Two different but ultimately not dissimilar newspaper articles have caught my attention over the last two weeks about mothers and motherhood in modern British society. Both published in the run up to International Women's Day and Mothering Sunday, reading them left me not only frustrated, but with a question - why does society seem to value motherhood so little?
The first article on 27 February by Kevin Maher in the Times, talks about celebrity mums racing to get back into their mini-dress and back to work. Commenting on Amanda Holden, back on Britain's Got Talent barely three weeks after an horrific ordeal giving birth to her daughter Hollie Rose, Maher observes, "she's not the only one. An entire army of celebrity mums seem to be engaged in some mad breakneck race to...slim down, tone up and do the red carpet shuffle before the placenta has even hit the floor."
This 'micro-maternity leave' is becoming increasingly fashionable, with Posh, Mylene Klass and Nicole Kidman among the many women back to work within weeks - days even - of having children, adding weight to the 'have it all' illusion. Of course, these women have an entourage of staff to support them, yet their response to motherhood puts pressure on the rest of us - who may not even have our family close by - to do the same.
The second by Anne McElvoy in the Evening Standard discusses recent comments by the Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, that if a woman with a degree chooses to be a full time mum it is a "complete waste".
I remember as a student back in the '90s, when motherhood for me was an almost unreal prospect, discussing the de-professionalisation of teaching - the debate about how the slow erosion of power and respect granted to teachers by society had led to low paid, undervalued staff struggling to control their classes. It seems to me the same could be said of motherhood.
As the power we command in the role of mother has been rescinded by government and social pressure, and the way in which society views women who choose to stay at home with their family has taken a decidedly negative turn, we find ourselves in a position where motherhood has been 'de-professionalised'. The full time mum just isn't taken seriously anymore - and yet she's so important.
Statistics show that 86% of UK families name mum as the primary carer, and a 2008 study demonstrated that most important family decisions - finances, schools, leisure time - are taken by women. Parenting expert Dr Sears notes that "the first six years (of childhood) is a window of opportunity when a child unquestionably accepts the virtues modelled by parents" - and as mums seem to be at the forefront of child-rearing it is mums' values that are being internalised by children, mum who is providing that vital role model.
Yet 29% of mums work full-time and a massive 63% of married mums with pre-school children work, despite government recommendations that children should have one-to-one care from a family member until they are three.
I believe many women feel that in order to be valued by society, they have to be at work. While strong, popular female role models, like Beyonce, are seen returning to work quickly, the voice of the stay-at-home mum remains weak and largely ignored - and the comments made by Thorning-Schmidt go a long way to explaining why. The logical progression of her assertion that it's a waste for educated women to be stay-at-home mums is that it isn't a waste for women with no formal education or career to choose this option.
In fact, it may not be a choice - she may simply have nothing else to do. Just like the old adage about teachers, 'those who can do, those who can't...' what? Breed? Then there is the question about whether a woman who wants to raise a family full-time needs to be educated at all? We've fought hard for that right, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt seems to be claiming that unless we use our education in the workplace, it is pointless. We are pointless.
Negative attitudes toward full-time mums also devalue childcare across the board. Already, a starting salary for a nursery worker is around £12,000 p/a - a pittance in comparison to what many 'professional' women might be earning. The carers themselves are often young and inexperienced and have received the minimum training. When childcare translates to a poorly paid and inexperienced teenager it shows a lack of respect, both for the people we trust to look after our children and for the importance of childhood itself.
In America, a career woman who becomes a full-time mum is referred to as 'opting out'. Barbara and Shannon Kelley, co-authors of Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career-and Life-That's Right For You, feel this over-simplifies the issue, and for many women the apparent 'choice' between motherhood and work is nothing but a 'dangerous distraction' from the real issues.
Many women the Kelley's interviewed for their book found they were victims of circumstance - either they went back full time or not at all, because their employer was saying, "it's me or the kids."
Talk at my eight-month-old's swimming class certainly seems to back this up, with women needing to return to work for financial reasons but being told they could only go part-time if they took a more junior position. Apart from the obvious financial implications this is a huge knock to anyone's ego - you're being told as a mother you aren't as important to the workplace. Flexi-time, just like motherhood, is a 'soft option'.
Barbara Kelley says, "Instead of yammering about opting in or opting out and placing the weight of women's progress on the backs of personal choices, wouldn't our energy be better spent working for workplace and cultural changes that would benefit us all?" and I'm right behind her.
Until we can accept the value of motherhood, until those in a position of authority such as celeb mums and leading female figures are prepared to say that being a mum is worthwhile in its own right, we won't see any progress. All the evidence shows that well-rounded, educated mums lead to well-rounded educated children - a generation who will contribute to society at every level. Yet women who want to feel valid are still pushed to define themselves by their career, and those who chose to look after children - either as a job or a lifestyle choice - continue to be sidelined.
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