Here she comes again. Back at the top of the news, draped in the robes of the righteous, embraced by those who sanctify all things traditional: the ‘full-time mother’. As usual, she is the undeserved victim of something or other; in this instance, it’s the incoherent shake-up of the child benefit system, leading to headlines declaring that ‘full-time mothers are being penalised’, followed by an implacable wistfulness that war is once again waged against the finer values of a finer past, when women dedicated their whole lives to their children.
The trouble with this lament, much as I hate to spoil the Hovis commercial, is that they did nothing of the kind; nostalgia is a notoriously unreliable witness and in this matter she surpasses herself. There never was such a thing as a full-time mother; she is a recently constructed, absurdly quixotic myth. The full-time mother has never existed for the simple reason that, exempting only the fleeting years of infancy, mothering is not and has never been a full-time job.
Students of social history, together with older persons of fair memory, know this. Long ago, the rich farmed out the job altogether and the poor fitted childcare around the labour in factory or field, frequently conscripting older siblings to mop the bottoms and staunch the runny noses. More recently — here I hark to my own childhood of the Fifties and Sixties — my mother, like most, did not work outside the home. But a full-time mother? She should have been so lucky.
Women like her, in the days for which we affect nostalgia, might properly have been called full-time housekeepers; it was more than anybody’s idea of a full-time job and I tip my hat to those who completed what was routinely expected of them. Washing took an entire day; the house steamed and stank and although our middle-class income allowed — eventually — for a hideous top-loading washing machine, there were still the mangle and the clothes pegs to navigate. And then the rain, so you had to start again… all in time for an evening’s sweat over the spit and hiss of an iron; no poly-fibres then, everything needed a press.
Hoovers? Not them, either; carpets were dragged, by slight and tired women, flung somehow over the washing line and beaten till the dust flew and the women dripped. Freezers? What do you think? And since it was rare indeed for a woman to drive, that meant a daily walk with the string bag to collect each day’s supplies. The ingredients, perhaps, for a cake to be home-baked; shop-bought was rare — and suspiciously poncy, anyway.
We might complain today that men do not do ‘their fair share’; in my mother’s time, men did nothing. They did not cook, clean, iron or make a bed and the delineation between he who brought home the bacon and she who cooked it was absolute. Her working hours were far longer than his and the tasks, usually, far dirtier. Among the — many — things my own daughter finds inconceivable is that bin-bags had not yet been invented. Bins were daily emptied, washed, and lined with newspaper. And so the list goes on.
But ‘mothering’? Educational toys, bonding exercises, improving visits to museums? Don’t be ridiculous. I thank the gods that my mother never heard phrases like ‘quality time’; certainly we devoutly adhered to the 15 minutes of Watch With Mother — but most days, I swear, those were the only 15 minutes she sat down at all.
Happily for all concerned, not only did women not think mothering was a full-time job but neither did children; our chief role, as we understood well and minded not a jot, was to scarper. To get out from under feet. To be back by teatime. Then, as now, we probably saw the most of our mothers when we were unwell and they had to add nursing to the day’s unwaged labour. As it happens, I was a sickly child for my first few years and my mother put bed-bound days to excellent use by teaching me to read at a precocious age — although she freely admitted, without a hint of conscience (and none needed, Mum), that if I could read by myself it freed up her day for more chores.
Love was boundless; time was not. Adding it up as best I can, I would guess I spent about the same amount of one-on-one time with my mother as my daughter did with me — and I worked, usually ‘full-time’, outside the home.
It is, of course, the people who believe that I was remiss to do so who most delight in wielding the fictional ‘full-time mother’ as a stick with which to beat working mothers. But it won’t do. They didn’t exist, they still don’t. A male friend recently explained that his clever, able wife — who has two teenage sons — was, yes, a ‘full-time mother’. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘she has to do the school run.’ For teenagers? Really? Out loud, the question leapt unbidden: ‘But what does she do all day?’ Went down well, that did.
It was, however, pertinent. No family of four, these days, requires eight hours’ daily maintenance once schooling has started, and it is the devil who makes ‘work’ for the idle hands. These days I write from home, which allows for snooping on the lives of the ‘full-time mothers’ in my neck of the London woods — and my impressions, I must say, do not impress.
Moments after the morning school drop-off, groups of women flutter to the nearest skinny latte. Local nail bars, hairdressers, swimming pools and gyms are profitably occupied by the mother-aged at hours that cannot possibly be lunch breaks from honest toil. Clothes shops are humming when you might expect otherwise — and the women are spending somebody’s hard-earned money, because you can’t afford the prices round my way on unemployment benefit.
You could say, I suppose, that if they are happy and somebody else is happy to indulge them, then leave them all alone; they deserve each other. And so they do. But what these women do not deserve is the accolade, implicit in the ubiquitous headlines and accompanying commentary, that there is virtue in how they live. To use the fact of having once upon a time given birth as an excuse to hang around doing nothing else productive for the rest of your life does not mean you are a full-time mother, let alone a saint; it means you are a lazy mare.
It’s their life and their choice. But when housework — relatively speaking — does itself, when the children are in others’ capable hands, when M&S makes supper and when they can still afford the gym membership, their loss of 20 quid a week in child benefit isn’t going to lose me one heck of a lot of sleep.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013