Being a working mum is actually good for your health
How things have changed. When Jane Maas, a real life Mad Woman among the first wave of females to crack New York adland, started out in the ‘60s, women were were fired if they got pregnant and they were mainly secretaries – and if they did work on accounts it was only for domestic goods - and a client even once asked sympathetically of Maas: “Have you forgotten your steno (stenography/note-taking) pad, dear?’’ She was running the account at the time.
But that was the 1960s, and the women’s movement had yet to flex its typing-toned muscles. Today, it just seems ridiculous that they would be treated this way in the workplace.
Maas was one of the first working mothers in the industry, and despite the fact that its corridors of power were skirt-free zones she toughed it out and has written the tale Mad Women: The other side of Madison Avenue in the 1960s.
She made for fascinating listening on ABC radio recently when she confessed that in the wake of the outlandish hit series Mad Men, she is routinely asked “Were women really treated that badly? Were all those three-martini lunches real and was there all that sex in the office?’’ The answer to all three, she said, was ‘‘most definitely yes’‘.
For her book, Maas interviewed her fellow groundbreakers as well as ad women now. And while so much has changed, they had one thing in common. The ‘60s working mothers said “again and again’’ that they felt torn, as they didn’t feel they were doing anything “properly’‘, either at work or home. Five decades later, contemporary working mothers said exactly the same.
I am sure I’m not the only listener who took a sharp intake of breath on hearing this - while rushing to grate carrots for the sandwiches - and also thought “tell me something I don’t know’‘. Because unless you’re one of those rare mothers who relish every second away from the kids and out of the house, feeling torn is to the working mother, as water is to fish.
You live in that feeling and swim around in it. And like the goldfish, you adjust your expectations accordingly. You accept that this is your world and realise that both motherhood and, for many of us, work are essential parts of your being. But unlike the happy fishy, you constantly analyse and over-analyse (unless you are one of those rare Zen master working mothers) whether you are doing enough for everyone and everything that requires big doses of your effort and care.
Even so, my question is: how on earth in 50 years have we not come around to realising that we’re not just doing things “properly’‘, in many cases we’re doing things so much better than well?
In the intervening years, the focus, drive and efficiency of working mothers has been recognised by employers (as it has been in working fathers for years). And we have the statistics to back that up. The latest study to reinforce previous research finding working mothers make fantastic staff as they are so organised (all the better to get home to the family on time) was reported in Forbes magazine in February.
The UK research found that “subconsciously or not, companies are aware of the advantage (of employing mothers); 12.5 per cent admit to seeing it as a hiring advantage’‘; and, controversially, “British business found that working mothers work harder than other groups of employees’‘. What is “not properly’’ about that?
Also controversially, “every company said it preferred to hire a working mother over a younger, childless women’‘. Take that, working mother guilt. Also, 61 per cent of the 49 businesses surveyed ranked mothers as better employment value than men or women without children, with three in four rating mothers as tops in organisational skills and almost two in three saying mothers were likely to remain longer with the company.
According to Forbes, two in five managers believe [mothers] work faster and can multi-task while a third said they are more motivated and responsible. “That’s good because fathers have had the advantage of this attitude from time immemorial,’’ it thundered. And yet: “four in 10 companies acknowledged that mothers who work for them considered themselves as of ‘low value’ in the workplace’‘!
So employers’ attitudes and workplaces have changed (now in the UK seven in 10 mothers work), but women’s attitudes to their own worth hasn’t? That’s just depressing.
Interestingly, other fresh research - this time from the US - found working mothers report better physical and mental health than full-time stay at home mums. The American Psychological Association surveyed 1300 mums and found in December the happiest of all were part-time working mothers.
As for why they might be happier, the authors concluded that “a mother’s participation in employment provides her with support and resources that a mother who spends full time at home does not receive.’‘
So why all the self-loathing, then? Do we think we can’t possibly be good enough mums if we allow ourselves the healthy privilege of some work? I reckon that’s part of it.
Even so, a team from University College London also found, in a study of 12,000 people last year, no evidence of detrimental effects on the young children of mothers working part-time or full-time as long as parents are supported, do not have to work long hours and are able to combine child-rearing with paid work.
“The ideal scenario for children of both sexes was for both parents to live at home and for both to be working, a finding that will encourage policymakers’ moves to help families stay together, if not critics of the rising numbers of working mothers.’‘
I only hope this lot goes some way to convincing working mothers that we are not letting anybody down. It has certainly made this one happy.
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wtuohy
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