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Can The Mums Vs Non-Mums Divide Ever Be Fixed?

A debate about working mothers ignited by Kelly Brook shows the war is far from won, says Fiona Cowood.

Kelly Brook last week found herself in the midst of a furore on Twitter (where else?) over comments she made about how annoying she finds it when working mothers ‘use kids as an excuse to not do their jobs properly’. ‘Others,’ she added, ‘have kids and you never even hear about [them]. They are very professional and I love that.'

She was swiftly branded ‘smug’ and ‘judgemental’ and condemned for commenting on something she hasn’t experienced – Kelly is not a mother. She’s got a point though, hasn’t she? In an ideal world, you shouldn’t take on a job if you can’t meet its demands and expect others to pick up your slack – whether that’s because of children or not.

But in reality, life with kids is messy. And I don’t just mean baked-beans-in- your-hair messy. I’ve got two daughters and I’ve tried juggling a busy job with an hour’s commute and precision-timed pick-ups and drop-offs in two different places. It was... stressful. And that was on a good day, with trains and tantrums on my side.

I understand Kelly’s point because, pre-kids, I often felt the same. I used to find it annoying when let’s-call-her-Laura mysteriously disappeared at 4.40pm to manoeuvre let’s-call-him-Samuel to his violin lesson on time (she was meant to finish at 5pm). I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just change her hours, or why Samuel’s dad couldn’t do his bit. But who knows? Maybe Samuel’s dad was an utter tool. Maybe Laura had asked to change her hours and been refused.

Because that’s probably the case. Currently, fewer than one in 10 jobs paying over £20,000 are advertised as being open to flexible working, and a study last week showed that working mums are paid almost 20% less than working dads. In this landscape, being a working mother can feel complex at best and bleak at worst, which leaves two options: suck it up – Kelly’s preference – or shout about it, in the knowledge that it really doesn’t have to be this way.

Anna Whitehouse, mum blogger and founder of the Flex Appeal campaign, is firmly in the second camp. She’s on a mission to show businesses that releasing the 9-to-5 shackles is not just good for individuals, it makes great business sense, too. She explains: ‘Businesses have to look at what people are doing, not where they’re sitting. If everyone got on-board, the UK economy would be £156m richer per year – the evidence shows that if you release the shackles, people actually do more. It’s about changing the culture and showing that flexible working isn’t a nice-to-have, a bonus or something just for mums.

Anna’s right. Productivity aside, the battle between strung-out parents and their resentful, child-free colleagues will only ease once we’re all given the right to take advantage of today’s technology and work flexibly – be it for a sick parent, a Pilates class or a two-year-old in need of his supper. Until then, we’re just fighting among ourselves on itchy office chairs, letting bad bosses off the hook and failing to achieve the culture shift that’s so badly needed.

Let’s all be out, loud and proud about the commitments that make us who we are because, actually, it’s not just parents whose lives can be messy. And Laura, please consider this a belated apology for the eye-rolls. I really hope you never saw them.