Last week I took my sons to school for their first day of term. After the ranks of over excited children had been escorted into class by their teachers, a group of mums swarmed into the local cafe for a high decibel catch-up of our lives – holiday highs and lows, children, mutual admiration of each other's tans and new haircuts. Oh, and work too.
If newspaper headlines and endless surveys by different political think tanks are to be believed, we women are locked in a permanent and embittered battle for moral superiority: working mums versus stay-at-home mums.
Not a day seems to go by without yet another scare-mongering survey fanning the flames by showing one or other 'mum gang' is responsible for depriving a whole generation of children of their future health, happiness and social skills.
Recent personal favourites include 'Children of working mothers more likely to be overweight' (supposedly because our sprog spend hours lounging in front of the TV) followed shortly afterwards by 'Working mums "don't harm baby". But only if they can afford good childcare' (and presumably the TV switched off).
Who's selfish for going back to work? Who's living their ambitions by helicopter parenting their children? What juggling mum has decided to drop all the balls for the good life? Who's a saint for putting their family first? What must she be earning to afford childcare? Envy of each other's lifestyles, guilt that what we're doing is all wrong and a big dose of exhaustion in both camps, mean this debate will continue to boil and bubble. No matter that maternity leave has been extended, flexi-time is no longer an HR joke, part-time can mean actually doing something interesting and that 100,000 women have returned to work since the recession first took a chunk out of family finances.
But it's not as black and white as all that. Labels like working mum, stay-at-home mums or, most irritating of all, full-time mum (so what are the rest of us? Flaky part-timers?) might fan the debate but they just don't reflect the reality most of us know on a daily basis.
I've known my school mum friends for seven years now. Many with older teenagers have clocked 15 or more years on the same school run. We've been through a lot together – divorce, the death of a 40-year-old husband, breast cancer, miscarriage, babies born, those same babies racing into nursery and school.
And in that time we've also all, whether by choice or economic necessity, changed our work status. No doubt in 10 years' time we will have all moved around again - new jobs, different working times and days, returning to work. Work priorities and expectations have morphed for a multitude of reasons - age of children, finances, status and sense of self and the constant striving for the perfect work-life balance (at that particular time).
I spent my children's early years working freelance from home, now I work full-time in an office – and I love my job for many of the reasons I used to think I'd never want again (leaving and coming home, lunches, work clothes, office gossip). One of my friends worked as a mad-hours City lawyer before redundancy and is now retraining as a maths teacher. Another has taken the difficult decision to put her career on hold so she can drive her son to and from his new special needs school. While another friends has decided, with three children under eight, it makes sense to step off the treadmill of working simply to pay childcare.
Real life isn't as clear-cut as the newspaper labels would have us believe. And real mums aren't pitted against each other in mutual animosity and smuggery. We're just trying to do the best we can.
In my experience, those SAHM and WM labels quickly peel off to reveal a group of mums at different life stages, certainly not defined by work/not work, but interested and understanding of each other.
So, please, no more labels. The only difference is that some of us might not be able to make the post playground coffee every morning. But we can still meet for an evening glass of wine.
Already with-child? And are you working from home, in the office, or not at all? Leave your thoughts and experiences below, and for all those who haven't reproduced yet (or maybe aren't planning to), we want to know what you think, too...
By: Tamsin Kelly, editor of www.parentdish.co.uk.
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