Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Since yesterday was Mothers’ Day, this is an article my mum would want to write herself, but she does not spend that much time in front of a computer, since she is madly training for the Triathlon World Championships – so I’m doing it.
But it was also a conversation with the young woman sitting next to me at a dinner on Friday which prompted this Mothers Day special. We were enjoying a vibrant conversation when I asked her what she did. There was a fraction of a pause. “I’m a stay at home mum” she said.
It’s a common theme. Women who have chosen to stay at home and look after their children, many making significant lifestyle and financial sacrifices to do so, often answer that question about “what they do” with a tinge of apology. Those who answer with pride often start explaining why this is not something to be ashamed of – before I interrupt to say I agree.
Perhaps this is because my own mum fits into this category. When I was born, my mum stopped working, the household pulled in its financial horns, and she stayed at home to look first after me, then my brother. Apparently, I was a very difficult baby, never slept and, as I grew up it, took all my mum’s time and ability to keep my inexplicable anger at authority in general from propelling me energetically off the straight and narrow. (She later introduced me to boxing.) She recalls those days at home on her own with me, and then my brother too, as some of the most gruelling of her life – days with real joy, but days that make my working life sound like a walk in the park.
She now says that, despite all that work, building our values system and supporting each of us with our significant needs, which enable us to do what we do today, she is now left to feel as if she’s done nothing with her life because she didn’t spend that time in paid employment. Since she turned 40, she’s learned to swim, then cycle, and then excel internationally in sport, maybe partially in a subconscious quest to achieve an identity that society actually acknowledges. But she resents the fact that society doesn’t automatically recognise, elevate and celebrate what she counts as her greatest achievement – being a superb mother.
Now call me old fashioned here, but I think that being a mother is a pretty gargantuan thing. To bring a life into the world is also to bring everything we experience into being, an entire consciousness: joy, love and happiness, yes; but also grief, loss, confusion, regret…and ultimately death and the foreknowledge of it. That’s pretty significant and, in my books, that new life deserves some full-on attention once it’s been introduced, (especially since it had no choice in the matter!), into this hurly-burly world of joy and pain.
Everyone has their own way of parenting and, for many, being a working mother can be absolutely right. Many families have no choice but for both parents to work. Many mums are single parents and achieve the simply extraordinary feat of being an outstanding mother and working.
But I fear that in gaining the prize of liberating women to work, the pendulum may have swung too far the other way and that those who choose to devote all their time to their child are implicitly or unintentionally vilified.
In many societies globally, respect for the role of mother grants supreme status to women. Matriarchies celebrate values of wisdom, empathy, strength and determination: a mother is not to be messed with. Of course we should not emulate those societies which give no other choice to a woman other than to be a mother, but perhaps we can take some lessons from them.
Feminists of former times had an enormous task on their hands to smash the perception that a woman’s place was firmly in the home, and liberate the talent of women. Thank goodness they did, otherwise I would not be in my job today. I owe them a debt of incalculable gratitude. But motherhood and career need not be mutually exclusive measures of success. Real feminists should equally celebrate a woman’s unique and unreplicable role of giving birth, bringing up children and being a mother. We are happy to say that schools are the lifeblood of our nation because they bring up our children; but being a mother does not seem to carry the same status, seemingly just because mothers don’t get paid.
This is not evident simply in attitudes, but in finance and facts: My new friend told me of her difficulties in getting her own bank account, simply because she didn’t get paid to look after other peoples’ children, but depended on her husband’s salary to look after her own. Who would deny that mothers are probably the most important person in most of our lives? But that bank made her feel like a second-class citizen for choosing to prioritise being a mum.
Liberating women to be who they really are means revering motherhood every bit as much as we respect Non-Executive Directors, MPs and women in board-rooms. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. No good mother would do that.