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Working When You Have A Small Child Isn't 'Unnatural,' It's Essential

According to a new survey, a full third of Britons believe that women with young children don’t belong in the workplace. Robyn Wilder explains why for her, and many other women, a five-year career gap isn't an option

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, which polls the national annually, only seven per cent of Britons said that women with children under five years old should work full-time; while 38 per cent of respondents said that new mothers should only work part-time; and 33 per cent said they should abstain from work all together.

Confusingly, in the same survey, 72 per cent of Britons disagreed with the statement 'a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family.'

So presumably, the prevailing modern opinion around work, gender roles, and parenting is that both men and women should work, but mothers should wait until their kids are in school to do so with any vigour or conviction.

And that’s not fair. That’s not how jobs work. Disappearing from the workforce for five years essentially kills your career, which is why most of the women I know who have taken time away to raise a family now work in jobs that are a) entirely unrelated to their specialisms, but b) 'at least provide a decent work/life balance,' and more tellingly c) were their best choice of a bad lot. Because that was all that was available.

I am a woman, I have two children under the age of five, and I work. I can’t afford not to - in fact I had to return to work two months after my first son was born, and ten days after the birth of my second son. Partly because if I didn’t work, we’d all be hungry and homeless. But also because not working has never been on my agenda. Family has always been important to me, but I’ve never considered dipping out of employment for an extended period to make that happen.

Actually, that’s a lie - when I was pregnant with my first son, I did flirt with the idea of becoming a homemaker. In my innocence, I assumed being a stay-at-home mother would be an extension of the dreamy, Netflix-and-Hobnobs-filled idyll that was maternity leave. But I’d been sold a lie: that being a stay-at-home mum is the more maternal choice; easier than staying in paid employment, and also involves being able to cook pot roasts while looking like Betty Draper.

But then I met some homemakers and saw how the constant shifting logistics of their daily lives meant they’d had to develop minds like steel traps, and decided against it, because I’m the sort of person who’s always looking for a lost shoe, even before I had children.

The reality is there is no actual divide between working mothers and homemaking mothers. Moreover, the luxury of choosing “between” homemaking and paid employment is actually a relatively new one -- women have always worked, regardless of whether they’ve had kids.

And so I work -- four to five days a week. And, while I do it, someone else looks after my kids. I’ve heard all the arguments against this. I’ve been called a 'part-time parent,' and told that it’s 'unnatural' for a mother to be working. However, these accusations are generally levelled by the same people who tell you that C-sections aren’t 'real births,' and have very extreme views about how you feed your baby, so I tend to take them with a pinch of salt.

The criticisms that hit home are the ones around my kids’ wellbeing. Some people get awfully sniffy about 'someone else raising your kids', and I must admit this has bothered me in the past. Until I realised three things:

  1. My kids are my kids. I dress them and feed them and teach them and soothe them. They love their childcare provider beyond all measure -- but it’s for me and my husband that they call out when they are sad, or hungry, or need help.
  1. My mum worked, and I wasn’t neglected or left emotionally bereft. In fact, I learned the value of hard work and the joy of a job well done from watching her work.
  1. No one has made any of these comments about my husband

In fact, I should point out that no one in this survey was asked whether men with young children should step away from full-time work for their kids’ early years. And this is despite new government initiatives of financial help with childcare, and shared leave for both parents.

So, I’m sorry, Britain. Until you come to your senses and realise that it’s not just the mother’s job to raise the kids, I refuse to take anything you say about what they should be doing with their careers seriously