mumandbabyRecently the UK Department for Education – not always a friend of the family – published a big study it had commissioned. The research examined the attitudes of working mothers.

Few areas of home life excite so much controversy and strength of feeling. So this is an area of debate where data, hard facts and the empirical experience of real people carry particular force.

And what were the findings of this study? Here is how the Daily Telegraph reported them: “Middle class women are deserting the workplace in droves to look after their children, an official study shows.”

Golly. That is some claim. Surely the irresistible drift of policy in recent years has been to propel women into the workplace – and away from the home – with inexorable energy. Tax and benefits steer mothers back to the career coal-face. Government ministers laud women who climb the greasy pole of the professions, and diminish the efforts of homemakers.

But here is a study which challenges some of the fundamental strictures of the, frequently, one-sided discourse about the work-life balancing act.

It found that six out of ten working mothers would go part-time if they could, and four from ten would give up work altogether, in order to spend more time with their children. This is a powerful antidote to the prevailing mindset of the mainstream media, which regularly cites stellar achievers, CEO’s and the like, as exemplars of working motherhood. In reality, these women are exceptional. Wonderfully gifted, but not typical.

Many women do not crave a place on the board. Unlike most men our sense of worth and status is complex and generally not so brittle. It often derives as much from what we do at home, as what we are perceived to have achieved at work. And anyway, those top jobs are a rarity. Should we really be surprised that more than half of working mothers would jack it all to become care-at-home-mothers? Not really.

Just as fascinating from this Department for Education research is what we learn about the  motivations of women. Among those who had given up work to look after their offspring full-time, a majority of respondents said their decision had nothing to do with money.

This really does undermine and belie the casual assumptions of the commentariat — that women are forfeiting a career because childcare is too expensive, or that the sums no longer add up because the Exchequer has axed child benefit.

These mothers were baldly stating that their actions were divorced from hard cash. They simply did not want to pay a stranger to bring up their children. This sense of giving primacy to the very act of mothering may make some old-school feminists uncomfortable, but there it is, in black and white, in the sound social science of a copper-bottomed study.

In a single year, it found the number of families relying on formal childcare has fallen by a tenth, a dramatic reduction in such a short space of time. Admittedly, these were women with relatively high-earning spouses. But, even so, we may yet look back at this as a tipping point. The bland assumption that a smart woman craves a career first and children as an afterthought is now in some serious jeopardy.

Joanna Roughton is Media Relations Manager for the Home Renaissance Foundation, a London-based think tank. She was formerly senior editor at Reuters in Hong Kong and Singapore, and head of Foreign News at Sky News in London.

This post is reproduced with permission from the HRF’s BeHome blog. 

Joanna Roughton is raising the voice for Home Renaissance Foundation as its Media Relations Manager. Jo was formerly senior editor at Reuters in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Head of Foreign News at Sky...