The first part of new six-year UK study by childcare expert Penelope Leach and the FCCC (Families, Children and Child Care) was formally presented yesterday at a National Childminding Association conference.
The six-year study finds that young children of up to the age of 36 months not primarily cared for by their mothers tend to have slower social and emotional development, and are also more likely to be aggressive, withdrawn and sad.
Mothers, it seems, are the best at providing the high levels of response and sensitivity that infants and toddlers need.
While Leach singles out group nursery care as having the greatest negative impact on child development due to low staff:toddler ratios, registered childminders or qualified nannies are deemed to be the next best thing to stay-at-home mums. Interestingly, children cared for by close relatives were found to be at more of a disadvantage than those looked after by professional one-on-one carers.
My concern is that the findings of this study will be used as yet another stick to beat working mothers with. Yes, we know the ideal is for mothers to dedicate themselves selflessly to their children but the world has changed, women have changed, and quite frankly, for most women going back to work is an economic necessity - not a selfish whim. And let's face it, we're not all capable of the kind of saintliness that being a top-notch, full-time mother requires.
I have worked maily on a part-time homeworker basis since the births of my daughters. Now that my oldest child is three and my youngest child is one-and-a-half, I am more than ready to go back to work full-time and in an office surrounded by other reasonably civilized human beings.
I am a much better mother when I'm working; I get much greater personal fulfilment from being in the workplace than I do from being at home with my children, which makes me happier, more patient and more energetic when I do spend time with them. The emphasis then becomes on making the most of the time we have together, having fun, enjoying each other. When I'm at home full-time, as I often am between jobs (I am a freelancer) every day presents itself as a list of endless chores and persuading the kids to accompany me from A to B without inciting rebellion.
Does this make me a bad mother? I don't think so. I think it makes me normal.
Leach makes the point that the findings of the study should not be used to keep mothers at home, challenging the UK government to look into widening "genuine choice" by expanding the available network of childminders rather than their current obsession of increasing nursery places for children as young as two.
I couldn't agree more.