The Secret World of the Working Mother

Fiona Millar’s book, The Secret World of the Working Mother, is a comprehensive account of the issues around being a working mum, but it lacks a little passion. Maybe working mums are too tired for passion?

This is rather a late review since the book has been out for a while, but I put that down to being a working mum. In between working, doing the housework, picking up kids, organising the holiday cover, etc, reading anything longer than your average Mr Man book is a bit of a challenge.

This book is, however, very easy to read and very comprehensively covers all the issues that working mums face.
Millar has tried many different permutations of being a working mum and sampled much of the childcare options on offer.

Part of the fascination of reading it, it cannot be denied, is that Millar is married to Alistair Campbell, which means she must have spent a lot of time doing the childcare thing virtually on her own.

There are hints about his domestic abilities – she claims he can’t, for instance, programme the washing machine.

But much more interesting than that is her description of her own return to work after the birth of her first son. She thought she could return to the fray of political journalism full time and carry on before, but “after nine months of exhaustion, on and off illness tears in the ladies’ loo in the Commons press gallery” she reached a tipping point when she returned home one evening to find her son reaching out to his grandfather rather than to her.

She gave up work and began “a 21-year experiment with every different type of working arrangement possible”.

Having asserted her credentials for writing the book, she goes on to deliver a very journalistic approach to the whole issue, describing the background to the working mum dilemma – mums have always worked, but the expectations on them now are huge – and going through each of the various stages, from first birth to childcare to dealing with teenagers to the vexed issue of sharing the housework [or not, as the case may be] and the rise of so-called mumpreneurs.

There are case studies and references to most of the big research reports on working mums and all the main arguments are covered.

But…although she undoubtedly feels strongly about the issues, there is nothing really new in the book – it is as if she has gone over and over all the arguments and permutations in her head endlessly, as we all do, and not found any real solution, except perhaps time.

The book lacks a sense of real passion and the end seems a little confused and flat. She argues for flexible working, but says that every case is different, people have to negotiate their own way and that employment law and trade unions cannot really help much. She thinks working and domestic culture might shift if more men started asking for flexible working, but she says it is “a big ‘might’”.

She admits that it is important to be a member of a trade union to fight against discrimination in the workplace, but then says neither trade unions nor employment law “can fully protect women from the now well-documented gradual slide down the pay and promotion ladder that often follows a period of intermittent work and one or more chunks of maternity leave”.

But what should we do then? Just wait and moan? She ends the book saying there is probably no simple fix to put all of this right, which is undoubtedly true, and she adds that “there is a big political argument” about fairness, equality, children, families and personal fufillment.

But what can politicians actually do to change the culture except say that it is unfair? It seems a bit defeatist to roll out all the arguments and then say things probably won’t change much, and you’re left wondering what it is she really wanted to achieve by writing the book, apart from describing the supposedly “secret world of the working mother”. But won’t the people who read it already know about this?

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