Monday, 4 January 2010

Are working mums taking the rap for the rest of us?

There is a sad and alarming piece of research out today showing the number of children who have trouble learning to talk (four per cent haven't said a word by age three). As usual, TV gets the blame: but more explicitly than usual, so do working parents.
Jean Gross, the government's communication champion who oversaw the research, is quoted saying parents should 'think about what children need. It's not expensive toys and big houses. It's you.' - ie, they should work less.
That follows an interview in the Sunday Telegraph with the brilliant GP Dr Sarah Jarvis in which she is quoted blaming obesity in kids partly on working parents who are 'so knackered at the weekend they let their children stay in front of the television' instead of going to the park. Suddenly, it feels like working parents are in the dock for everything.
This is a tricky one for me. After all, I gave up fulltime work because I wanted to be with my own son more: I wasn't worried about his development (he had a brilliant nanny before) but obviously I hope me being around will have a positive effect. And yet this stuff makes me uncomfortable.
Is it really only working mothers (or their childminders/nannies/whoever) who ever park kids in front of the TV instead of reading to them or going to the park? Really?
Telly and sugar happen to be the two things I am fascist about: I just don't watch TV with my son unless he's too ill to get off the sofa, or unless we're at someone else's house and their kids are watching.
But I admit that was easier to stick to when I was working: I'm definitely more tempted by CBeebies now, with only so many ways to fill a long rainy day.
Before, I was always incredibly conscious of needing to do lots of stimulating, educational, virtuous things with my son in my spare time: it was a way of compensating for my absence. Probably overcompensating, if I'm honest: I am a more relaxed, less driven parent now and we are both happier for it. I suspect I'm not alone in that.
So is there any hard evidence that working mothers threaten their children's development?
Well, not in the survey published yesterday, there isn't: it's a YouGov poll of 1,000 parents and it doesn't even record which of them worked.
Admittedly there was a recent study from the Institute of Child Health, suggesting that working mothers' children watched more TV and were more likely to be driven to school instead of walking.
But that was contradicted a few weeks later by a massive study from the Institute of Education arguing that working mums didn't really affect children's development: a stable home life mattered more.
Of course, Gross is an eminent educational psychologist, and presumably knows what she's talking about. She might also say she isn't blaming parents, but bad childcare - which is still too often the only kind some parents can find or afford.
Nonetheless, I feel uneasy about using this as yet another stick with which to beat working mothers - at least until we have clearer evidence.


  1. I'm a full time mum and I happily let my child watch CBeebies. I'd never get anything done if I didn't and I don't feel bad about it. It's not like she's watching trash, there are no adverts, and if it's a programme she doesn't like then she presses the pause button and doesn't watch it. she's pretty fussy, actually. It's not on all the time. I also play with her, do things with her, take her places and just generally hang out with her. It's a balance.

  2. I agree - TV on it's own isn't the problem - it's how it's used or watched. I watch some programmes on Cbeebies [again prefer that because there are no adverts], and I talk to my son about what's happening.
    It can generate ideas too about things to do with him which as Gaby pointed out can be very challenging when he still can't talk to me [Noah is 15months]. I personally found it incredibly sad that as a nation we need someone to act as a 'communication champion' - I don't know either why we're failing our kids in the most basic things?!

  3. Personally I'm fed up to the back teeth of experts telling us where we're going wrong. And it's always the mums isn't it?

    As far as I'm concerned it's all about balance - some television is fine, but we also do a lot of stuff outdoors (cycling, walking the dog, etc) and both of my daughters have their own interests such as swimming, dancing and drama.

    There was also a study in the Times at the weekend saying that children who are smacked go on to be more successful in life - are we all going to start smacking our children now just in case they're right? What a load of bollocks. Pardon my french.

  4. Completely agree with notSupermum. The debate about whether you can be a better mother if you work or not is a diversion which suits the purposes of those whose real agenda is that women should retain traditional roles.

    The real issue is how you can be a good, effective and loving parent so your children grow up feeling secure, loved and confident enough to fulfil their potential. Most of us are striving on a daily basis to achieve that, as well as achieve something for ourselves - and that might be working or it might not. Everyone finds their own way.

    The rest, as notSupermum says, is bollocks.

  5. Isn't it actually the case that when you're paying someone to look after your child - whether it's a nanny or someone in a nursery - then the advantage is that is at least what they're doing full time. Contrast that to a typical day at home with my 18 mo: 99% of the time I'm ignoring him while trying to cook/clean/email/internet shop/chat to friends/blog. That can't be just me, surely? (I was also going to blog about this survey. V interesting. Small sample though, surely?)

  6. A depressed SAHM is not going to engage with her child which may result in delayed speech. So women/Mums literally can't win. I agree with 'Supermum' & 'babydinesout' there is an agenda.
    Also, it is always Mums, working or otherwise who are blamed for societies ills. I am currently researching Victorian society and there was a huge 19th C concern that working women were not only damaging their children, but literally causing their Deaths! Working women challenged the Victorian ideology of domesticity. Nothing changes!

  7. I agree with Babies who brunch - finding the time during my day to really focus on my 1 year old is hard, and there's nothing worse than a screaming baby pulling on your trouser leg when you're trying to clean the pots or just make some breakfast.

    Noah goes to nursery 2 mornings a week [and screams the place down when I take him] to give me the time to do those jobs and try to do some work, but I still feel tremendous guilt - not sure my husband has the same guilt about it though!?

  8. I think TV is very similar to food - there's more of it around these days and it's very hard to ignore. Whether or not kids TV viewing is provoking a communications crisis like the obesity crisis is less proven for me. And it's also a fairly hypothetical question for most carers at home. My husband (background similar to the Royle family) and I differ on this, he thinks the children should pretty much self regulate and I intervene to turn it off or control what they're watching, but less than I think I should. The fact is that in our middle class household, our kids communicate well (because we do talk around the dinner table and read books etc), so I don't worry too much. When they start grunting rather than speaking, I'll start worrying.

    On the issue of working women getting the blame for everything, it's true we (well I used to work so still consider myself an honorary working woman) do. When men start working more flexibly in bigger numbers, we may see a change. Is it also an issue of women's guilt about everything that we can't just read these stories in the press and then shrug them off?

    One question I do have, having given up work to be with my children, is am I better for them than a qualified and experienced childcarer? The author of the report you quote says "it's you they need". I have learned a lot about childcare since I've been off work, but I am still one of the least patient people I know - I wouldn't employ me as a nanny! But, funnily enough, my kids seem to prefer me with all my faults to anyone else. On the other hand, for many years other people did look after them and they are still wonderful confident children. Feel less guilt is my motto.

  9. Too true, Gwyneth. More men should be working flexibly around their kids.

    I started doing this when my partner was refused flexible working. Certainly, the days can sometimes be very slow and isolated, but in big picture terms parents can gain a huge amount from just 'being there' when children are young, men included.

    Perhaps few men realise this, and I'm not sure I'd have done so if I'd not cut back my hours. I can't help feeling that mums and dads who work full time (particularly those putting in long hours) are rather disenfranchising themselves based on how they feel about staying at home when SMP cuts off (i.e. when staying at home is most challenging to your sanity).

    I'd argue that the time together gets more and more rewarding as your child grows up. My wife now works part time too, and our joint income comes in at way below the national average wage, but the time together is worth it. In terms of 'being there,' my own feeling is that it's nurturing and supporting your child by example as much as anything.

  10. we were stuck in this morning and when my 19mo requested 'lala' i happily stuck on the charlie and lola dvd. not that it lasted more than five minutes before he was back on my hip (ouch) watching me make his lunch....

  11. Stuck on the train for two hours today so in desperation I read the Guardian including Amelia Gentleman writing against marriage .Reminded me of you .When you had a pop at this vital institution I noticed was that the obvious fact that marriage promotes and stabilises relationships, was un-provable to you because you would interpret an avalanche of evidence , as coincidence or circular. It’s a sort of K Paxian logic alittle like madness Asked to refer to your own experience , you got very shirty as if that were not the whole point .Wierd .
    Weird that is , until you take a step back. The reason for the obstinate refusal to face facts on your part and Mz Gentleman’s , and ever more desperate resort to vacuous stat garble , both on marriage and working women, is that it is against the feminist case . That case at bottom requires the belief that men and women are interchangeable .Inconveniently that , happens to be cobblers, but whether or not you agree , if you are honest you will admit that nothing would persuade you that children suffered from women entering the workforce . Your delightful; mention of an ‘excellent Nanny’ ( mirth ) rather gives away your own weeny perspective on it.

    Shall we provide “Excellent nannies” to all single mothers Gabby ? Or shall we start to admit that opportunities for midde-class women like you have been gained at the expense of disadvantaged working class children . Not to worry; little Tarquin will never meet them . He will , with much apology , be sent to prep school by his non-working married mother where he will no doubt do well and end up preaching at us from the pages of the Guardian .

    The circle of life , its beautiful thing man

  12. 'Of course, Gross is an eminent educational psychologist, and presumably knows what she's talking about'

    *Stan Laurel Look to camera*

  13. As someone who is guilty of this heinous sin (against humanity in general and my children in particular (yes I work)), I would say that I was much more likely to dump them in front of the television at the weekends while I slumped "knackered" beside them when I wasn't working than I am now, when I have two days a week to use my brain and recoup a little of the energy I spend on the days I am with them. Anyone who thinks that being a full-time mum of a toddler isn't just as exhausting as any full-time job, however stressful or high-powered has clearly never had a child, much less three.

  14. really interesting to read these. amy, gwynneth & babieswhobrunch, know exactly what you mean about attention at home: often feel guilty that my son was probably doing lots more exciting things with the nanny, compared to unloading the washing machine with me.
    tho i think (maybe just kidding myself?) it's maybe healthy to be bored/fedup sometimes. if every day is technicolour excitement, you're setting unrealistic expectations for the rest of life (certainly for school) and not teaching them to amuse themselves.
    anyone who's not read donald winnicott's stuff about being a 'good enough' parent might like it. someone gave me the book when i was pregnant - he's a 50s psychologist but v easy to read. in a nutshell, argues that being the 'perfect' parent is not good for kids: you need to occasionally screw things up, so that in later life they can cope with not always getting what they want. terribly reassuring.

  15. This is a topic to which I have given much thought In my circumstance, I felt that the children would have received little attention had I worked full time. I certainly believe that this has been better for my children and the family. Of course though, having sacrificed my work income and status, I have a vested interest in believing this, otherwise I have sacrificed for nothing!
    Equally, a two parent working family has to believe that their children are better off in order to justify their choice as well.

    Unfortunately, these two 'best choices' seem mutually exclusive and therefore, someone must be wrong. This leads to the uncomfortable situation of mothers who stay at home being in conflict with mothers in the paid workforce as both feel they are right and must justify their decisions. This just leads to nastiness and mean spirited behaviour among mothers. At home mothers are demeaned as spending their days 'just playing in the park and making cupcakes' and mothers in the paid workforce are critised as 'abandoning their children for their own selfish goals'.

    The media have always enjoyed this simplistic debate and it has filled many column inches in newspapers and magazines!
    The reality is that every family and their circumstance is different and no family model is inherently better than any other.
    Whether your family model works is dependent on so many differing factors and no two circumstances are the same. I stay at home as my husband works long hours and can earn more money than me but I know another family where the husband stays home and the wife works for the same reason. Yet another family I know has both parents working but has full time support from an active grandmother.

    The truth is that the generalisations don't work and only you can know if your family structure is working for you.
    Certainly, there are neglectful working mothers, but there are also neglectful stay at home mothers.

    Let us all do what is best in our circumstance and stop judging other families. My best hope for my daughters is that when they grow up they will have the freedom to choose for themselves, which is what it is really all about.