Sunday, 3 April 2011

Happy Mother's Day David Willetts!

I have always been acutely aware of how political motherhood is. As a feminist with a strong maternal urge, my conflicting feelings about motherhood are
much like those described by Rebecca Asher in her piece in last week's Guardian magazine, "Just had a baby? Welcome to the 1950s". In it Asher notices that once that baby arrives, being a mum is harder than being a dad, she then generously describes her struggles that I identified with.

She tells us, "Having had a busy and purposeful life, I now occupied a universe where, apart from the grindingly repetitive tasks centred on feeding and cleaning my child, activity existed in the main simply to fill the time. I went to a parent and baby group and found myself singing nursery rhymes with other grown women as our tiny children lay impassive on the floor." This made me laugh out loud. I remember after my first child Joe was born, my best friend, a GP and also new mother, invited me to something called Baby Music at Chiswick Town Hall. In the allotted hour, the babies were placed on the floor like Chinese Emperors and the women, no men of course, danced around with triangles and maracas trying to stimulate their prodigies' inner musical genius.

The session ended with all the mothers holding onto the edge of a brightly coloured silk parachute while it hung over the heads of the babies, shuffling together clockwise and chanting in the way only sleep-deprived, hormone-riddled women on the edge can, "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts." Behaving badly, I refused to join in so my friend had to do the leaping around for two and I never went again. Because despite being very lonely at home and doubting my skills as a mother, I had not entirely lost my perspective. I knew I wanted company, someone to make me laugh, drink wine with and tell me it was all going to work out. The last thing I wanted to do was hang out with other insecure new mums neurotically comparing their babies growth milestones and habits, which Asher accurately describes as the "head-pounding boredom with this narrow, baby-centric world". 

In the article Asher makes the important point that becoming a mother adversely affects a woman's career in ways in which it barely effects those of fathers at all. She tells us, "When a couple chooses to have children, all the gains women have supposedly made over the past few decades vanish, as the time machine of motherhood transports us back to the 1950s." To illustrate that fact she details how care is commonly distributed between parents when the mother returns to work. Even when mothers return to paid work after maternity leave, the responsibility for the domestic chores accrued in that time often remains with them. In fact, women carry on performing almost the same number of domestic tasks when they switch from looking after their children full-time to working outside the home part-time. More than three-quarters of mothers say they have primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of their children in the home." 

I know there are exceptions to this and many men willing to do more, but despite that the world which Asher describes is an accurate one for the vast majority. I am lucky, at least that is what everyone tells me, that my husband takes responsibility for the food shopping and large parts of the cooking in our house. Even he finds its funny that he is continually congratulated for doing things that people assume I would do with no round of applause.

But some things never change. Why do the children's schools only contact me even though I scrupulously make sure they have both our contact details? Why do I know where EVERYTHING is kept in our house? Why am I alone expected me to know which of my children's teeth are adult and which are milk? Why when doing the school paperwork do I alone know the dates of their various inoculation regimes, health problems and medications? How is it I know what grades the children are up to in their various instruments (despite not being graduates of baby music)? The answer remains the same, because being a mother, like being a CEO, is the full service job. Shame there are only 24 hours in a day.

The most important point Asher makes is about the impact mothering has on women as wage earners. She says, " For professional workers, the child-rearing years of their 30s and 40s coincide with the peak period for making strides in their careers. As mothers sit that one out, fathers lose themselves in their jobs." This is certainly true with some fantastically unfair consequences. If you read the blog Family Matters (see in my blog list) you will hear from a women who gave up the career she loved and had, to that point, shared equal seniority with her husband in, to look after their three children. Fifteen years later he leaves her for wifey No 2 and is now pressurising her to get a job, refusing to accept that a women who has not worked in years is not an easy sell to the job market nor that the situation is anything other than grossly unfair.

Asher introduces us to the concept of Foundation Parent, another title for the primary care giver. She describes this as the parent who buys the children's clothes etc. To put her shorthand into context, my husband, who is very lovely and will do what he can, is happy to go out with the kids to get what they need, but you only have to come back with a yellow and black stripy sweater and purple girl's hoodie for a 11 year old boy –  "because he liked it" – once, to find your services are no longer required. Call it controlling, but my 35 years of retail experience married with a desire not to be seen with oddly mismatched overly striped children means that despite the fact that I don't like shopping, I do most of it. 

As Asher says, being a parent in the UK is tougher than it needs to be and her international comparisons leave us in no doubt how unfair working life is in the UK for parents and especially mothers. She looks to the day when women will cross men on the threshold of their homes and for my daughter's sake I hope her vision is realised in time for Katie to "have it all"!!!?

There was one thing though: reading Asher's piece, between the lines I sense she might not have another child, which, although I completely understand, made me feel sad for her. I wanted to tell her something I know, which is you can have one, three or possibly more, I don't know as I stopped at three, because although the logistics are more challenging the compromise is the same, so you might as well because they are all wonderful and really what it's all about.

I love my job and will fiercely defend my right to a career and motherhood, and all those nasty letters in this week's Guardian, berating Asher  as "whiny and defeatist" can sod off. Interestingly when I and my family were featured in the Guardian last year, the letters page the following week accused me of whinging and nearly all made reference to the au pair we had then, as if having childcare was an indulgence. 

Being a mother is political and, in the UK today, so is being a working woman. In the fabulous Barbara Ellen article today we are told of David Willetts, the University Minister's recent accusation that the failure of working-class men to achieve social mobility can be laid at the door of middle-class women. He tells us, "It is not that I am against feminism [read throat clearing noise] it's just that it is probably the biggest single factor." I'm with Ellen on this...rude words. How about the middle-class men who have the lion's share of education and assets, what's their role in stagnant social mobility? Why play the women's card? I can think of only one reason and its very, very naughty and not what we want to see on Mother's Day.

So with all this in mind and so as not to feel grumpy all day, I aim for good humour. For me to attain true happiness I must garden, so today, my day so far has been spent at the allotment. The sweet peas went in, some beetroot was sown, much mulching was done for the weeds that are starting to gain in confidence and I dug out my rosemary bush at it had a bad case of rosemary beetle last year and has not really recovered.

I am about to go for late lunch with my clan, mother, sister and her husband who have managed to give their four sons the slip to Ask Pizza in Barnes that has a special offer, "Mothers eat free"!? We will have three mothers in our group which together with the oddity of the concept makes me think about being a mum. I, for one, will take advantage of their offer, as so little about motherhood is, after all, free. Happy Mother's Day ladies, after all you know you're worth it.


  1. I found that post very meaningful and relevant, as I am in week three of a new job after taking an 18 month "career break". It sounds like I've been on holiday, when in fact, nothing is further than the truth. Instead, in the mostly three years I took off to look after my daughter was born, I managed mostly to run myself into the ground. That was after being pushed out of a job I loved because I could not make the numbers work.

    Going back to work as an academic in the social change sector when my daughter was 10 months' old meant I would literally have to pay to go to work. As passionate as I was about my job, l wasn't crazy, and so I had to leave. What bothered me most was that I was two-thirds of the way through my doctorate and had a book publishing contract, none of which I was able to complete because without the said job - I had no income, and thus no way to pay for the necessary childcare.

    People around me at the time, my husband included, suggested I do the writing while my daughter was asleep, especially as she was now sleeping through the night. I was too sleep deprived to reply nicely, so instead I kept my mouth shut while I had cartoon like violent images flashing through my mind. I had to pretty much set fire to my career and hope that one day it would all make sense.

    I am extremely grateful to say that it has. After resigning 18 months ago, I found a fantastic new academic post with a sympathetic and flexible employer. My team was somehow able to see beyond the black hole in my CV, and has given me the chance to make my mark. But as I do the conference rounds, and re-introduce myself to colleagues, I can't help but feel sad. While they have all published their ideas, completed their doctorates and moved forward, I have stood very still. Any advantage I gained from the momentous effort I put in to developing my career before having a child, has been lost by the years I took off. While I loved looking after my daughter and am grateful for the closeness of our relationship, I do wonder why I had to sacrifice so much in order to get it.

  2. Dear Alibeth, thank you for the comment. You are not alone. Almost every woman I know who has had children feels to some degree or another displaced by the experience. As Gaby Hinsliff told us in her piece in Saturday's Guardian, "Think Motherhood turns your brain to mush? Think again", whilst the common perception is that women do not perform as well having had children, the opposite is in fact, true. But it is the perception that carries more weight in the workplace than the reality. you and I both know that being a Mum makes you concentrate more and take bolder decisions. So here's to those bold decisions Ali! You know you have everything ahead of you and as my dear old Dad used to say every day he dropped me off at school "Don't let the buggers get you down".

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