As high-achieving mothers who give up their careers are accused of wasting their education… can a woman be too clever to be a stay-at-home mum
00:15 GMT, 15 March 2012
Louise Kirk is passionate about the importance of being a stay-at-home mum. With good reason — she’s raising four formidably accomplished children.
Her three sons won scholarships to a top public school — they were choristers at Westminster Cathedral — and her daughter has just got a place at Oxford University.
The women of her family have a tradition of going to Oxford: Louise read history there; her mother-in-law is a past student; so, too, was her mother.
Best of both worlds: Gina Coladangelo and her children Talia, two, and Bruno, 15 months. She's an Oxford graduate who has gone back to work doing flexible hours
And though they all gained degrees from one of the world’s most illustrious universities, each chose to put family before career and stay at home with her children.
The issue of high-flying women who take advantage of the best education in the world and then abandon careers to change nappies caused something of a stir earlier this month.
The debate was sparked by Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who controversially singled out educated British women for ‘wasting’ their top degrees from ‘fancy universities’ to devote their best years to child-rearing.
Debate raged on talk shows and internet message boards: Can a woman be too clever to be a loving, stay-at-home mum
On the one hand, committed career women, who are happy for their children to be brought up by nannies and au pairs, argued that those who have enjoyed a privileged education have a duty to use their brains for the good of society and the economy.
But women like Louise Kirk were incensed by this argument. ‘I wanted to scream,’ she says. ‘I felt indignant. I’ve always known I wanted to stay at home to bring up my children. No one else can replicate that bond of love.
‘My knowledge of history and the intellectual discipline I’ve gained from my education has enriched my children’s lives.
'I used to be a high-flying business executive. Now I spend all day looking under the sofa for lost toys'
‘At Oxford, I learned to think and write cogently, to analyse, discuss, to be self-confident — and I have passed on all these skills to my children.
'Motherhood is a constant challenge. You use all your practical skills — you paint, read, garden and cook with them; you imbue them with enthusiasm for life.
‘Even when they are just pottering along at your side, they are learning and conversing. Child-rearing dull Not for one moment.’
Educated stay-at-home-mums took to the internet in their thousands to defend their life choices. ‘What happened to “If you educate a mother, you educate a child”’ said one. Another remarked, apparently without irony: ‘I think my PhD will enrich my finger-painting.’
Others said it was backward-looking to criticise high-achieving women for wanting to nurture their families.
‘I see education, to whatever level, as an end in itself and a mark of civilisation,’ said one.
Anna Lines, chair of the organisation Mums At Home Matter, agrees.
‘The idea that mums should feel obliged to go out to work is outdated. It belongs in the Seventies,’ she says.
‘What really riles me is that babies are seen as portable: anyone can shovel food into their mouths and finger-paint with them. It’s a shallow philosophy. There is such a thing as a child’s bond with their mother.
‘How could it ever be better to hand over a baby to someone who works in a creche — and is probably just old enough to take driving lessons and not particularly well-qualified — than for the child to be looked after by a family member who loves them and engages with them’
Child care is an intellectual challenge: Graduate Claire Paye doesn't think she's missing out when looking after Amelia, six and Charlie, three
Clearly the Danish PM thinks otherwise. Her daughters, Johanna, 14, and Camilla, 12, were sent to a creche at the age of one, then to kindergarten. When they started school, they were sent to an after-school club because of their mother’s long working hours.
But the educated, stay-at-home brigade stand firm in their belief that this approach is wrong.
For Louise Kirk, it was a decision taken as much for her own sake as for her children. ‘My father was a diplomat and my mother had an absorbing role as his wife, so I was brought up by a nanny,’ she says.
‘I felt my mother lost so much by not bringing me up; she missed out hugely. As a child, I’d ask myself: “What would nanny think” I didn’t want my own children doing that.’
'How could it ever be better to hand
over a baby to someone who works in a creche — and is probably just old
enough to take driving lessons'
Louise, who lives with her husband David, 56, an accountant, in Cheshire, has been a full-time mother to their four children Edward, 20, Eleanor, 18, Francis, 16, and Henry, 14.
‘I avoided pre-school activities, apart from a fortnightly music group, which I also took part in and loved,’ she says.
‘All of my children shot ahead once they started at the village school. Because they’d been at home with me, I’d developed their conversational skills. Their vocabulary was particularly advanced. Their days were not packed with frenetic or scheduled activity. Sometimes I left them to their own devices; it’s what I call benign neglect.
‘We’ve got a big garden and they would romp around building dens or playing in the tree house. I’ve got a cowbell I used to ring to summon them to meals.
‘Because we didn’t have a TV until recently, they had to amuse themselves. In the evenings, they read. Eleanor has written nine novels.
‘They all developed the capacity to sit still and concentrate. When our sons won scholarships to the choir school at Westminster Cathedral, they got quite snotty about the boys who fidgeted during the service.’
Louise’s children clearly prospered in her care. The boys all won a scholarship to prestigious Ampleforth College. Edward is at Durham University; the younger two are aiming for Oxford.
But how does Louise feel now she is 55 and her children are flying the nest Has she sacrificed personal fulfilment for her offspring She insists not.
‘I don’t regard myself as brain dead,’ she says, pointing to her voluntary role as UK co-ordinator for the character development programme Alive To The World, which stretches her mind.
However, many believe that stay-at-home mums lack ambition. This week, Lord Lawson revealed that Margaret Thatcher was reluctant to give tax breaks to women who didn’t work because she thought wives who stayed at home ‘lacked get-up-and-go and gumption’.
Frustrated: Emily Murray is bored looking after son Oscar, nearly two, after giving up a career in advertising
Diane Houston, professor of psychology at Kent University, believes many mothers who relinquish their high-flying jobs to raise children do feel they have lost opportunities.
‘My research has shown there is a sense among mothers who have given up their careers that they have sacrificed a lot to give their children the best chance in life,’ she says.
‘They may not feel the loss when their children are young, but what happens 20 years on Many say they had not bargained on finding themselves with no options when their children leave home.
‘There is sometimes resentment — not towards the children, but towards their husbands who have forged successful careers and other women who enjoy financial independence because they have worked.’
This independence is one reason Oxford graduate Gina Coladangelo, 34, part-owner of a corporate affairs company, chose to return to work after having her children Talia, two, and Bruno, 15 months.
'I use all my skills and intelligence – negotiation, patience, problem-solving, creativity – to bring up the children'
Gina lives in South-West London with her husband Oliver Tress, 44, who runs Oliver Bonas, the interior design and fashion shops. She can afford a live-in nanny and works flexible hours.
‘I don’t worry about my children being closer to their nanny, because I spend as much time as I can with them,’ she says. ‘I would never dream of telling other mothers what to do with their lives. Every woman has to make her own choice. But I feel very fortunate in my education and believe those years shouldn’t be wasted. I want to work to give something back.’
Kathryn Hennessy, 41, who has a degree in theology from Oriel College, Oxford, believes that by staying at home to raise her eight children she is contributing something vital to society — even if it entails financial sacrifice.
Her husband Michael, 42, a parliamentary officer at the House of Commons, earns a solid salary, but not enough for them to have luxuries.
‘Money is tight,’ she says. ‘We have a four-bedroom house in Reading, but not in one of the smarter areas. Recently we had to re-mortgage.
‘We don’t have many holidays and the little ones wear hand-me-downs. But we have so much fun as a family. We play games, go for walks and read.’
Kathryn trained as a librarian after graduating, but believes the pleasures of raising Joseph, 16, Aidan, 14, Edmond, 12, James, ten, Peter, eight, Benedict, five, Maria, three, and 18-month-old Gabriel more than compensate.
Controversial view: Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said British women are wasting their education by becoming stay-at-home mothers
She says she finds all the intellectual challenges she needs at home.
‘I use all my skills and intelligence — negotiation, patience, problem-solving, creativity — to bring up the children,’ she says.
‘It’s exhausting, but endlessly rewarding.’ So does she feel guilty for not working
‘Someone once shouted at me in the street when I was out with all the children “Get a proper job!”, as if I were some kind of sponger on the state because I don’t pay taxes. It’s ridiculous. I’m contributing much more to society by bringing up eight well-adjusted, polite and sociable children.’
She’s also convinced that children who grow up without the stability of a mother at home are more likely to become problem teenagers.
‘They don’t know who they are or where they belong,’ she says. ‘This is why they gravitate to gangs, which become surrogate families.’
She says her constant presence in her children’s lives has given them a secure foundation on which to build successful lives.
Claire Paye, 40, a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, agrees. She is married to Andy, 40, an export sales manager, and stays at home to raise their two children, Amelia, six, and Charlie, three.
‘I’ve never felt I’m wasting my degree,’ she says. ‘I’m bringing up two well-mannered, balanced children, who will, I hope, contribute to the world in a positive manner.’
Claire, a graduate in French and Spanish who lives in Caversham, Berks, gave up a demanding job to become a full-time mother: she used to work for the London Chamber of Commerce and headed its World Trade Team.
Now, instead of spending her day hunting down brilliant business opportunities, she devotes much of it to searching under furniture for toys.
'A clever woman can never be satisfied with watching CBeebies all day long'
‘My Dragon’s Den idea is to design a beeper that will map out the location of their favourite toys, saving me hours,’ she says.
Claire firmly believes her expensive, elite education has given her peerless skills for a job many dismiss as mundane. ‘You have to be endlessly creative and resourceful. My children challenge me intellectually all the time,’ she says. ‘I think I’m a better mother than I might otherwise have been because of my Oxford degree.
‘My children are articulate and come up with all kinds of arguments that test my mental ability. They have an answer for everything.’
But there are times when she covets a little of her old independence.
‘Of course I get frustrated sometimes — it’s very hard for children to see you as an individual with your own needs. That’s why I love going to my book club. I feel I’m my own person again.’
Dr Houston believes that women who give up work have a duty to seek mental stimulation away from their children and to give something back to their communities.
‘I think mothers who don’t work have a responsibility to play a part in society, perhaps by taking on a public role or by doing voluntary work,’ she says.
‘But whether this would provide sufficient mental stimulation for those with high levels of academic achievement is another matter.’
Certainly for Cambridge graduate Emily Murray, much to her surprise, being a stay-at-home mum has proved to be an irksome round of mind- numbing drudgery.
Difficult choice: Many ambitious women live to regret the years they missed with their children by putting their career first (posed by models)
Emily, 33, who lives in Edinburgh with her husband Euan, a strategy director, gave up a stimulating career in advertising to become a full-time mother. She believed it would give her son Oscar, nearly two, the best start in life.
But she has discovered that caring for him offers no intellectual challenges. ‘Just who are these stay-at-home mothers who claim to be as happy as those who go back to work’ she says.
‘To my mind, most are women who haven’t gone to university and held a job they are passionate about. How can you be content with just changing nappies after receiving a decent level of education Put simply, you can’t.
‘Being a non-working mum is an endless — often futile — slog to entertain a person you love desperately, but with whom you can barely communicate. It is not intellectually stretching at all.
‘Without a career, women have no identity. Stay-at-home mums are invisible, defined purely by what we are not — namely, working.
‘Such lack of recognition is especially galling if you’re the kind of person who is used to success and thrives on achieving it. If you’re not, perhaps it’s easier to deal with.
There are ten times as many stay-at-home dads in Britain as there were a decade ago
‘A clever woman can never be satisfied with watching CBeebies all day long. I yearn to make use of my degree and the years I devoted to understanding the world of advertising. The only thing Oscar ever wishes to advertise is that he has another dirty nappy.’
Experts believe that some educated mothers who are frustrated at staying at home have a tendency to become pushy parents.
‘Very bright mothers who choose not to work often become obsessed with their children’s education,’ says leadership psychologist Averil Leimon.
‘It’s a paradox. They’re pushing their daughters to get to the best universities, but as stay-at-home mums they’re not great role models.’
So does Emily intend to return, post haste, to work Actually, she doesn’t.
Despite feeling guilty about wasting her education, she has opted to grit her teeth and do what she still regards as the best thing for her son — to be a full-time mother.
Her mind was made up when she visited a nursery that had been highly recommended by friends.
‘Just walking into a room filled with what are, effectively, abandoned infants simply reiterated to me that it would never be in Oscar’s best interests for him to go to a nursery, even part-time, simply so I could go back to my career-oriented life,’ she says.
‘Though I’d still rather go into the office every day than look after my son, tomorrow at 6am I’ll be back doing what I believe is the right thing, rather than the thing that would ultimately make me happiest.’
Additional reporting: Emily Murray