The Independent Online
Twenty-one women on this newspaper - out of a staff of some 640 - are currently either expecting a baby or on maternity leave. The Independent has always had an exceptionally youthful workforce (at one stage the average age was 28, though I believe it has crept up a bit) but even so, this high level of pregnancy is an example of a general shift in the working environment towards much greater tolerance of impending motherhood.

In 1963, I was summarily fired for being pregnant. I was newly married at the time and worked on a magazine called, with unconscious irony, Modern Woman. The editor was a man, who certainly thought of his all-female staff as girls. One of the girls may have noticed me looking a bit green in the mornings; at any rate I was hardly three months 'gone' when he summoned me to his office and told me to leave at the end of the week. That Friday, with a small plastic tea-tray as a leaving present, I went. The magazine closed a few months later. Not Modern enough, perhaps.

Eight years and two children further on, I was back at work as a journalist when I became pregnant again. This time I was permitted, as a very special favour, to take my annual leave allowance in one chunk of five weeks. There was some embarrassment around the office at my increasingly bulbous shape. I was working so hard that I only gained nine pounds throughout the entire pregnancy, so it was a relatively small bulge, but I thought I detected a feeling on the part of my male colleagues that I had no business confronting them with my condition.

I stayed at work until five days before my daughter's birth, and was back - weeping into my typewriter - four-and-a-half weeks later. This was 1971, and employers paid no compulsory maternity allowance, either in time or money. I was lucky not to have been fired again.

It is the women's movement rather than governmental concern for working mothers, let alone the goodwill of their employers, that has brought about these immense changes within the span of my working life. Now I detect a turning of the tide, as more women choose to stay at home and be full-time mothers. Three from this paper, in the last two years, had planned to come back to office work once their babies were born, only to find that in practice they preferred not to.

Just as the sexual revolution of the Sixties gave women the right to say yes to sex, and only gradually did it dawn upon them that they were in danger of losing the right to say no, so women's right to work and have small children became a pressure to continue working, whether they liked it or not.

This is first and foremost an economic pressure, since very few young men earn enough to support a child, let alone more than one, and both its parents. However, the feminist movement, which campaigns for women's right to choose, tended to dismiss as traitors to the cause those women - especially highly trained, professional women - who chose not to work during their children's early years.

Pope John Paul said last Thursday that women should be paid to bring up their children. I seldom agree with him, but here I do. Babies and toddlers are indescribably exhausting, but their early years are also fascinating. Watching a child learn, at breathtaking speed, how to grasp and sit and crawl and stand; hear and listen and talk and decipher; play and share and read and write - simply watching a child learn how to be a human being is one of the most absorbing and demanding things any adult can do.

Some parents, usually mothers, find to their surprise that they actually want to stay at home to guide and witness this process. Nothing is more important for their children, who are our communal future, than making it possible for them to do so - unless it is providing brilliant alternative child care for those who do not.

Feminism has overlooked the fact that being a good mother is a crucially important role for women, not only in the lives of the children concerned, but also in society. It is no less difficult and demanding than being a good lawyer, doctor, journalist, or anything else. I am not arguing that women should be herded back into the nursery and kitchen: heaven forbid. But I am saying that those who find they like it there should be given every encouragement. How odd it is that, just as women succeed in getting men to acknowledge that anything they can do, we can do too, women should abandon the one thing that we seem, on the whole, to do better.

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