May 21, 2010
Baby steps for working mums
It’s healthy to be comfortable as either ‘worker’ or ‘mother’ or as both, but it’s not good to want one arrangement while living another,
writes OLIVER JAMES
WHEN THEIR children are small, most mothers employ mental acrobatics to reconcile their “mother” and “worker” identities, and justify decisions about working or not working. If only their partners felt a similar pressure.Four main tactics have been identified, none of them terribly effective. They are used in differing degrees and ways, depending on whether the mother works full or part-time, or is at home full-time.“Blanking” entails a total denial of the existence of an alternative. Hence, three-quarters of at-homers say that work is completely out of the question because of their child’s wellbeing.
More conflict filled are the quarter of mothers who say that their child is “the whole of my life”, yet who work 20-30 hours a week. Hardly any mothers blank out their nurturing identity in favour of the worker.“Separate lives” entail a complete denial of the mother identity when at work, and of worker when at home. Unfortunately, mobile phones and e-mails tend to lead the two to bleed into each other.
“Blending” entails seeing oneself as both worker and mother when in either social context, sometimes combined with working from home or, occasionally, taking the child to work (such as a creche or if working in a shop, for example).This runs a high risk of perpetual disequilibrium, ricocheting between identities. Half of full-timers have reported feeling constantly torn.
“Reframing” is the least worst mental gymnastic manoeuvre. You may couch your worker identity in terms of it benefiting the child, and your mother identity as increasing appreciation of work: win-win. This is the commonest tactic of the part-timer; three-quarters of whom maintain that they have successfully integrated worker with mother.Where reframing can go wrong is if it entails misrepresenting the needs of babies or toddlers. The commonest example is to convince yourself that they need stimulation, education and friends, whereas the evidence is overwhelming that until they are three, all children need nurture rather than pedagogy, and constant supervision from a responsive adult who knows them well.Regarding toddlers’ supposed need for friends, it is only during the third year that much more than parallel play alongside peers becomes possible. Even then, other kids are often seen as a menace or ignored.
Four out of five 18 month olds will grab at others’ toys, doing so an average of four times in a 45-minute period. Although the amount of such grabbing decreases as the child grows, a year later, the average number of grabs per 45 minutes is still two and a half. As such grabbing is still so common then, there needs to be close adult supervision of under-threes in the company of peers. The recommended ratio of one adult for every three under-twos in nursery settings does not seem sufficient for this.Reframing toddlers as needing other children’s company may be comforting to the parent, but it does not help the child.
Abundant evidence shows that what is most harmful to a mother’s mental health is when she is wanting one arrangement and living another. A life of quiet desperation soon develops, as she constantly has to hide behind a patina of rationalisations when talking to friends and colleagues.The real solution is going to be men starting to feel – every bit as much as women – that it is up to them how the baby is cared for. – Guardian Service