Time for Parenting...
...because raising children is a full-time job
October 2002 Newsletter
What the papers say
Among all the many items suitable for inclusion in this section a recurring theme over the summer has been on the lines of 'The death of Superwoman.' Several surveys have exposed the stress and exhaustion experienced in trying to live up to this image.
The Daily Mail ran a piece with just this title, stating 'For 30 years feminists have preached that women can have a family AND a career. Now a survey reveals a huge majority would rather stay at home.' A reader wrote in to say she had found the article empowering, and it had helped her to reach her decision to leave her job of 14 years and be a stay-at-home mum.
The superwoman myth was further dented by a report in The Sunday Times entitled 'Working mothers' children do worse'. Detailed studies by American scientists showed that children whose mothers returned to work within 9 months of giving birth did 10% less well in tests at the age of three. "Working a lot of hours in the first year of a child's life is associated with poorer cognitive and verbal development" said researcher Dr Jeanne Brooks-Gunn.
It was acknowledged that if parents feel they have no choice about working, babies do better with one-to-one care from grandparents, nannies or childminders rather than nurseries. The article goes on 'nothing however fully compensates for a mother's absence' before quoting our own Alex Nightingale who, as a secondary school teacher, has not returned to the classroom since the first of her three children was born. "I am lucky. My children are very observant. It is good for them that they can chat to you about things they have noticed when it occurs to them, rather than just in a crammed half-hour of forced contact at the end of the day when you are both tired."
Long hours cultures
All this notwithstanding, the Daily Mail recently reported an alarming increase in the long hours culture; research has shown that one in eight women now works more than 60 hours a week - over double the number two years ago. Among men it is one in six.
Excessive hours are causing stress and ill-health, putting a strain on family life and cutting the time available for mothers to spend with their children. Even the Government is uneasy. A DTI spokesman said: 'We do have concerns about the steep rise in the number of women working these hours. Many will be working mothers and this will place stress on the family'.
Women under stress
Good Housekeeping magazine interviewed 1000 women between 30 and 55 for their June edition and discovered an alarmingly high level of stress; We all do too much they found. In a piece entitled 'The STRESS epidemic how it's destroying women's health, happiness and tearing at the very fabric of society'
GH's editor-in-chief Lindsay Nicholson wrote: "Many, perhaps the majority of women in Britain today ,live in a permanent state of shattered nerves and chronic fatigue. The effect of their health, their marriages, and on how they raise their children makes uncomfortable reading. It cannot be either wise or morally right for a civilised, rich western country to turn a blind eye to these appalling levels of stress and to allow so many of its citizens to feel like drudges".
Many of the respondents said they were too stressed to make love, 40% had sleeping problems and 90% believed the increased opportunities available to women had put them under extra pressure.
Low birth rate
In May it was announced that the birthrate was at a record low, and at an average of 1.64 per woman, has dropped below the level considered as crucial in maintaining a balance between young and old. The long-term consequences could be grave, with growing strains on the economy as the tax burden rises.
Blame for this situation was placed by commentators on various things, from greater choice in contraception, and an increase in women having children late or choosing to not have them at all, to long working hours, few public holidays (the UK is 13 days behind the EU average), women's changed career aspirations, stress, and rising house prices. Allison Pearson bemoaning in the Evening Standard the frantic pressure so many women live under, quoted a wise man she had met who had told her, "Now children, Allison, children are the reward for living."
In a report in the Guardian about preferred choice of childcare (misleadingly entitled "Report says childminders more trusted than relatives"), a survey of 1200 families revealed that families chose childminders before nurseries, finding them to be more welcoming, close and loving than the former. Of all outside carers, grandparents were the most likely to be "close and loving". The reason for the headline was apparently that they were also more inclined to tell the mother when the child had been unhappy in a way that made her feel guilty. (!)
Children as home wreckers?
When an article from The Sunday Times was reported on in The Week under the heading Why children are home-wreckers one angry ten year old wrote to The Week indignantly rebutting this assertion. The headline derived from a study of 25,000 British households which has found that parenthood has become a significant 'risk factor' for divorce.
In the Fifties, having a child reduced the chance of divorce by 16%; by the Nineties, however, it raised the risk by 37%. The older the child is, the greater the destabilising effect, lending some credence said the Week, to those who argue that the cost of raising a child in today's consumer culture is putting an unbearable strain on marriages. Male earning power is apparently also a key influence on the success of a marriage. The higher a man's wages, the more likely the marriage will last, but if the wife earns significantly more than the husband, the researchers claimed that the probability of a divorce increases.
Last but not least in the undermining of the superwoman concept came with the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's new book Baby Hunger. This book has terrified much of female America said The Times, by revealing to them that forty-nine per cent of middle aged high-achieving women are childless, and most not by choice. It shows how a generation of high-flying women have put careers before babies, and many of them have great regrets.
But the situation in the UK is hardly better; a slow realisation is dawning on the world , and that is that there is a huge price to pay for women who devoted themselves to the workplace. The statistics are frightening: Only 3% of high-flying women marry for the first time after 35. Fertility drops by 50% from its peak level after the age of 35; after 40 it crashes by 95%.
The Times coverage, run over several days, provoked some heart-rending letters from women who had left conception too late, and then found great difficulty in conceiving. One, who had finally after four years of harrowing treatment given birth to a son wrote, 'I would not wish my worse enemy to experience the utter despair, longing, frustration and pain inherent in the ART process. Someone else wrote, 'I've had so many fertility procedures I can't keep track of them. We've had to take out a second mortgage.' Another whose treatment had failed wrote of the relief of giving up a process so filled with anguish and yearning. Another wrote of how monumentally depressing she found the whole thing when she had done everything her generation were supposed to do - education, career, flat, relationships (which like jobs she felt she had no right to expect to last more than two years) - but still found that family and children had somehow been omitted.