What a week it has been for working mothers. Firstly, two job sharing female police officers from Milton Keynes are in trouble with OFSTED and even threatened with prosecution for making a reciprocal childcare arrangement that works well for them and their children.
Then we hear from the University College London Institute of Child Health that ‘the children of working mums have unhealthier lifestyles’. Their analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study finds that, after taking account of other factors likely to influence the results, such as maternal education and socioeconomic circumstances, children whose mothers work are more likely to consume unhealthy drinks and snacks between meals, more likely to watch 2 or more hours of TV a day and less likely to walk to school. ‘Busy working parents may have less time to provide their children with healthy food and opportunities for physical activity,’ say the authors of the report.
For people who are interested in research on families and relationships the reporting of these stories seems to miss some key issues. First, is the research about the ‘failings’ of working mothers or does it say something about how parents are supported by employers and the state to find their work/life balance?
Second, both of these stories focus on the role of the mother in caring for their children. While fathers or other partners are absent from some households with children, the majority (75%) of children live with two parents, according to the Growing up in Scotland (GUS) study. Fathers and other partners have a very important role to play in parenting that seems to be missed in these claims.
Finally, other data from the GUS study, which has been following the lives of 8,000 children and their families in Scotland from birth up to the age of 5, provide a different perspective to these questions. The lives of children are impacted by a broad range factors. The study reported yesterday focuses on three indicators. While not directly comparable to the Institute of Child Health study, GUS data show:
· highly active children were more likely to be in households in the highest income category with parents in managerial and professional occupations.
· children in higher income groups are more likely to have a healthy diet. These findings do suggest that young children in Scotland whose mothers are working are not generally experiencing ‘unhealthy lifestyles’
· working mothers, AND fathers manage to spend more time playing with children outdoors than those not in work, despite work-commitments
· Around 15% of parents agree with the statement 'professionals like health visitors and social workers do not offer parents enough advice and support about bringing up children'
· In terms of 'work-life' balance, responses from a series of attitudinal statements show that most parents who work believe that their employment is not detrimental to their enjoyment of family life and not to their ability to raise or spend time with their child(ren). However, this does vary according to hours worked and occupational classification (those working full-time and/or in lower supervisory and technical occupations were more likely to think that their employment had a negative impact on family life.)
At the moment, the media is filled with conflicting and confusing information about parenting. This comes from both how research is reported but also from Government policy. Parents, and particularly working mothers, are often ‘blamed’ for many social problems. However, the picture is very complicated and it is important we get a full picture of the experiences of families and how they can best be supported.