Is it Possible to be a Part-time Mother?

It was just a throw-away remark during a converstation about a new mum’s plans for returning to paid work but being a psychologist I can never ignore the avalanche of thoughts and ideas that followed. I remember a similar discussion years ago when my now adult children were babies and feeling guilty, judged, sad, determined and excited in equal measures. The strong emotions that were evoked at the thought of not being with my babies all the time left traces in my limbic system, that part of the neurological equipment largely responsible for processing of emotional material that can still be aroused when I reflect on the subject, which is more topical than ever.

The most recent (2018) Office for National Statistics (ONS) report ‘Families and the labour market, England’ presents information about the employment of men and women aged 16 to 64 years with children over the past two decades. It states:

In England, employment rates for mothers and fathers generally increased between 1996, when comparable records began, and 2018…”Since 1996, the employment rate for fathers has consistently been higher than for men without dependent children. However, the employment rate has only been higher for mothers compared with women without dependent children since 2010 and now stands at 74.0% compared with 69.7% for women without dependent children. Prior to 2009, the employment rate was consistently higher for women without dependent children than mothers.”

According to this ONS report over the past 20 years, mothers have experienced the largest increase in employment rates with 4.9 million mothers in employment in April to June 2018, which equates to 74.0% of all mothers. In comparison, 3.7 million mothers were in employment in 1996, which was 61.9% of mothers. Looking in more detail at this data reveals that the lowest rates of employment were ” typically seen for mothers with a youngest dependent child aged four years or under but overall, employment rates for fathers appeared to be relatively unaffected by the age of their youngest dependent child.” and “The proportion of mothers working full-time increased with the age of the youngest child. Less than one-quarter (24.1%) of mothers with a child aged one year worked full-time, compared with 46.3% of mothers with the youngest child aged 18 years.

The ONS figures reveal clear demographic and social trends and the fact is three quarters of women with children are in paid employment with a third of these having a baby under one year. Does this mean that all these millions of mothers are part-time mothers? Having been a mother for over forty years and having worked with countless other mothers I can state unequivocably that all mothers are mothers for every minutes of their lives from the moment they give birth.

We need to stop using the language of work-place occupation, i.e. full and part-time in relation to that most complex and all pervasive way in which mothers (and fathers) spend time parenting and being parents. In addition, the ONS might add a helpful little footnote in its reports on employment along the lines of:

When referring to employment we are referring to paid employment.

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