Maternity grief

Lucy Cavendish visited an online forum for mothers, and was amazed to find them discussing motherhood – sometimes quite heatedly! While I dislike the tone of her article, the premise is pretty robust. Motherhood is a sensitive issue, many mothers become entrenched in their parenting choices and defend them bitterly, going to work when you have small children can be a difficult and guilt-wracked decision. This is all true enough. (Though there’s less of the difficulty and guilt if work is a financial necessity rather than a little paid hobby done to benefit your sense of self. I’m just saying.)

I don’t really believe her claim that things for mothers now are more spectacularly traumatic than ever, though. There are some things that probably do diminish our confidence in our own abilities, but weirdly, while she’s slinging blame at “target culture” and “having-it-all”, she doesn’t mention the thing that I’d reckon was the most likely sources of anxiety: separation from extended families. I hadn’t held a baby for longer than ten minutes until I had my own, because I never lived near enough to my aunts, uncles and cousins to get much time with a practice infant. And because my home was a 90-minute drive from my parents, I wasn’t able to just pop round and get some advice from my Mum. A long-term fall in fertility rates feels like a better explanation for maternal anxiety that a lot of specious psychologising about how, once women have learnt to be careerist, we can’t possibly go back to being properly nurturing or something.

That’s if there is more maternal anxiety, of course, which I’m not totally convinced you can decide based on a rummage through Mumsnet and a look at the parenting section in Waterstone’s. I’ll tell you what did make me feel guilty and anxious, though – reading this in the middle of the article:

Recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released the results of a study of children born in the 1970s. It found that those with mothers who worked up to 18 months during their preschool years had only a 64% chance of passing an A-level. This fell to a 52% chance of success if the mother worked for an additional year. Furthermore, the children of these working mothers faced a greater risk of unemployment (up from 6% to 9%) and psychological stress (up from 23% to 28%) in adulthood.

These statistics were presented in the press as further “proof” that working mums damage kids. Other headline-creating studies include: “Working mothers have fatter children”; “Working mothers harm children’s A-level chances”; “Children of working mothers have less healthy lifestyle”. The Institute of Child Health studied more than 12,500 five-year-olds and found those with working mothers ate more snacks and watched more TV, regardless of the mother’s education or salary. (Working mothers typically counter these statistics by saying there is always another study that says the opposite, and that research from the 1970s will not be so relevant now.)

Is that really the best that Cavendish expects working mothers to come up with? Maybe working mothers could check out the findings of the JRF for themselves, which come with their own reassuring caveat:

There was strong evidence of a trade-off for mothers who were employed full-time when their children were under five. Although full-time work increased family income, less time for mothers to interact with their families tended to reduce children’s later educational attainments (the analysis controlled for family income).

JRF, “The effect of parents’ employment on outcomes for children”

That sounds problematic to me: if the analysis is controlled for income, then it seems to me that it’s going to filter out the potential positive effects of the increased wealth that comes from having a working mother. It’s not binary, and the study’s findings aren’t presented in quite the definitive way that Cavendish found them in the headlines.

But what she offers in response isn’t a cautious weighing up of the credits and debits of working motherhood. It’s just a portrait of unhappiness, with an implicit line of aggression against the mothers who make her feel bad – the ones whose children “play more sports than mine, […] are academically more competent, […] read books all the time, […] are constantly on playdates, […] are popular, witty, funny.” I’m not sure that a criticism of an article criticising parenting advice is the right place to start handing out parenting advice of my own, but I have some anyway: how about not writing in a national newspaper about your children’s perceived shortcomings and the way they reflect on you? I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I’m fairly sure that for a child to read that about him or herself could be almost nearly as harmful as the fact that mummy has a job.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010