As a full time mother I know myself to be distinctly in the minority, and often experience that rather awkward, exposed feeling of realising that everyone else apart from me has left the dance floor. In the twenty first century Western world, the 'norm' for many women is to return to work and choose alternative care for their babies and children, and increasingly, pressure from government, society and the material world dictates that less and less women are making the choice to remain at home with their children. In 1981, only 24% of UK women returned to work within a year of childbirth; by 2001, it was 67%, and the most recent figures from the Department for Work and Pensions says that 76% of mothers now return to work within 12 to 18 months of having a child.
Prior to motherhood, I was a therapist, a profession which has a fairly long history of upsetting feminists and women in general with the news that care by someone other than a primary attachment figure, and in particular nursery care, is not what is best for the child. First under fire was the pioneer of attachment theory, John Bowlby, whose suggestion of the importance of maternal care in the first three years of life clashed badly with the rise of the feminist movement who condemned his theory as 'anatomy as slavery'. In the eighties Jay Belsky caused an massive outcry with his paper, 'Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern', and more recently, writers like Steve Biddulph, Sue Gerhardt and Oliver James have added their voice to a growing concern for the long term effects on both society and future mental well being. In her most recent book, The Selfish Society, Gerhardt writes:
"...handing over the care of babies to people who have no long term emotional investment in them, at the very time when the foundations of emotional regulation, morality and relationship are being laid, is a very dangerous development. It exposes babies to the risk of being chronically stressed and emotionally underdeveloped. In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if the rates of personality disorder, anti-social behaviour and depression continue to rise. This particular social trend could potentially threaten the spread of empathy and co-operation despite the increased public interest in emotions..."
Many women are aware of these critical voices when they nevertheless return to work and delegate their childcare to others. Rather than heaping more guilt on these mothers, perhaps it's more interesting to examine just why they are making these choices? This week, I spoke to several mothers about the issue. For some, financial circumstances dictate that they simply have to work. "There's no choice for me", Emily told me, "If I don't go back to work in three months, we can't afford to live. I wish it weren't so." Other women I spoke to echoed these words, in particular single mothers, for whom finances can obviously be hard. However, some were more sceptical about the idea that those few women who stay at home are 'lucky'. "I have made sacrifices and changed my lifestyle drastically to stay at home", said Belinda, "I now know that I can live on a shoestring." Michelle added, "Personally, I want to be with my child more than I want a career, and we have no money as a result, but I can live with that as a trade."
Caitlin also addressed the suggestion that full time mothers are simply 'lucky', "Since I've started to out myself as a potential SAHM at playgroups etc, I've been fascinated with the view that I'm 'lucky' to be able to do so. Now, I recognise that some families honestly can't make ends meet if they don't have two incomes. But most of the people who are saying this to me run two cars, have iPhones, iPads, Sky or similar, own a house. When we knew we wanted to have a family, we planned it. We sought out a good job for my husband (hint: it's not so good that he's a higher rate tax payer!), moved to a new city for that job, moved into a house we could afford to rent on one salary (we're saving for a deposit to buy but that's not likely to happen for 10 years or more). What I'm trying to say is, we made it happen. It isn't luck, it's hard work and a couple of years of planning, combined with deciding that if an iPad costs £400 and me working a couple of days a week would take a month to earn that much - well we'll go without then, as I'd rather have that month with my baby thank you very much."
Listening to women's various stories this week, what seems to emerge most often is not that returning to work was financially essential, but that they felt they needed the 'break' from full time childcare, a chance to 'be me again', as one woman put it, and rejoin the grown up world. A happy mother means a happy baby, say the proponents of working mothers, but this begs the question, why is childcare making so many women feel unhappy? Lucy told me, "I went back to work part-time after 9 months. I really wanted to go back as I needed a break. I do feel it would have been better for my son if I hadn't gone back. I'd love to be a full-time mum, but I just don't think I could be and keep my mental health. I feel disappointed in myself that I'm not able to be a full-time mum." Her honesty interested me. I asked her to say a bit more about her feelings of 'needing a break'. "I guess I just find my child all-consuming.", she responded,"I find his constant demands exhausting. He is extremely dependent on me when I'm around and doesn't play alone, wanting my constant 100% attention. I just can't do this 24/7. I feel drained, and need to go away to refuel."
I find this theme of 'needing a break' from children recurs often. In my own life I've started to notice just how often others suggest to me that I want or need to be without my children so that I can have some 'me time'. Whilst I do recognise this feeling, I've begun to ask myself what this cultural notion really means. Why do I long for time to myself? Do I really need it, or have I just been sold the idea that I do? Why do my children have to be elsewhere in order for me to feel relaxed, or to partake in an activity that is meaningful to me? And perhaps more than anything else, how do my children feel when they hear me or other grown ups talk in such positive terms about 'having a break' from them? Since I became conscious of this phenomenon, I've noticed just how much negative publicity exists about time spent with small children. 'I need some Me Time', we sigh, tut, and roll our eyes, and yet it's as if we are all playing along with the theme - small children are difficult, hard work, exasperating, demanding, boring - but is this a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, do we really feel this way?
As mothers we need to be honest with ourselves about the way we feel about time with our children and our reasons for returning to work or not. As a therapist I was lucky enough to learn how to examine my initial reaction to a person or situation and peel away the layers to explore the underlying feelings - but anyone can do this too if they are just willing to admit that nothing is ever simple. For example, if we feel we would rather be at work during time spent with our child, what does this actually mean? Perhaps the scenario reminds us of a difficult time from our own childhood, and we are trying to disengage and emotionally distance ourselves. Perhaps our child is offering us a complex set of emotions which we are struggling to interpret. Perhaps we feel taken for granted by our child, or simply long for more positive feedback. Perhaps our child is asking us to relate to them in a way that we were never related to ourselves in our own childhood. Spending time with children is all about relationship, and is therefore complicated. The world of work offers us a more systemic life - input, output, appraisals, payslips - a predictable world that is time limited, goal oriented and clear in a way that childcare is not.
Mothers have been sold the idea in recent years that they can 'have it all', but in talking to women this week, it seems like this is far from the truth. Most women are sad to return to work, but paradoxically glad to be released from what they see as the drudgery and boredom of childcare. The fundamental importance of the first few years of life is still being underestimated by policy makers who urge women back to work and convince them that looking after children is a job that can be done by someone else, often someone younger, childless, and less educated than the mother herself. Many feminists proclaim this a triumph, the ultimate in freedom of choice, but real women on the frontline seem to tell a different tale, one of loss, confusion, juggling and vast guilt.
No job is boring or drudgery if you feel that it is important work and do it to the best of your abilities. Motherhood is full of challenges and rewards, and there is much to be learnt. One thing that all mothers find out quite quickly is that, with babies and small children, nothing ever stays the same for long. Time whizzes by, and everything is just a phase. So even if we find full time motherhood impossibly boring or hard, can we not comfort ourselves in the the knowledge that, by being there for our children for the first few years of life, at least until they start school, we are helping them to learn about love and relationship in the way that a nursery worker or childminder - for all their skills - can simply never replicate?
As a feminist and a stay at home mother, I feel we need to reclaim motherhood. Motherhood is 'women's work', just like childbirth and breastfeeding, it is something that we are uniquely good at, something beautiful, and at the moment, it is being diminished and demeaned in our eyes so that we feel there are other more important things we could be doing with our time. But psychology tells us this is not the case, and whatsmore, our hearts tell us that this is not the case. Babies and children cry when they are left, and often, so do mothers, usually when they are back in their car and no one is watching. We tilt our rear view mirrors down, and check our eyes for evidence of sadness, then, satisfied we will not betray ourselves, we drive away to work. Is this what we really want?
We must all make our own choices, those that feel comfortable for us. Personally, I have a constant sensation of the shortness of life, of my own mortality, of my insignificance in the vastness of time. I'm also nomadic by nature, and not that bothered by wealth or material things. All of this makes 'not working' and being 'just a mum' an easy choice for me. I'm enjoying hanging out with my girls, and glad I am not missing a moment of their hilarious lunacy, their touching progress or their sweet charms. For me, this is 'having it all'. I expect in a year or two when they are at school, I will reinvent myself again, and a new phase of life will start. I'm aware that this time now, with them at home - annoying me, baffling me, exhausting me, boring me - is as brief as one chirrup of a crickets wing in a lifetime of summer evenings. I plan to be there to hear it.
This is the first of two posts on the subject of reclaiming motherhood. You can read the second by clicking here: Reclaiming Motherhood: What is the Value of a Mother?