Just when we thought the debate around motherhood and work had given us enough mixed messages, there's an update. According to a recent Gallup poll carried out in the US on 60,000 women, mothers who stay at home to look after young children are more likely to experience anger, sadness and depression than those who go out to work. Working mothers, meanwhile, are considered emotionally as well off as working women without children.
Weren't we just recovering from the research that said mothers who choose to return to work when their children are very young are putting their offspring's well-being at risk? This new information, though, indicates that it is the parent who suffers; not from guilt at having left their children, but from lack of self-fulfillment and frustration at having to stay at home with them. Did I mention that it's confusing? And why should it be that choosing to stay at home to raise a family seems to create self-esteem issues for mothers?
Katie Hammond, a mother of one from Abu Dhabi who gave up a career in marketing to look after her 19-month-old son Ollie, believes part of the problem is how society views stay-at-home mums.
"Mothers need support so that what they're doing is seen as worthwhile," she says. "I'm aware that I'm in the minority, but I feel like being Ollie's mum is by far my best achievement and it beats getting into Cambridge and having a really good job. It's on a completely different level and I do take pride in it and I care a lot about how I look after him."
Equally, she adds, women are often not prepared for what motherhood will entail. "Loads of mothers go into it with this fluffy expectation that it's going to be all cute babies in pink and blue and it's not. The shift in your lifestyle is so massive and society doesn't prepare you for that. I think a lot of people get a big shock, which I think is part of the reason why some mothers may have low self-esteem."
Erica Zentner, a mother of one who works as a trade and investment officer at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, feels that self-esteem played a part in her decision to return to work when her daughter was four months old. "Had I stopped working," she says, "I would have lost more than 50 per cent of my identity. And together with a new situation of caring for a child, that would have been a real psychological shake-up."
Guilt, for Zentner, does not come into it. "I felt that my job was far too large a part of my life to let it go just because I'd had a child," she says. "I don't feel guilty because I'm really well-supported at home; firstly by my husband, secondly by my nanny, and thirdly I really like the nursery my daughter goes to. If it was chaotic at home and I didn't feel like everyone was getting the best of everything then I would maybe reconsider, but they're not."
In fact, she believes that society is now geared so much towards working mothers that it is easy to see how stay-at-home mothers might get depressed.
"I don't think the idea that you stop working when you have kids is culturally in our society any more. And I don't think it's set up in such a way that it would lead to happiness."
"I took six months off and then went back and it was probably the best thing that I did," says Jumana Al Darwish, a mother of one who works for a charity in Dubai. "Of course I miss being with my daughter, but at the same time I also have a career and for me it's important not to lose that. Sometimes mothers can lose themselves and forget who they are, so for me, having a career helps me remember what I'm there to do in life; to not only be a mum but also be myself."
Al Darwish's colleague, Amal Al Redha, a mother of two, echoes these sentiments: "I tried staying at home for a while after my second child, just to see how it would be," she says, "but I got really depressed because I felt that I was spending all my time looking after my kids, my house, my husband and there was nothing left for me."
So how can mothers who choose to stay at home remain happy and fulfilled? "You can still get on with your life," says Hammond. "Our society doesn't show you that you can do that with a baby. You're told that unless you're doing music on Monday, swimming on Tuesday, etc, that you're not providing a stimulating enough environment for them, and I think people need to relax a bit."
Psychologist’s point of view
“I see people on both sides of the fence,” says Dr Melanie Schlatter, health psychologist at the Well Woman clinic in Dubai. “Some women are really happy they’re at home, while others feel they have left their career behind. What I always say when people come to me for help over issues such as these is to look at what is best for the children, because we know that all the psychology research says that they tend to be much better psychologically adapted when their mothers are in a good place or psychologically healthy. So they would much rather have a mum who goes off to work and comes back in a great mood rather than staying home all day and being grumpy and depressed. So I think it’s really important to look at what’s facing the individual.”