I wrote this after receiving a press release from the BBC about some research they’d done for the Emma Barnett show. But the story didn’t run as planned on the radio because Brexit blew up and took the news agenda with it.
This story, about women, about tens of thousands of British women feeling miserable has repeatedly been bumped in favour of Brexit, a story which from start to finish has been dominated by willy waving men. Says it all really.
‘Bundles of joy’ has never been an accurate description of babies.
New research has shown just how wrong it is.
A poll of mothers for the Emma Barnett Show on Radio FiveLive found over a quarter of them basically didn’t like maternity leave much.
Around 750,000 babies are born each year. Apply that to the research and even on a conservative reading you get upwards of 150,000 women feeling miserable, bewildered and inadequate.
That’s a mental health crisis by any standard. And yet those men’s rights activists who have driven male mental health up the political agenda are curiously quiet about this one. It’s almost as if they regard men’s mental health as more important than that of women. (To be clear, mental health need not be a zero sum game where focussing on one area automatically comes at a cost to another area).
And the polling shows that women are suffering. Around half of those surveyed by ComRes said they felt lonely while on maternity leave, one in five wished they’d gone back to work sooner, two in five missed being at work.
And inevitably women were asked about breastfeeding and most said they found it harder than anticipated.
Younger mums tended to find the whole motherhood shebang more of a shock that older ones.
Barnett, herself fresh back from maternity leave, said, “I have had some of the loveliest and most memorable times of my life during my maternity leave. But it’s still been bloody hard, and, at times, lonely.”
These figures are not surprising to anyone who has a child.
Birth and breastfeeding are too often portrayed as ‘natural’. Volcanoes are natural but that doesn’t mean they’re good. You wouldn’t want one in your house.
Looking after small children is often at best boring and at worst downright depressing.
That’s why society says it’s best done by women.
It’s no coincidence that women literally get the shit jobs – whether that’s changing nappies, cleaning the toilets in your office block or dealing with incontinent elderly relatives.
Society expects women to do the hard yards then tells them not to complain. My first book, The Gender Agenda, was inspired by a German project from a generation before which took the title ‘There’s a Good Girl’. The name is appropriate because, from the off, female children are encouraged to conform not complain.
The BBC press release is short on answers. The best they’ve got is a limp response from an NCT representative who tells women to go find a local toddler group to cheer themselves up.
There is one vital word missing from the research – men.
Men who can look at these figures and sacrifice female mental health in return for their own privilege.
The meninist movement has alighted on male mental health as a cloak under which to smuggle their frequently misogynist agenda.
They point to unpleasant and alarming figures that show dozens of men take their own lives each week.
But if they truly cared about male mental health they’d be rallying behind this latest research as a battering ram to getting men and women true equality – the sort of equality that leads to better mental health all round, the sort of equality that sees men take on the tasks traditionally dubbed ‘women’s work’ and recently rebadged as the ‘mental load’.
Women whose partners take on more domestic work enjoy better mental health. When researching my latest book, Dads Don’t Babysit, I spoke to Bridget Hargreave author of Fine, Not Fine, a book about post-natal depression and she explained that while it’s a complex condition support can be key. Having someone to help with the childcare in those difficult early days, knowing that even if you don’t take to maternity you’ll go back to work after a few months and your partner will take over could improve outcomes.
Men who do more parenting enjoy better mental health and a stronger relationship with their partner, their offspring and their friends.
Mental health, like parenting, is not straightforward there’s no silver bullet, no one size fits all manual for managing it. But in the vast majority of cases if men do more childcare everyone’s life is improved. (Even those that don’t have children because if men take more parental leave it frees up women to return to work sooner and boosts the economy to the tune of a few billion quid).
That’s why men need to campaign now for the measures that will close the paternity gap – the difference between what men want in terms of a work life balance and what they currently have.
The manifesto in Dads Don’t Babysit includes beefed up shared parental leave with an chunk of time reserved exclusively for dads, more paternity leave following a birth to improve bonding and relieve the pressure on mums, normalising flexible working for men and women to allow parents to fully engage with family life and challenging cultural stereotypes like Homer Simpson that embed the idea of the hapless and hopeless dad heaping more pressure on women to be the only competent parent.
Today’s papers will be dominated by high political Brexit drama whereas the welfare of millions of mothers will be overlooked.
This research ought to trigger a revolution among women who demand better, who expect more from their partners and among the men who can use this data to justify their desire to alter the work life balance away from work and towards a more fulfilling life fuelled by family.
We live in a world where men retain the balance of power, that’s why women are left to do so much domestic work alone and loneliness and disillusionment inevitably follow. But men have the power to change things.
It’s not women who find that maternity leave isn’t all it’s cracked up to be who should feel a failure. It’s the men who allow that situation to persist.