When I tell people that I have just come back to work after a year on maternity leave, I'm always surprised by the look of pity that spreads across their faces, the tone of sympathy in their voices, as if I am a small wounded animal or the sufferer of a terminal illness.
‘‘Oh no,’’ they almost all say. ‘‘I’m so sorry for you. That must be so tough.’’ They pause as a mark of respect for my plight, before shaking their heads and narrowing their eyes miserably. ‘‘Tell me, how are you finding it?’’
How am I finding it? How am I finding it? I’m finding it just hunky-dory, thank you very much. I’m finding it totally and utterly fabulous, now that you ask. The company of adults, the ability to go to the loo without the door open, the fact that I can just pop out and have sushi (sushi, so sophisticated!) whenever I damn want (well, at lunchtime) ... what’s not to love?
Does this make me a heartless harridan, a woman devoid of maternal instinct who doesn’t deserve to be a mother? No. It just makes me normal, actually. The idea that working women feel guilty about not staying at home to look after their children has this week been blown apart, proved to be nothing more than a great big myth.
Research carried out by Mumsnet has found that mothers who go to work are actually happier than those who stay at home, with only 13 per cent of women in employment saying they would rather not work. Almost half of those surveyed claimed that being in the office made them happier, while a third of stay-at-home mothers said that they would prefer to work.
‘‘We often think of working mums as harassed and time-poor,’’ said Justine Roberts, the chief executive of Mumsnet, ‘‘rushing from the school gate to the office with not a second to spare. But the reality is often more complicated. Most want to work, or work more hours. Yes, we might all miss the quick pint after work or lunch breaks that aren’t spent dropping sandwich crumbs over the keyboard so we can leave in time ... but many parents find that periods away from their children give them energy to focus on their children when they are with them ... Perhaps it’s time to banish the cliche of the guilty working mum once and for all.’’
Quite right too. There are many things I have felt guilty about since my daughter was born - snapping at her because I find it tricky to wipe sick off her face while simultaneously trying to put a wash on and find her dummy to calm her down; not being able to catch her when she fell off the bed and on to a hardwood floor because I was otherwise engaged cleaning poo off the carpet - but going back to work is not one of them.
This isn’t purely for selfish reasons, for the relaxing loo breaks and ability to look at the internet without your child abducting your iPhone and shoving it in her mouth to use as a teething toy. It isn’t just because, after a year of looking after a sometimes screaming baby, going back to an office actually seems relaxing - though, undoubtedly, the 52 per cent of mums who say staying at home is harder than going out to work are right.
The other reason, and it’s one I am sure stay-at-home mothers feel guilty about, is that I believe my daughter gets far more social stimulation from nursery than she would from a woman with one eye on her, the other on the washing machine.
The recent claims by experts that our infants are being ‘‘institutionalised’’ by full-time childcare, that they risk being psychologically damaged by their mums going back to work too soon, would make my blood boil if I wasn’t the chilled-out product of my very own working mum, who schlepped off to the office every day and went back to work when each of her children reached six months old. No harm done there, and one might even venture that it’s beneficial for a child to have a working female role model in its life.
Of course, there is a wider problem here, and it is that in the 21st century women are still expected to feel guilty about the choices they make, whatever they happen to be: working mum, stay-at-home mum, don’t-want-to-be-a-mum-at-all-but-thanks-all-the-same. Nobody ever asks a man who works late and never sees his children if he feels guilty, and perhaps they should.
So no, I don’t feel guilty about going to work, though I probably would have reason to feel a bit bad if I decided to give it all up, thus meaning I couldn’t afford to feed my child or keep a roof over her head. And therein lies the rub: for the majority of women, guilt, like so many other things, just isn’t an option.
The Daily Telegraph