Maternal mental health problems are very prevalent, yet few employers mention them in...read more
In the UK, over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children have a paid job – but do our kids’ books reflect that?
It’s 6am on a Wednesday and I’m reading Belinda Brown to my two-year-old while he sits on his potty. Just as we finish the book, my four-year-old appears and asks me to read it again. And off we go: ”Belinda Brown just loved bananas, she ate them for breakfast while still in pyjamas…”.
Belinda Brown is a hit in our house – at one point I was reading it three times a day. This 32-page book has beautiful pictures, clever rhymes, and a funny storyline about a girl who will only eat bananas. But it also has a business-suited father who spends no time with his children (and gets no comeuppance for it), and a mother who serves the family meals while wearing an apron. It was published in 2018.
I see this again and again in my kids’ picture-books, even the ones published since 2000. Working mothers don’t feature much. I find this surprising because it doesn’t reflect the reality that my kids live in – in the UK, over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children have a paid job, according to the latest official data. While some families still have a “dad-breadwinner, mum-caregiver” setup, this is increasingly less common.
I find this even in my favourite books – the ones that are generally nuanced and thoughtful. In Journey (2013), a child looks for someone to play with, but mum is too busy cooking and dad is too busy working at a computer. If I Had a Dinosaur (2013) shows a family sitting on the sofa, with mum cuddling the child and dad reading the newspaper (pictured above).
I’m not singling out these books for criticism – they’re just two examples amongst many. Even single mums are rarely shown working. So, am I imagining this?
Dmitrii Sergeev, a researcher at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, agrees that working mothers are relatively rare in the picture-books he has looked at for his research. They primarily show mothers as care-givers.
“I would be cautious [about generalising], but the core texts [that I have looked at] still stereotype…mothers’ roles and functions, their position in society and in the family,” says Sergeev, who is currently researching how single mothers are depicted in children’s books published since 2000. A 2013 study by academics at Shepherd University in the USA, which looked at picture-books published in the twentieth century, drew similar conclusions.
Babies’ and young children’s brains are sponges that soak up everything around them, shaping their future outlook. The messages and values in their picture-books matter, especially when they are repeated during every bedtime and rainy afternoon.
“The picture-book is still a very important tool and way into socialisation,” Sergeev says. “Even the overwhelming expansion of IT technologies hasn’t changed the picture-book’s position in education. It’s still [one of] the very first tools…to introduce [children] into how society works, what environment they are living in.”
When I’m reading to my kids, I’m always impressed by how modern picture-books are diverse on many fronts. In our library, I can easily find wonderful books showing same-sex parents, neuro-diverse children, families from around the world, and so on. There are also quite a few books showing involved dads.
Maybe that’s why I find this relative lack of working mothers so striking. Why hasn’t this bit been updated?
There are sometimes commercial reasons that picture-books stick to this framework, experts say. Publishers might be cautious about sticking to what they know sells well and what fits into familiar narrative tropes. After all, they usually only have around 32 pages and very few words to play with.
“It takes about $17-20,000 to bring a picture-book to [market] and so this is a highly risky thing,” says Karen Coats, professor and director of Cambridge University’s centre for research and children’s literature.
“It’s very difficult for a publisher to take a risk…so they often wedge stories into a framework that people will understand immediately.”
There’s also the fact that working mothers’ children probably still see their mums doing a lot of childcare and housework. Several studies show that, in heterosexual two-parent households, mothers do more unpaid labour than fathers even if they both have a paid job. These trends are shifting, but relatively slowly.
Maybe the mum cooking dinner in Journey has actually just come back from a long day at work…
While you may have to seek them out, there are picture-books that show working mothers. Some of these books focus on the fact that mothers work, such as Mommies at Work (1996) and How Mamas Love Their Babies (2018). Some working mums even choose to publish their own children’s books on this topic.
I personally love the books where a working mother is an incidental detail – something normal, not remarkable. I Do Not Like Books Anymore! (2018), a favourite with my kids, shows a mum in her home-office on one of the pages. The Baby’s Catalogue (1984), another favourite, has a diverse tableau of mums that includes one going to work (pictured above). You can find some more suggestions at the end of this article.
In our house, the bookshelves are still full of stories that show mothers almost wholly as caregivers. I love these books and it’s not about removing them from our shelves. It’s just about adding in books that also show mothers who have paid jobs – mothers like me.
“We have this very cautious attempt to…broaden the range of depicted mothers,” Sergeev says of books that fall outside maternal stereotypes. “We can say that these books are emerging.”
Photo credits: Alex Barrow and Gabby Dawnay, Thames & Hudson (If I Had a Dinosaur), Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg, Puffin (The Baby’s Catalogue)