The debate over whether mothers are happier going back to work or staying at home has been reignited in recent weeks with the claim that jobless mothers were more likely to be depressed.
In a study by Dr Susan Harkness of the University of Bath, it was found that returning to work plays a pivotal role in providing a sense of identity and self-esteem for mothers.
Two mothers blogging for The Huffington Post UK have waded into the debate, with one working mum claiming that going back to work has kept her sane.
Stay at home mum Jai Breitnauer agrees that isolation is a "big issue" for new mums, confessing that the first six months after the birth of her eldest were some of the loneliest of her life.
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Working Mothers Are Healthier Than Stay-At-Home Mums
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In New York a study has been published that says working mothers are healthier than stay-at-home mums. Apparently they are less depressed and report a better general overall health than mothers who stay at home full-time.
I don't know the best way to do things. I muddle through and try my best and hope no one gets to screwed up by my efforts at motherhood. For some reason there have been a lot of articles recently that have piqued my interest. There have been lots of pieces about being the best mother or woman or lover. I suspect most working mothers would be more concerned about what is best for their children than whether working makes them healthier.
However, the impact of a healthier mother is much better for everyone. Sometimes, doing what makes you happy has a positive outcome for everyone. The act of being a little selfish can be a good thing. I am heartened by that research. If I don't work and have something that feels like it is mine, I begin to feel a little loopy. I don't know if it's the same for everyone. I work in a creative industry so I have to get it out - to perform, to write or do something that feeds the furnace.
I have a friend who went to an expensive school in London - St Pauls - and was brought up to believe she would marry a banker, have lunch with friends and send her kids to St Pauls. Her mother never worked. My friend's life didn't quite pan out like that. She has to work. Her kids go to the local school and she feels cheated.
A working mother may be happier and healthier, but she also teaches her kids that you have to rely on yourself. You go out and get the money and provide for your family. Daughters learn that they work and sons learn that the women in their lives can have careers too - it's the norm.
I know many 'modern men' who think that they are enlightened and supportive of women having careers but when it boils down to it, they had a mother who was at home waiting for them and feel dissatisfied when their partner doesn't do that. I do feel guilty when I have to leave the kids with a sitter and go to work but when I come home to them and I am refreshed by having a few hours off and am ready to swamp them with cuddles and kisses. I am not irritated by their requests or their constant questions because I've not been around it all day.
Of course there has to be a balance. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving them day in day out with a nanny just as I think looking after them 24-7 would send me nuts. We all need space, even if it is from our children. When I come home from work I am there for them and feel a lot more emotionally available. What greater thing can you do for a child? At the risk of sounding like my grandmother, I really do believe that "a change is as good as a rest". With a change of location, you come back revived and refreshed. I can get loads done in a day if I am doing different things but if I just have to clean out the fridge? It can take hours. It's good to talk to some grown-ups too.
Work brings interactions with other adults that can be sorely missed in the early stages of raising young children. You may well have a husband or partner who comes home to you and you want to talk them through your day whilst he wants to talk about his work pressures. That's a conversation that never goes brilliantly. It can be even worse if you spend all day looking after the babies and once they are in bed, there is no one who comes home. That feels spectacularly isolating. What are you going to do? Log onto Facebook and spectate on everyone else's fun and full lives?
I'm always shocked by badly behaved children who are cheeky to their parents but the days when I feel like I am constantly telling mine off, I have to remind myself it's because I don't want the kids to be dicks. I want them to be responsible members of society who think about other people whilst looking out for others who may need a little help.
I like to think that being a working mother teaches them that and paves the way for a future generation with a sense of responsibility.
One of my friends has a saying; No sh*t Sherlock. And I guess that sums up my initial reaction to the study comparing working and full-time mums. The article claimed researchers had 'discovered' mums who took time out to work were healthier, felt less isolated and were under less stress than full time mums.
No surprises there then. Because even though I'm a hands-on parenting advocate, I accept that motherhood is hard. The hours are long, it's badly paid and it puts demands on you physically and emotionally that would have any other 'employer' up before the International Court of Human Rights. Time-out to 'be yourself' at work breaks up the intensity of full-time parenting.
When I really started to think about it though, I realised my own experience didn't fit the study's model. Take health for example. It's easy to say that when I was working I was healthier. I had a high disposable income that lent itself to well chosen food - sushi was a fave - and a fancy gym membership. In contrast, I spend most lunches now hurriedly shovelling a couple of slices of toast while bribing my pre-schooler to eat his veg. But there are lifestyle changes as a result of motherhood that far outweigh the benefits of a 'light lunch'.
For instance, I rarely drink alcohol now - and I don't miss it either, because kids are more fun without a hangover. I always eat breakfast with my boys, and it's always fruit and yoghurt or a bowl of cereal to set a good example, whereas before I'd often power through to lunch on just a latte. And there is, of course, all the background exercise. I might not pound the treadmill for 40 minutes a day, but try carrying a two-stone toddler and a baby up the stairs, while singing, several times in a 12 hour period. It's both toning and great for lung capacity, I assure you. In reality I'm much healthier now, running round after the kids, even though I'm not wearing gym kit or following a celeb diet.
Isolation is a big issue for new mums, and I'd be lying through my teeth if I claimed I wasn't affected by this. The first six months after I had my eldest were some of the loneliest of my life. All my old friends were still single and working full time, so I struck out to find mum buddies, but with little success. At first, I couldn't understand why - I was going to all the coffee mornings and toddler groups, putting the miles in. It was my husband who said it; why was I expecting to be friends with people just because they had kids too? When you start a new job you don't expect to be best buds with the guy in the cubicle next to you, and two people who own the same model car are rarely kindred spirits. I was being too hard on myself, placing the bar too high. By walking into a mother's meeting and expecting to just 'click' with people I was setting myself up to fail.
Friendships take time, and in any other context we realise this, but there is a sense of urgency that comes with motherhood that warps our perspective. Many women out there got a great sense of camaraderie and support from ante-natal groups, but felt relieved in many ways to return to work - to return to the familiar folds of easy friendships. To feel 'themselves' again. I worry that they may have missed out though. By the time Isaac was 16 months I'd met several people I now count among my best friends, and we've had not only the luxury of time to develop those connections, but we've been able to move on and accept our new role as 'mother' together, rather than trying to recreate the person we were before we gave birth.
Lastly there is the stress issue, and I feel the crux of this is perspective again. Before I had Isaac and Eli, I'd be wired at work - the one who stayed late, planned ahead, whose world ended when something didn't pan out despite my efforts. Then, someone placed a tiny, innocent and all trusting bundle in my arms, and told me his life was my responsibility. And suddenly, all those things I worried about before, they just paled in comparison. Looking after kids is pretty stressful, because it is so emotive. No one gets my back up like my eldest son, and I will defend him vehemently to others, even when he is in the wrong. The burden of deadlines and office politics is almost a breath of fresh air in comparison - a curiosity that I can look upon as an outsider who knows the truth about what really matters in life. When I am at work I see my old stresses very differently and can happily shrug them to one side.
So how come the research results suggested working mums were happier, healthier and more social? I believe working mothers are deluded - me included. We have been socially conditioned to perceive working woman and motherhood in a way that leads us to misinterpret our own health and happiness in either context. For a start, rarely do you see images in the media of a slim, stylish, professional woman who also has a couple of kids in tow.
Just as the career woman is often portrayed as an ice maiden whose ovaries have been switched off, mums are usually presented as frazzled, ditsy, and at their wits end. I'd hazard a guess that we fairly readily accept and adopt these stereotypes, in the same way as we accept social conditioning that allows our positive identity to be intrinsically linked with our career. This society places value on work, and modern feminist ideals about independence are often interpreted financially - high divorce rates quoted as a reason to maintain a personal income.
But I believe that while our worth is tied to our wealth, the joys of motherhood will remain undervalued. This isn't just to the detriment of family life, but also undermines the most central value of feminism; choice.
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Working Mothers Are Healthier Than Stay-At-Home Mums
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Wendy WasonJai BreitnauerNeither argumenthas changed the most minds
"Time-out to 'be yourself' at work breaks up the intensity of full-time parenting" she admits.
However with public sector job cuts set to hit women the hardest coupled with plans to reduce childcare benefits, it may be that women may soon not be able to afford to return to work.
This would be a disaster, according to working mum Wason:
"I like to think that being a working mother...paves the way for a future generation with a sense of responsibility" she blogs
However Breitnauer dismisses the idea that a working mother means a more physically and mentally fit mother:
"Try carrying a two-stone toddler and a baby up the stairs, while singing, several times in a 12 hour period. It's both toning and great for lung capacity, I assure you."
However Breitnauer believes the crux of the issue lies in perception of motherhood as an "undervalued" joy, and society's emphasis on worth as "tied to wealth."
"Mums are usually presented as frazzled, ditsy, and at their wits end" she blogs.
"This society places value on work, and modern feminist ideals about independence are often interpreted financially.
"This isn't just to the detriment of family life, but also undermines the most central value of feminism; choice."