by Claire Paye
2nd February 2016
‘Are working mothers better mothers’ ended up being the title of the tv debate I participated in on ITV Are working mums ‘better’ mums?, 2 Feb 2016. I had thought it was going to be a conversation about whether stay at home mothers can exist without living vicariously through their children, mollycoddling them, smothering them etc. etc., which was the gist of Nicole Kidman’s comments which kicked off this particular debate.
It wasn’t quite that subtle. I appreciate the fact that the media has to polarise the debate to provoke reaction but, really? Are working mums better mums? It’s a terrible question to discuss, impossible to do justice to in a few minutes and, personally, there is something very condescending to me about being known as a ‘mum’. It is impossible, in a few soundbite moments of unpredictable but certainly short duration, against a hostile fellow guest, to embark upon the value of being a stay at home mother without sounding as though you are judging working mothers or suggesting that just by being at home, all stay at home mothers are excellent mothers.
My fellow guest was quite clear that working mothers are better mothers, which would have endeared her to the producers as she apparently generated a goodly amount of twitter-rage. But we couldn’t go into what level of working mother did she have in mind in terms of being a better mother? I do lots of unpaid work. Does that make me a working mother? What is the cut off? At what point does my better mothering kick in? If I only work school hours am I a better mother or, if working is the key factor, perhaps the more hours I worked, the better a mother I would be?
We just can’t have this polarised debate. It’s like bear baiting to pit mothers against each other. Some mothers haven’t chosen their way of life, whether working or not. They are being the best mother they can be in the hours they spend with their children. Please let’s not attack them.
What is actually at stake is the value of mothering per se. Stay at home mothers are currently the target of a certain amount of opposition in the media. They suggest that as we feel so undervalued (and whose fault is that?), we can only find fulfilment if our children live the lives we wish we were living (namely doing something worthwhile such as getting a job.) My fellow guest on ITV suggested that a child who grew up to want to stay at home to care for their children would be a failure.
Stay at home mothers do need a voice (which I try to provide as a spokesperson for the support and campaign group Mothers at Home Matter) to speak up for the value of the extra time and attention we can give our children and, increasingly, to affirm the value of the care all mothers give. But we don’t want to fuel a civil war which pits mother against mother. Our target needs to be a Government which insists on a ‘one size fits all’ policy of rewarding mothers who earn a salary and penalising mothers/families who sacrifice a salary to care for their children with the blatant and stated aim of ‘encouraging’ all mothers into work. Lack of choice is the real issue here. If all mothers felt happy with the hours they worked or the decision they made to stay at home, surely the debate would die down? It’s when we are made to feel guilty because we don’t see our children enough or guilty because we are caring for our children rather than doing a ‘proper’ job, that we feel a lack of security and are easy to wound and are therefore more likely to attack those who are living differently to us.
And let’s not forget our children, who apparently have no say in this debate at all. Our children need us to love and care for them as much as we can. How much time we spend focussed on them and what state we are in when we do actually does make a difference. I wonder whether more mothers would choose to spend more time at home if they were congratulated and affirmed for doing so rather than denigrated for slacking on the work front? We mustn’t make the mistake of underestimating the value of something just because it has no price tag. A mother’s love is the life blood of her children, it’s what they need to thrive. Mothers are irreplaceable.
There’s no room left here to comment on fathers – and no one is asking whether working fathers are better fathers. Suffice to say, stay at home fathers seem to be regarded in a totally different light by the media. They are modern day heroes, bravely sacrificing their careers for the sake of their children. The stay at home father plays just as important a role in the care of his children as a stay at home mother does. But it is apparently only the stay at home mother who smothers her children and lives her life through them. Presumably fathers have enough self-worth not to fall into that trap.
I dispute the terms of This Morning’s debate on ITV but I can see the limitations in a debate title that ran, ‘Are some mothers, perhaps, not feeling completely fulfilled at home and therefore might well be slightly better as mothers because they would be happier in themselves if they could find an interesting job which fitted around their children and offered full flexibility for all eventualities?’. But at least it would be a title I could agree with.
Claire Paye is Newsletter Editor and Media Representative for MAHM