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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