Dati and the morality of working mums
If we’re serious about choice, then why shouldn’t the French justice minister take only five days’ maternity leave?
Debate about whether working mums or stay-at-home mums are doing the best by their children got a new airing when French justice minister Rachida Dati recently returned to work just five days after giving birth to her first child by caesarean section. Since walking back into the Élysée Palace on 7 January, Dati, known for her sharp tongue and killer heels, has been the source of feverish moralising in the French and UK media alike. While some have celebrated her as a Superwoman, others denounced her as a Bad Mother – and a bad example to other women.
Most commentators (many working mothers themselves) have given Dati a hard time. She has been called a traitor to the female sex, who is doing a disservice to women by putting them under pressure to balance parenthood with a career. She has also been accused of neglecting her duties as a mother, and of jeopardising her ability to bond properly with her newborn. Few commentators have celebrated Dati’s ambition, as she prepares to tackle single parenthood on top of her demanding full-time job, managing the justice system of one of the world’s most powerful nations.
The fact that Dati’s personal choices about how she balances work and motherhood have become fair game for the commentariat shows how contentious the idea of the working mother remains. But why is this so?
It partly has to do with the old prejudices that a mother’s place is in the home, and that children can be psychologically damaged by other forms of childcare. One recent, widely-covered Unicef report argued that formal childcare at a young age is damaging and that in the first 12 months of life, where possible, children should be cared for by their parents (1). Another Unicef report argued that early family interactions are so important that they influence many aspects of the child’s future, adult life (2).
As potential psychological damage to the child has become central to the ‘working mothers’ debate, proponents of the stay-at-home mother find it easier to gain the moral high ground. The ‘yummy mummy’ phenomenon, for example, has gained strong cultural resonance; many women today seem persuaded that 4am feeds and nappy-changes are as fulfilling as a career. This cultural trend is borne out by a 40 per cent drop, over the past five years, in women who hold senior management positions in the UK FTSE 350 companies (3).
The concern about the effect of working mothers upon their children has been compounded by a troubling negativity about work. It has become so unfashionable to view work as a positive, fulfilling endeavour that it is often assumed that staying home with babies and young children must be a preferable option for women. Amidst all the condemnation of Dati, it was refreshing to read The Times columnist Janice Turner argue:
‘Work is good, it can even be noble. It can make us forget ourselves. That is what we should tell our daughters. It can be hard, thankless, scary, joyless at times. But you will feel useful, purposeful, part of the world. Babies are meant to fit around our lives. We are the only generation in any culture to think the opposite.’ (4)
In choosing to return to work quickly, Dati has come under fire for not being a good parent and role model when in fact her commitment to her job makes her exactly that. It shows that women can find value, meaning and a sense of purpose outside of the home, even if they have children. As Turner also pointed out, Dati’s daughter will be there in years to come, but Dati’s professional opportunities as French justice minister won’t. It seems that where the freedom and control that entry into the workplace brings women was once largely seen as progressive, women are increasingly expected either to choose motherhood over a career or engage in an awkward ‘juggling’ act, running between work and hands-on childcare – and feeling equally guilty about both.
The prejudices about working mothers are pernicious not least because of their failure to recognise that, for many, practical realities define women’s childcare choices. Dati has had the luxury of being able to return to work soon after giving birth. Regardless of whether her decision is seen as ‘scandalous’, as the French women’s organisation, the National Collective for the Rights of Women, labelled it, or an example of the robust, modern woman, Dati has the means to take that call. In the UK, many mothers who want to work do not because they cannot afford the childcare costs. Others who would prefer to stay at home with their child still go to work because they need to earn extra cash.
The high cost of childcare is a problem more specific to the UK, where parents pay around 70 per cent of their childcare costs, than in Europe, where parents pay around 30 per cent (5). The 2008 Daycare Trust childcare costs survey found that there is a lack of affordable child daycare in Britain, and that the average full-time nursery place for a child under two now costs £159 per week. Average earnings are £457 per week (6). Unsurprisingly, this survey also found that lone parents, low-income families and parents with pre-school children were more likely to report difficulties in paying for childcare. Most mothers do not have much choice about what form their childcare takes.
Ultimately, a new mother’s choice over whether to work or not is a personal one. Some women plan their pregnancies while others are unexpected, some women rely on their wage while others do not, and some women like their jobs more than others. Rather than criticising women for returning, or not returning, to work, defending choice and creating the possibility for women’s choices to be realised is far more progressive and would tackle the biggest problem, which currently is not what the woman chooses to do but the fact that the financial situation chooses for her.
The availability of free childcare would allow women to decide for themselves how to balance children and a career. There is no reason why the ambitious women of today should feel that their jobs are secondary to motherhood – or that their children will be short-changed by having somebody else change their nappies and supervise their naps.
Suzy Dean is a writer and journalist based in London.
Previously on spiked
Nancy McDermott met the ‘world’s worst mom’. She interviewed the widow of Dr Benjamin Spock, who said ‘parents take parenting too seriously’. Jennie Bristow said that after Chick Lit, we now have ‘baby-sick lit’. She thought maternity leave can be a chore and asked who wants six months’ paternity leave (unpaid). Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.
(1) Childcare is bad for your baby, working parents are warned, The Times, 11 December 2008
(2) Fret not, neurotic mothers: this article won’t make you feel guilty, The Times, 11 December 2008
(3) Women quit before hitting glass ceiling, the Guardian, 8 March 2007
(4) Women, resist the siren call of the cupcake!, The Times, 10 January 2009
(5)Charity says childcare costs soar, BBC News, 29 January 2008
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.