To work or not to work? That is the question…


working mum

Liz Fraser, 4th November 2009

So Fiona Phillips is going back to work, one year after leaving GMTV. The reason she left in the first place? To spend more time with her kids. The reason for her return to work? She doesn’t like being a full time mum.

            Pause for thought…

            Now then ladies and gents, before we get our bitchy claws out and join what seems so be a national past-time, Fiona-bashing, (well, on the Daily Mail comment pages anyway) perhaps this story is worth a little more consideration. Sure, Ms Phillips didn’t exactly win over many hearts when she a) sold her ‘I want to spend time with my family’ story to the Mail  (kerching!) and then b) sold her ‘I want to go back to work’ story to the same paper (kerching! again), not to mention c) getting exactly what she asked for and then saying she didn’t want it after all – always a crowd-pleaser, that –  but if we take time to think about it, her experience is one that thousands of mothers can relate to. Well, kind of – just, you know, without the massive pay cheques, the gruelling daily 3am starts and the make-up department. But apart from all that, it’s a simple case of that humungous debate of modern times:

Should mothers work or not?   (I’m leaving fathers out of this for now, as that’s a whole other topic, for another day.)

            For far too many, this isn’t a debate at all. They have to work, to pay the bills. But for those who have the choice, and who could get by perfectly well living on their partner’s salary alone, it’s a decision that many find very difficult to make. The issue is now ‘I want to work’, rather than ‘I have to work’, and as soon as you throw ‘want’ into the equation, you’re in trouble.

            This is primarily due to that most delightful female characteristic, guilt. Women, as of course you know because you’re a clever sort, have two X chromosomes. Men, by contrast, have an X, and a Y. (If you’re a recent divorcee, this is an X and a WHY??) Lurking on that second female X chromosome is the sneaky, pesky guilt gene. (It’s next to the ones for PMT, odd moments of inexplicable stupidity and lust for George Clooney, in case you can’t find it…) This guilt gene renders us almost incapable of doing anything without feeling bad about it, while spending half our lives trying to please others and doing what we think they would think is ‘Right’. It also leaves us almost incapable of knowing what we actually want. (I once tried to write a list of things that I liked and wanted, and managed a grand total of three things – one of which was flowers. Flowers?? Wtf?! I don’t even like flowers all that much – before throwing the list away in case anyone found it and thought I was silly. Which, in itself, was fantastically silly, and neatly illustrates the point.) Incidentally, it should be very obvious that just as not all women like chocolate or having ice cubes rubbed on their midriffs, so not all women possess this guilt gene, and they swan about doing exactly as they please and sod the lot of you, especially their hard-done-by husbands. We do not like these women, so we’ll ignore them here.

             The guilt gene, where present, is thrown into overdrive in working mothers.

            We are the ones who give birth (lucky us, hey?) and there is an unsaid rule decreeing that we should therefore love being with our kids 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and want for nothing else. Yes, even when they bicker with each other, refuse to wear a coat in January and make paper aeroplanes out of your favourite book. Because we’re mothers, we should love all this and be happy to do the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning and basically spending all day, every day, playing mum with a permanent, happy smile of maternal bliss across our chirpy little faces. Not to be deliriously happy about this state of affairs, is akin to not having a womb.

            The second problem, related to the first, is social pressure. ‘Oh, you’re going back to work? So soon?’ (Read: you are abandoning your child and should burn in Hell for all Eternity.) versus ‘Oh, you don’t work?’ At all?’ (read: so while your hard-working husband is slaving away in boardrooms, you sit about in Starbucks reading Grazia all day.) The first, incidentally, is by far the most prevalent. Going back to work within a year of having a baby is tantamount to infanticide in the UK.

            Social pressure is a biggie, because in this country we like nothing better than personal criticism. If a woman gains three pounds, she’s a fatso. If she loses them, she’s a bag of bones and has an eating disorder. If she dresses badly she’s a slob. If she dresses well she’s a spoilt Yummy Mummy. If she stays at home she’s a lazy sponger, and if she goes to work she’s a selfish, bad mother who should have her ovaries spanked.

See, it’s tricky.

What seems to be so rarely mentioned – like, ever – is that mothers are also people. People with brains (what? Brains, you say?! Yes, brains) and interests and ambition and drive. If you take someone like this and ask her to sit at home all day singing The Wheels on the Bus for five years, followed by a further 10 years playing cleaner, cook, taxi, peace-keeper, gardener and general dogsbody, until the kids leave home and she sits at the bottom of the stairs wondering who on earth she IS any more, she will, quite frankly, go insane.

The grass is always greener, of course, and I’m not kidding myself for one second that I’d want to sit in an office 14 hours a day with the enormous pressure of bringing home the bacon hanging over my head like a guillotine. That sounds Hellish. But doing absolutely nada but look after others and sit about waiting for the kids to come home from school, when your whole being is crying out for some stimulation, success and a challenge greater than ‘how many pair of pants can I fold in an hour?’ is pretty soul-destroying.

I guess the upshot is, everyone is different, and we should stop criticising parents for working, and criticising them for not working. What suits one doesn’t suit another, and you don’t know what suits you until you’ve tried it. As Ms Phillips has just learned.

Oh, and also, it’s none of our sodding business. So long as the kids are happy, and well-cared for and loved and living in a home where there’s warmth and security and a happy parent or two, that should be all that matters. We should be free to make our own decisions about working or not.

As an irritatingly wise friend of mine put it to me recently when I asked for his opinion about something I’d written, ‘Why are you so dependent on the opinions of others?’ My answer, defensively, was that I’m not. But of course that’s only half the truth. To a certain extent we all are – it’s kind of how people work. We like to know that somebody agrees with us. That somebody out there is supporting us. Why do you think those irritating ‘thumbs up’ and ‘Like’ signs on FB are so popular? Like little children, we all like a supportive wink, a ‘you go for it, baby!’ from time to time. It’s comforting, confidence-building and reassuring. And there ain’t nothing wrong with wanting a little of that.

I hope Fiona has a very happy, successful return to work, whenever and however she chooses to do it. But whatever she decides, I hope it’s what she wants, and I certainly shan’t be criticising her for it.

One thought on “To work or not to work? That is the question…

  1. Saffia Farr

    Hello Liz

    This is such a complicated issue! I was at a Care for the Family seminar last night and the basic message was that as mums we all have to stop criticising each other and support each other. There was also a good point made that we have to have the confidence to make our own decisions for our children, not decisions we think others would approve of.

    I have read The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide and A Spoonful of Sugar and been refering to them on my blog ( In fact my last post about Too Many Toys quoted A Spoonful of Sugar. I loved your granny’s common sense advice.

    Thank you for raising some great points.



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