‘Motherism’: A prejudice which leads stay-at-home mothers to be viewed as stupid, lazy and unattractive, or so leading child development expert, Dr Aric Sigman, says. He came out this week in defence of the stay-at-home mother, telling a conference that ‘motherism’ should be tackled in the same vein as racism is.
But does ‘motherism’ only define stay-at-home mothers?
Lynne Burnham from campaigning group Mothers at home Matter certainly believes so.
“The scientific evidence shows that in the first three years of a child’s life they need consistent one-to-one care”, she explains. Yet “the government’s consistently pushing people back to work. That’s not what’s in the best interest of the child – in a large nursery setting they’re not going to get what they need.
“This government has egged on the prejudice by calling it a lifestyle choice”, she continues. “It most certainly is not a lifestyle choice. Many people have made real sacrifices to offer their children a consistent one to one care”, she argues, dismissing beliefs that “we depend on our rich husbands.”
And the benefits of staying at home to look after your children are well documented.
According to Dr Genevieve von Lob, Clinical Psychologist at City Psychology Group, a “major advantage of staying at home means a mother has the time to nurture and build up a close, loving bond with her child which can be extremely fulfilling for both of them.
“We also know from research that a close attachment with a warm, consistent mother (or mother substitute) in infancy, plays a crucial role in the longer term, psychological and emotional development of a child”, she continues. “Children with secure attachments are usually happier, more socially skilled, competent and empathetic than insecurely attached children, who are greater risk of emotional and psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. These effects also last into adulthood with securely attached children developing more secure, longer lasting relationships and report greater satisfaction with their relationships.”
A claim which Lynne substantiates. “Sweden is held up on a pedestal because they have childcare for everybody from 14 months”, she explains, “but the rates of mental health problems with adolescents in Sweden is one of the highest in the whole of Europe and we firmly believe this is because they haven’t had that attachment and bonding with a consistent carer in their early years.”
Yet staying at home is not for everyone, as life coach Karen Meager explains.
“Essentially if the mother is happy staying at home and gets joy and satisfaction out of it, then it can be a great option with benefits all round”, she says. “The problem comes when the mother feels she ‘should’ stay at home and does it but finds it unstimulating, dull or stressful. This is not good for anyone and whilst women think they can put on a brave face about it and say all the right things, emotionally it can be damaging both for them and their child.”
“One of the biggest things that mothers who stay at home suffer from is a lack of identity”, explains psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer. “You become a mum and a wife, but lose the sense of who you are.”
“If they’re accustomed to the camaraderie and stimulation of being surrounded by other adults at work, the change of pace can lead to feelings of depression and alienation” adds Dr von Lob. “Stay at home mothers, particularly those who were working women previously and had a rewarding, fulfilling career, may miss the satisfaction of earning, achieving and the adult company. Their self-esteem may suffer without the appreciation of a boss and colleagues as you don’t get a lot of positive feedback from a tantrum-throwing toddler. It may be difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment from changing nappies and endless household chores and challenging to find time for yourself with your attention seeking toddler.”
Which leads us on to those mothers who – shock horror – choose to go back to work after having a baby.
A working mother “often feels more balance in her life”, Dr von Lob explains. They “often have extremely strong bonds with their children because they are aware of how important the quality time is that they spend together and have been missing them all day. As a result, they often shower their children with love and affection and ensure that they plan fun activities when they are not at work.
“Working mums may also be dividing the duties of running the household with their spouses, which can benefit children as they see and learn important qualities such as time management, co-operation, discipline and equality of the genders from a young age. Children of working mothers may also learn to be more alert, independent, confident and co-operative when compared with the children of stay at home mothers, which will be of benefit for their future lives.”
It seems to work for 34-year-old Catherine Warrilow, who runs a PR agency.
“I never considered not working”, she explains.
“I feel so satisfied by my career and it makes me a happier person and therefore a better mother. I’m relaxed, fulfilled and therefore when I’m being a mum I am 100% focused on my children and enjoying our time together.”
But it’s not all rosy for mothers who go back to work, as Dr von Lob explains.
“Working mothers often struggle with guilt, inner conflict and a fear of negative judgements from others that she is putting her own needs before her children’s. Many new mothers today are so highly self-critical, and tough on themselves and worry that they are not succeeding or fulfilling their various roles as mother, wife, or employee.”
And as Dr Gummer explains, this can have an impact on how well you bond with your children – “not necessarily because of the lack of time but because you’re feeling so bad you overcompensate and do things you wouldn’t normally do. It doesn’t take them long to figure it out and that’s not good for attachment or mutual trust.”
Work at home
It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that more mothers are being forced to find a happy medium.
“I am single mum to toddler twin boys”, says 32-year-old Katy Hymas. “I set up a PR Agency and if twins were not written in to the business plan, single motherhood definitely wasn’t! The cost of childcare, times two, means returning to conventional employment would be impossible, but if I ever want to regain financial independence I need to ensure my CV does not gather dust in the pre school years. I have had to juggle single twin motherhood with career aspirations to ensure I maintain my independence. Working from home was my only option.”
As was 38-year-old Rachel Smallman’s. “I was made redundant from my job a month after I came back from maternity”, she says. “I’d been working as a senior product developer for a major UK company and they made me ‘redundant’ after I requested my working hours change and my maternity cover could offer more commitment to the company. A single male.
“I was devastated and really annoyed with myself as throughout my maternity, the guilt of being at home with my new baby was sometimes too much to bear. I also had to come to terms with my family’s reaction to actually wanting to go back to work. They could not see it wasn’t that I wanted to go back to work, as a family I had to for my pay packet. They made me feel like a bad mum.
“When this situation changed, I then had to deal with the fact that I was actually redundant. Redundant from an identity I had carved for myself as a well-respected and key member of a UK company.
“I ended up starting my own PR company. The company is based on our school’s hours and four years into this I have a few other mums working for me, to suit their kids’ hours.”
But whilst 38-year-old, Emma Snailham loves working from home, she struggles with the feeling that no-one – including her husband – thinks she does anything – even though she brings in half their income. “I think he would like to be a stay-at-home dad some of the time but his job doesn’t really allow for that”, she says.
This is something, however, that more and more dads are finding they can do.
“There is plenty of research out there that children who have an involved, warm, consistent father are at advantage and are happier and more securely adjusted”, Dr von Lob says. “Although it is more difficult to find out what the sole impact of a full time father is currently on the children, the chances are that the children benefit in similar ways.”
But even this is not always plain-sailing.
“I was a stay-at-home dad for three years”, Howie Watkins says. “There aren’t many of us! Okay, yes, in this day and age there are plenty of dads who do more (a lot more) of the childcare but there are relatively few of us who are genuinely the primary carers.
“Parent and toddler groups are also still very much ‘Mother’ and toddler groups”, he adds. “It’s a woman’s world – a chap has to cope with this as best he can.”
“From my experience stay at home dads are celebrated whilst stay at home mums are not given the same admiration”, Dr Gummer says, but “because they’re in the minority, they don’t have the natural bonding with the mums” so can “suffer from isolation. “Also a lack of self worth and emasculation is common in stay at home dads. There are definitely different standards for men but I wouldn’t say one gets an easier ride – society just sees them differently.”
“Nowadays, it seems that people often have a firm opinion on this issue, and whichever option a mother chooses is often subject to stigma, judgement and criticism”, Dr von Lob says.
“I think the prejudice stems from parents’ insecurities”, Dr Gummer adds. “There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of judgement. Women are having children later in life, so they have careers and promotions and appraisals and someone telling you you’re doing a good job, but you don’t get that from kids – you get puke and sleepless nights. And because it matters so much – this is the most important job of your life – you want to do really well at it but it’s hard to know what your measures are. It’s very hard for mothers of young children to know how they’re doing so there’s a lot of competitive parenting and it makes parenting so much harder than it needs to be.”
“Ultimately, whether or not to pursue a career or stay at home, is a very personal and entirely individual decision that depends on many factors”, concludes Dr von Lob. “What seems most important here is whether the mother is comfortable and happy with the decision she has made, because the children will do well either way. It is important for mothers of young children to consider their own desires and values when deciding whether to seek a job because a happy, content, satisfied mother is more likely to lead to a well- adjusted, happy, secure, well attached child.”
So, yes. Professor Sigman may be right in his coining of ‘Motherism’. But be fooled for not one moment that it includes only those that stay at home.