Working Parents: not a tragedy, in fact.

I should know better, shouldn’t I?

But there I was this morning perusing the Mail Online when I came across this gem:

ADHD and why we working mums need to look in the mirror

This headline, like so many others in the media (and especially the Fail) makes the classic assumption that parenting is (of course) a mother’s job.

So if you’re talking about bad parenting you are – obviously – talking about bad mothers, right? I’m not sure which dictionary they’re reading, but in my book parent and mother are NOT actually synonyms. Where are Dads in this picture?

Oh that’s right, they’re at work, sometimes barely seeing their children. But as Sarah Vine so astutely points out “that doesn’t matter” so long as Mummy (the real parent) is at home all day, providing a constant, reassuring presence for her child.  But when a mother goes out to work that’s a different story:

As someone who never once contemplated giving up work after babies, I made many wrong decisions in the first few years of my children’s life. The upshot was that around the time my eldest started school, the most terrible realisation dawned on me: I hardly knew my children.  That, really, is the unspoken tragedy of the working mother. For all the financial and intellectual advantages we have by carrying on working, ours is also a story of benign neglect, of guilt, of children fighting for windows in our busy diaries…

Oh sit DOWN already.

First of all, can we for the love of God stop heaping all this judgment on women, as though we’re the sole providers of parenting. Why so much debate and research into the impact of working MUMS, ignoring the thousands of Dads who are at home, whether full or part-time, raising kids?

And let’s stop assuming working = bad. Like so many of these issues, research around the impact of working parents on young kids is like a buffet where you can pick and choose according to your own tastes – for every bit of research suggesting that kids with working Mums do less well in school, there’s another to suggest kids with working parents are doing just fine, and in many cases, having working parents is better for young children.

I suspect the research is muddled because we’re not asking the right question – which is, why do many working parents find it hard to carve out quality time with their kids?

If we spent more time asking that question, I suspect we’d have fairer deals for parents around flexible working hours, job shares, family-friendly policies from employers and a better work/life balance overall. Because if kids are struggling because they’re missing out on seeing their parents, the answer isn’t to glibly say, “Don’t work”, it’s to provide support systems that allow parents to work while still being present, loving parents to their children.

Sure, I’ve got a big vested interest here.

I’m a working parent. I’m also a single parent, but I should probably keep that quiet in case the Daily Mail gets wind of it and starts chasing me with pitchforks.

I’ve always worked. Since my first weekend job waiting tables in a hotel at the age of 12, I’ve always worked. I’ve never claimed unemployment benefit or any sort of means-tested benefit, because I’m lucky I’ve been able to support myself. I went back to work part-time when Flea was six weeks old, and I’ve worked ever since.

Does that mean I don’t know my child? Was it a tragedy?

I don’t think so.

In the early days, we were lucky to have an amazing nanny who looked after Flea for three days a week, and sang, and painted, and went swimming, and made Flea wait until she’d said “please” before she was allowed a sandwich. The other four days, Flea spent with me.

When Flea was a little older, I mostly looked after her, going to the music groups and singing groups and the park and the zoo – and working like a demon during her naps, and in the evening.

Now she’s at school, we’re a bit more rushed than families who have a parent at home, but I think that’s balanced out because I spend a lot of time with Flea out of school. Not only that but by working, I am teaching Flea that you should work hard in life for the things you need; that having a job allows you to do fun, interesting things, and meet lots of people. Stay-at-home parents are (I’m sure) teaching their kids great lessons too – they’re just different.

Crucially, though, I’ve been self-employed for many years. I get to set my own hours, take a day off if I need to, stop working at 3.30pm to collect Flea from school, and catch up after bedtime if I want to. While I’m almost certainly not doing anything perfectly, I think our arrangement works well enough, and better than many.

At the end of the day, I have a child who is happy, confident, supported and loved – by both of her parents. And that can’t possibly be a tragedy. 

What do you think? 


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