’What’s the point of having a baby,’ my mother said to me shortly after the birth of my first child, ‘if you’re going to let a stranger look after it? You might as well get a cat.’
Now my mother doesn’t generally pass comment on my affairs.
But on this occasion, as I was discussing my plans to return to work, she couldn’t help herself.
After all, she gave up a chance to go to university to take care of me.
The idea that I would entrust the most precious thing in my life to someone I had barely met just seemed utterly bonkers to her.
I was reminded of our conversation yesterday when new figures showed that the proportion of women who look after their children at home has fallen to an all-time low - one in ten.
At first glance, you might think this represents a victory for all those politicians who are always trying to get more women into the workplace. A victory for equality and feminism, too.
And yet: there’s something here that doesn’t add up.
Research from the Department of Education last year found that more than a third of working mothers would actually prefer to give up their jobs to raise their children.
These are not ‘old-fashioned’ women of my mom’s generation, either. These are young mothers who, for whatever reason, feel they are not raising babies as nature intended: at their breast.
In the recent debate on the rights of working mothers, the assumption has always been that the preferred choice for a woman is to carry on with her career, juggling home and work commitments with the help of sympathetic employers and willing partners.
There are sound cultural reasons for this. No sane woman would want to return to the life endured by our grandmothers, which – if this week’s fascinating Mail serialisation of Virginia Nicholson’s book on women in the Fifties is anything to go by – consisted of decades of domestic drudgery.
I remember my own mother boiling nappies on the stove – and, let me assure you, she did not enjoy it.
Then there’s the influence of my generation of women, who grew up in the Eighties.
Margaret Thatcher was PM, a woman with all the maternal instincts of a black widow spider.
Regardless of political leanings, we were all subconsciously programmed in her image. Career first, motherhood second.
There are other, more prosaic factors. The inexorable rising cost of living, which makes it a rare household that can survive on a single salary. The decision, under Thatcher, to tax married couples separately, which left stay-at-home mothers not only without any support in the tax system. but actually penalised by it. The fact that, until recently, women without sufficient national insurance payments weren’t even entitled to a state pension.
As a result, we now have a situation where bringing up your own children in your own home has somehow become not only culturally and socially unacceptable to many - but also, somewhat perversely, a privilege available only to the wealthy.
But have we got it right? Has this really helped women or, more importantly, their children? Or have the ‘rights’ of working mothers in 2015 become as much of a tyranny as the domestic constraints enforced on women in the Fifties?
Could it be that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and that families are paying a heavy price?
Not just in expensive child care – I hear of women who have nannies arriving at 7am to take children as young as 12 months to nursery at 8am where they will languish until being picked up again by another nanny at 6pm - but in the far more critical terms of nurturing and development.
I can only speak for myself. And if I’m being truly honest I’ll admit I should have listened to my mother, and not been so keen to rush back to work when the children were small.
For all that I love my job, when I look back at pictures of them as babies, I realise I missed out on so much.
And, more importantly, I fear that they missed out in not having a mother at home during their terrifyingly vulnerable years.