Should Women be Penalised for Wanting to be Mothers Too?

It’s a tricky dilemma, motherhood or a career? The way our systems have evolved (male centric, no true gender equality, motherhood is a women’s ‘problem’, etc) make managing both a very tricky feat to pull off. I take my hat off to those who manage it because they face considerable baby sleeping by k r anoophurdles.

A few weeks back I wrote this post, What Advice Would You Give to a Pregnant Woman? in response to something I’d read. It began:

I usually read the i newspaper as it gives a concise account of the news and I can follow up on news I want to know in depth. Until today I didn’t realise that it featured an ‘agony aunt’; the agony aunt in question is Virginia Ironside who has been around for a while with a successful career as a columnist, commentator and is the author of several books.
Before my current role as a specialist in women’s personal development, I used to be a child care social worker, have 2 children, and have been trained in child development, although I will willingly own up to the fact that I’m not up to date on the latest theory as I moved into management and have been out of it for some time. I didn’t have the option of returning to work as the times were different and so stayed home until my children were 10 months old. My sister in law in Norway, however, was very easily able to return to work and she has two lovely, well adjusted children, as do  my working Mum friends.

So it was in jaw-gaping awe and not some little disbelief  that I read Virginia’s column today; in fact, I thought she was joking and at some point would say ‘But what I really think is…’.

This is the question she was asked:

Click here to read the full post.

I don’t think I was rude about the author of the column, although I was genuinely shocked and expressed it . And it’s to Virginia’s credit that she took the time to respond to me and defend her view:

Thanks for your comments. I’m very sorry you found my answer so disagreeable. I certainly think it’s important for a mother to be with her baby full time just after its born, at least for a while. It’s not an uncommon view. You say

“I do think a baby needs its mother during this first vital months and a mother needs her baby. But I don’t think this woman was suggesting she give birth and go back to work the next day!”

But my impression was that she was considering going straight into a new job. Perhaps your view would have been slightly different if you’d understood the letter like that. My response would certainly have been different if I’d imagined she would have spent a few months with the baby before going back to work.

Perhaps I am too informed by own experience of having a mother with a high-powered job. I was handed over to an au pair and always felt second best to her career. This might have added an emotional edge to the piece, but my experience of not having a mother all to myself at least for a while was not a good one.

While I have no wish to be disrespectful to Virginia herself I do disagree with what her views on parenthood given in her original response. In fact, she herself was on the BBC a few days defending her position as she came in for quite a blast of criticism. She’s entitled to her views and we have amicably agreed to disagree.

If you read her original response you’ll see that part of her rationale for women staying at home with their babies was that father’s didn’t do it so well. I believe that babies need their mothers in those first few precious months, and no, I didn’t read the letter as if the woman was going to go straight back after the birth; this is a rare occurrence; even with our less than satisfactory equality legislation, most women are able to stay home for the vital first weeks. After that, I think a good father is a good father, as is a good mother and either will benefit the baby. I am horrified that Ms Ironside thinks that men use language so differently that the child will be disadvantaged if it spends too much time with a male parent. My husband was (still is) an excellent father and we shared the parenting.

My experience both as a mother and as a child care social worker working with children and parents in very difficult circumstances, has shaped my belief that babies need to be loved, to know they are loved by some significant people, and they need to have some structure in their lives. I have seen children survive and thrive well in less than ideal circumstances when those two needs have been met. I don’t think structure means the same for all families. I don’t think a mother having a career means ‘less than ideal’ and I hope I’m not projecting my personal experiences onto all women. I’ve seen some very bad parenting when the mother stayed at home, and I’ve seen some excellent parenting when the mother had a career. It’s perfectly possible to have an emotionally absent parent whether they work or not.

I think as a society we need to revisit and totally revise how we care as a society for our children.  That includes those of us who are parents and those who aren’t. Unless we are to become extinct we need women to continue to have children in our society and we need those children to have as good an upbringing as possible. I think it’s a collective responsibility. I believe our legislation needs to change and I believe we need to value the job of child care much more. We know a lot about child development now but I am not sure that much of that is being translated into the field of child care.

  • What do you think?
  • Are you a stay at home Mum?
  • Was this a genuine choice?
  • Did you return to work?
  • How was your decision viewed?
  • What do you think about being full time baby carers?
  • How are fathers perceived?
  • If you have a partner how did you share childcare?
  • If you don’t fit the heterosexual model what are your experiences?
  • If you have older children how do your children view the decisions and choices you made?

Please do join in the debate; your views are welcomed and will help inform future posts on this topic. Thank you.

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Photo by Anoop KR.

Posted on September 9th, 2013 by

One Response to “Should Women be Penalised for Wanting to be Mothers Too?”

  1. I love the debate, as it seems that a lot of people genuinely think mums are better than dads. This is not true at all. In the ideal circumstances a baby needs both, because mum and dad do tend to differ in parenting style. Dads can take the mothers role and will quickly learn. Just like women can learn to do almost any job men do.

    There is some pressure on high-powered women though to return early (eg in weeks or even days, like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo). It is important to realise a woman’s body does get a big impact from pregnancy and birth, and needs to recover. Actually it takes 9 months to recover fully, just as it takes 9 months to get ready. Also as Virginia points out, baby needs time to re-adjust to the new world. So if accepting a high-powered job, it might be worth negotiating quite a bit of flexibility at the start, so you can work from home part of the time, and have time to express milk during work. I would recommend most people to wait 6 months before being full-time back at work. In Nordic countries, this is normal practice. Women are back at work quickly, but not full-time, full-on, there’s a more gradual process allowed by law.

    But definitely, do accept the job, if you love it. The child is going to be around for a while, and you can also spend time with them when they are 10 or 15. Babies need stability, love and routine and dad can give this. And it’s certainly not as easy as Virginia suggests to return to work. I know many women previously professional women who struggle to return or give up entirely. In addition, someone does need to earn the family incomes, sounds to me like she is better placed to do so, and more income is also proven to be very beneficial to children’s attainment levels.

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