There comes a point in parenthood where you’re just kinda rolling along, in your routine and your roles not really overthinking what you’re doing. Kids to school, parents to work. What you’ve done for ages. Past the point of doing things that need to be endlessly debated by strangers on the internet – no longer breastfeeding, or potty training or weaning or babywearing or anything that’s particularly controversial. They’ve even both learnt to read now. The “frantic googling” stage of parenting is taking a break from now until puberty.
But then someone says something and a debate breaks out, and it’s about something that you hadn’t even considered might be anything to argue about. Yes, it’s working motherhood. And everyone seems to have an opinion about it, kicked off by that most contemporary of commentators Esther Rantzen.
I don’t talk about work too much on the internet but I’ll just say this – I have the perfect set up. A job I enjoy and it fits into school hours. I can drop the kids off every day and pick them up again. I miss no time with them at all because unless we were home schooling, we’d not be hanging out together between the hours of 9 and 3:30 anyway. There’s currently very little guilt attached to working, unlike the early days of working motherhood, where a screaming Roo ended up in the reception area of Nathan’s office because he just wouldn’t settle at the childminder. True, I miss some things at school but I normally manage to tweak work hours a bit to catch a school play or send Nathan to a Sports Day. Working keeps me sane and I’m a better parent for having something outside the home to focus on. Look how focused I am in my “Scarf of Working Motherhood” in the picture above.
( I’ll say right now that this post isn’t a dig at any mothers who don’t consider themselves to be working outside the home, it’s just a view from a working parent who feels under attack this week. More on that later.)
So why am I coming back to the swamp of despair on this seemingly innocuous area of parenthood? Well, here’s some of the things that have been said about working mothers recently. The aforementioned Esther Rantzen article for The Telegraph looked at the rise in levels of depression and anxiety among children and planted the blame firmly at the door “the decline of the housewife”. Working mothers, by any other name.
There are a myriad of reasons why children are now seeking more help with depression than ever before. I’d be inclined to cast an eye towards the new, compressed curriculum that sees my 8yo not doing PE because the class “needs to catch up” and being told to spend an hour a week of his precious after school time staring at a screen to solve maths problems. We tried it once and it did result in some anxiety so we’re skipping for now. The same curriculum has the 5yo in frustrated tears at the sheer difficulty of her numeracy homework, and thinking she’s stupid despite the fact that she writes beautifully and can draw a very realistic zombie. Cascade that same compressed curriculum up through the teens, with the regrading of the GCSEs and I’m not surprised we have some anxious children out there. Add in the pressures of social media life comparisons and cyberbullying and voila, a cocktail of teen angst. I’m no expert but I’d say that putting all the blame on “tired mothers” is a bit of a stretch.
Meanwhile, over the channel Minister for Equality Marlene Schiappa caused waves by suggesting that schools should call a child’s father when they’re ill, not their mother. She advised mothers not to give school their mobile number at all. Well. I can’t say I’m 100% with Schiappa on this one – it’s pretty common sense that whoever’s looking after your kids should have as many contact numbers as possible, in case of true emergency. But I applaud the sentiment – no, a mother should not be the one who is called out of work by default. It didn’t take long for a reaction piece to arise in HuffPost, from the founder of JoJo Maman Bebe, Laura Tenison. In it, she asked “ which mother would NOT want to be the first one to rush to the school to collect a sick child?”
I’m putting a cautious hand up here. Me. I’m that mother who would not want to be the first one to rush to the school. I’m that mother whose first reaction when a child is sick overnight is to start a furious whispered debate with Nathan about whose work day is busier the next day. I’m the mother who has Facebook-screamed as I’ve just sat down in the office, opened a full inbox and then got The Call of Doom. I’m also the mother who was on mat leave/freelance/self-employed for the best part of three years so was the default for all that time, which included Reuben’s first winter in preschool. And anyone who has experienced preschool knows the bodily-fluided nightmare that is.
It’s not just that I’m selfish. It partly is. I don’t enjoy quarantine and I certainly don’t enjoy mopping up sick and changing sheets. But it’s more than that. It’s the thing I forget after so many years of working motherhood – it’s a precarious thing. A job is hard won and easily lost and it’s stuff like taking days off to look after children that loses jobs not just for the mother involved but for mothers everywhere.
Obviously, societal change is needed but until then, us working mothers are walking a tightrope. We need to be present for our kids, especially if they’re ill., but we also need to be present for our employers. We need to work harder and faster than any other staff member to prove our worth. We need to make judgement calls about whether a toddler is ill with a virus or just teething when we make the decision about whether to leave work to pick them up or try and stall till the end of the day and the stakes are high.
It’s not our fault. Prejudice against working mothers is entrenched and discrimination is rife. I’ve been asked in job interviews how often my kids are sick. I’ve been told by someone who had several kids of his own that he just wanted someone “more flexible” doing my position. I’ve worked from home while a child has been vomiting next to me, I’ve worked on holiday and during a bereavement because we can’t afford to drop the ball. Right now, I have awesome and understanding bosses but still feel a clenching in my heart every time one of my kids has a weird clenching in their stomach.
So why do it at all? Why not take the Rantzen advice and just be happy as housewives? Well, again there are a huge variety of reasons behind why women work when they have kids. The main few I’d cover off as – a) economic reasons, although that might seem unrealistic when your salary is getting sucked up by childcare, b) career reasons, although again that might seem like a pipedream when you’re working part-time and c) sanity reasons. I’d like to somewhat belatedly say that I’m not denigrating anyone who does choose to stay at home. If that works for your family, then brilliant. It can be a wonderful thing to be with your kids as they grow up and even after they start school and you can have time for yourself. I don’t want to use my reasons for working to make anyone feel bad for not working.
Here’s the take-home though – we shouldn’t be told what to do by a third party. We shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for working or for being “housewives” (yeah, we need a better term). We should be doing what works for us, for our kids and for the family unit as a whole. What I see as perfection – a commute into Central London after drop off and before pick up – some would see as hellish. But it works for us.
And up till this week, I haven’t felt the working mother guilt for quite some time. They haven’t been ill for quite some time so I haven’t had to juggle (although there was that A&E trip in the summer). And in case you can’t tell, I feel somewhat enraged about being made to feel guilty about this. But get ragey with me – the devaluing of women’s work (i.e. it should always be the mother who fetches a sick child) is something to be enraged about. The piling of blame onto mothers for societal problems (i.e. kids are depressed and it’s their mother’s fault) is also something to be enraged about. We have come so far in terms of equality but we haven’t come far enough. It’s bad enough that there’s still a gender pay gap but it’s the unspoken pressures – which are now being spoken- that kill a mother’s career. We’ve always flexed as to what works best at the time (hence my years of self-employment) but to change because of what Sarah Vine says in the Daily Mail? No. Thanks.
Yes, we need to safeguard our kids’ mental health but don’t we also need to safeguard our own? And for that reason, I’m out. I’m not investing in this debate any more. If work works, we should work. If work doesn’t work or stops working, don’t work. Simple as that.