Louisa, Dubai-based working mum-of-two
As a working mother, this is a tough topic to think about. Would I be a better mother if I stayed at home? I’m not sure. But, if I’m honest, my children would probably be happier. Every day when they get home from school they call me and invariably my three-year-old tells me to leave work right that second and go home. He misses me.
As the daughter of a stay-at-home mother, I have happy memories of Mum taking us swimming, going on bike rides, doing fun activities... Even when we were out playing, Mum was always there. If we fell over, she was there. If we were bored, she was there. Would our childhood have been as idyllic if she was in the office? I doubt it.
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Studies suggest that having a mother at home puts children at less risk of obesity; boosts their development and test scores; reduces their risk of hospital stays, poisoning, bone breaks and illness; improves their behavioural skills; lessens their chances of mental stress later in life; and boosts their chances of being employed. Wow – if there was a vitamin supplement that promised the same results, we wouldn’t think twice about dosing our kids up, whatever the cost. And if you met a parent who didn’t, wouldn’t you feel like they were neglectful – like when you see kids unbuckled in the back of the car? I certainly would.
The point is not whether mothers should work or not. Some mums have to work, while other mothers choose to work to fulfil a need of their own – both reasons are understandable. The point is whether staying home is better for your children. Carmen Benton, Dubai-based parenting educator, says, “Before the age of three, the brain is developing quickly and a lot of this development has to do with connection and attachment and their long-term ability to have a higher sense of self. Is this a responsibility you are willing to outsource?”
It comes down to a simple equation: (parent time) multiplied by (positive interaction) equals (child’s happiness). According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the UK, working mothers spend 81 minutes per day engaged in quality parenting activities (including meal times) whereas stay-at-homers manage a whopping 155 – which by my calculation equals double the happiness.
I agree that working mums can still have quality time with their children (because I do), can still be a good mother (because I am) and can still bring up healthy, well-rounded children (because mine are), but this is one argument where quality and quantity are equally weighted. I know my children well enough to know that there’s only one thing that they really want and that’s time with their parents. They want it more than chocolate, and more than Ben 10 repeats, because time with their parents makes them feel loved. And that’s one thing a child can’t have too much of.
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Kate, expat working mum of three
As someone who’s had her foot in both camps, I see the benefits of each, but I’m a better woman, and therefore, a better mother, for working. In fact, I find the time I do get with my kids is more productive when I work – perhaps compensating for my absences with lots of direct interaction. “Studies indicate that it is the quality of time spent with children that makes a positive difference, not necessarily quantity of time,” agrees Dr Deema Sihweil, clinical psychologist at the Carbone Clinic in Dubai. “When working mums have little time they often devote a lot of time to engaging in activities that foster growth.”
I believe that working mums are happier, more fulfilled, and project a positive, healthy role model to their children. It’s all very well saying, ‘Well, she’s a mother now, and that’s the most important job a woman can have,’ but that’s poppycock (and went out of fashion about the same time that word did). Yes, being a mother IS an important job, but it doesn’t mean it has to be a woman’s only job. We can multi-task, remember?”
But Dr Deema has a note of caution for women who do not strike the right work/life balance. “A very challenging career can disrupt critical routines that are established at a very early age, affecting attachment milestones in early infancy, making it difficult for kids to separate from the parents when they go to school.”
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I think ‘can’ is the key word. My youngest son has ‘suffered’ two hard-working parents, lived in three countries and attended four nurseries before the age of five. He is the most grounded and secure six-year-old (if not person) I know – loved and cared for, while mum has mostly been working.
And that separation can actually be a good thing. A study by University College London suggested young girls fare better if their mothers go out to work, while another by the University of Oxford found that nursery school can be beneficial and young kids go on to develop strong social bonds at school.
“Most recent research on the effects of nursery school on children below two suggests that there are no detrimental effects on the social and academic development of children, given that certain conditions are met,” says Dr Deema, who cites safety, trust, love and consistency as essential.
All of this my kids get from a variety of people, not just me. I’m not saying it’s easy. There’s stress (but stay-at-home mums get frazzled, too) and there’s guilt. And certainly, living in Dubai, where you have a lot of stay-at-home mums, it can be tough when you are the only face missing from the school run.
“It is a challenging dilemma for many mothers who need to work, as they feel guilt. Unfortunately, staying at home is not a possibility for households that require both parents’ incomes.”
For me, working wasn’t a financial choice, it was a personal one. I need work as part of a balanced life. I believe that doing so has been better for everyone. And I have rounded, well-adjusted kids to prove it.