Saturday, 7 May 2011

Are you BadMAM* if you work?

How to be a good mother? I agree with Viv Groskop*, eat all your children's Easter eggs and then there is no more evil sugar for them to face. Oops, no that is missing the point wilfully and salving the guilt. I do need that chocolate, as many Mums may empathise, I was awoken at 5.30 on a Saturday morning, could not get back to sleep and used it as the first opportunity to read last Sunday's newspapers.

Viv talks about the polar dialogue about the decision whether to return to work as a Mum or to stay at home. It would seem that pitchforks raised between the feminist cabal of working Mums and thunder of 'evidence' from those fed up at us BadMAM*'s prioritising our evil careers over our children's real needs.

The debate blusters on, bouncing from condemnation, to empathy, to random insults for even pursuing the subject. Every comment seems to come from a pre-set agenda. However, has any decision, from whether to work or stay at home to what to have  for dinner, ever been divorced not only from our own specific environment and our politics to the constraints of the society and economy in which we live?

Rational decisions can limited as mothers consider their options for work. Having worked for over fifteen years, studied for two degrees and run a small organisation I discovered that the job market is not, what you could call, welcoming. You have three main options: continue as before, fighting for acceptance in a job market that largely requires you to work for more than the standard 9-5; look for a part time job, where you either negotiate for a cut in hours and status or opt for post natal depression as you consider your suitability as a receptionist, call centre operative or maybe even a 'work from home' scam (employers seem to have established that Mums are desperate); or finally you just give up your decades worth of work ethic and cross your fingers that you can fudge your CV in five years time so that your former PA will take pity on your and re-employ you for old time's sake. Is this a plea for pity? Never, but it is worth pointing out that if you want to be a working mother your decisions may be made for you by the recessionary job market rather than the slightly deluded life plan that you made when considering motherhood.

The other great influencer on family life is finances. Can you afford to work, can you afford not to? I loved the comment on Viv's site that said simply: "Lots of women worked while being mothers in the 1800s. It's just that they were working class." My personal experience was a little different, my Mum was technically a stay at home Mum but being in, ahem, a different tax bracket to me she just employed the Nannie and disappeared regardless.

I agree with the comment that children are a responsibility not a right, but don't subscribe to the policy that the only possible option is to stay at home regardless of other mitigating factors. Is a staying at home the answer for children in families where generations have never worked and life's horizons are so limited? Likewise, watching highly educated former high achievers dutifully shoe horn themselves into the stay at home role while seeing their independence and confidence being replaced by anxiety and self doubt makes me worry that their resulting stress levels must not be entirely to the benefit of family life. This was particularly brought home for a friend whose clash with her teenage daughter centred on the fact that despite having given up a blue chip career for motherhood she an unworthy role model for a woman of today as she currently did not work.

If you want the science you can find plenty of evidence to back up need to stay at home but also read Dettling and colleagues' study in Psychoneuroendocrinology 25, or the digested version in Sue Gerhardt's book 'Why love matters'. An excerpt here gives you a flavour as to the lack of a clear argument; it indicates that the need for appropriate care is paramount, but that it may be offered by someone other than a Mum:
"What a small child needs is an adult who is emotionally available and tuned in to regulate his stress....One study  of nursery school children showed that it was not the mother's absence in itself that increase stress hormones such as cortisol, but the absence of an adult figure who was responsive and alert to their states moment my moment. If there was a member of staff who took on this responsibility, their cortisol levels did not rise."
Do I have any conclusions? I wish I could write with the lightness of touch and erudition of the original article, but other than that I can only say as Mums what ever we do we are bound to be condemned for even discussing the issue let alone for trying to balance our finances, children's welfare and our long term career and personal aspirations. I know that becoming a Mother changed me in ways that I could never have anticipated, but I am doing the best that I can do, however flawed I may be.

* BadMAMS - Dad Mothering Amnesty Movement. Read the article and the range of thunderous comments it provoked: Viv Groskop: I'm a bad mother. I work

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