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Kirsty Young, Who Are You Calling A Non-Person?

25/03/2011 09:56 | Updated 22 May 2015

Kirsty YoungWomen feel like non-persons if they don't work says Kirsty Young". So screams a headline in the Daily Mail today.

Kirsty - who famously returned to work within a year of the birth of her first baby, and after six months with her second baby - has hit the headlines again over a new series she presents for BBC2 about the changing world of work in Britain.

According to the Daily Mail, Kirsty commented, "Work used to be what we did – now it's who we are," before adding: "It's like women say: if they give up work to have children they become a non-person."

As a journalist and a mother of two I thought I was immune to inflammatory comments made by famous mums about motherhood. I've perfected the art of rolling my eyes and burying my head in a batch of mother-earth style baking as I let the media circus work itself into a futile frenzy without me.

But I can't let this one go.

Women who give up their jobs to look after their families become non-persons. Really? I'd love to know who these women are - I'd ask them for their thoughts on the matter but since they're non-persons I'm not sure how best to track them down. I doubt non-persons are capable of intelligible thought, anyway.

Ok, deep breaths. No more being flippant. The truth is I admire Kirsty Young and her courage when it comes to speaking out with candour about her views on parenthood. It wasn't long ago that she reportedly deemed society child-centric, and described the preoccupation of parents with their children as a modern disease.

But to my mind, a much more sinister modern scourge is the popular view that full-time motherhood is a valueless void which will strip you mercilessly of your identity along with your waistline. Statements like Kirsty's 'non-person' one perpetuate that myth that women can't 'just' be content with being mothers - that as women we must be defective if we're satisfied to sacrifice a career to focus on our family.

Of course there's no evidence that this is what Kirsty thinks - she's clearly referencing what she's heard other women say. But that's what most irks me most about this comment - it's little more than hearsay, yet the media blows it up into a headline without concern for how such statements undermine real women's choices and chip away at their confidence as they carve out a path through the minefield that is modern parenting.

What's more, Kirsty didn't give up her career to be at home with her children, so what qualifies her to comment on what it feels like? As the saying goes, you ought to walk a mile in another person's shoes before you judge them. (Kirsty, if you're reading, you're welcome to my knackered old Uggs any day, and I'll happily do a shift or three in your high heels.)

A woman who gives up her job to look after her children doesn't do so lightly. Show me one of these 'non-persons' and I'll show you someone who has invariably agonised over conflicting emotions, financial pressure, and all manner of unspoken fears.

Yes, there may be days when a stay-at-home mum feels invisible or inadequate in the wider world beyond her family - but surely the problem lies not with her choice to stay at home, but with society's narrow view of what makes a person visible and valuable. The implication that child-rearing is of lesser value than going to work is insidious and quite ridiculous, but you'd be amazed at how often you're presented with it as a full-time mum.

How do I know? Because I was one. I walked away from a glitzy, well-paid career to stay at home with my sons full-time for the best part of four years. Some days I hated it, as I've admitted, but far from making me a non-person, I think that decision enriched my life and that of my boys more than words can convey.

Perhaps what Kirsty sees as the 'modern disease' of an overly child-centred society is partly a result of the pressure on modern mums to work. Maybe being holed up at the office during what studies repeatedly tell us are the most critical years of our children's development means that we over-compensate by making them the centre of our world in other ways.

What do other mothers think? Mum-of-three Kerrie gave up work when she was pregnant with her first baby. She returned to the world of work when her youngest child was six years old with a part-time job at her local playgroup. Kerrie thinks Kirsty Young's comments about stay-at-home mothers is a sweeping statement.

"I loved being at home with my first child and when the next two came along the prospect of going back to work wasn't even mentioned," she says. "I felt and still feel hugely privileged to have been able to stay home with the three kids, and to be the person who has totally shaped the adults they are today, good and bad. I would fight anyone to the death for each of them and possibly this instinct was honed by being there every second of the day from birth."

But Kerrie admits that those early years at home with her children did put an end to her social life, and adds: "As for feeling like a non-person it maybe takes a few years to feel your worth as a parent because the early years are so very challenging. But as they get older you can bask in praise, and watch them mature into young adults who start giving something back to the world and family around them."

Does that sound like a non-person to you? I don't think so.

More on Parentdish:

What do you think?

Are you sick and tired of the generalisations about working and stay at home mums?

What's been your personal experience?

Have you, like Heidi, been both at different times?

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