I returned to work four months after having twins – and never felt guilty

Last week you wrote about the popular trope of the hot but horrible man. Is there a similarly widespread but misleading stereotype for female characters that bleeds into real life?
Charlotte, by email

Very glad you asked, Charlotte, because there are many female stereotypes from pop culture that people either take far too literally or too much for granted: the up-for-it younger woman, the desperate single woman, the daffy mother, the embittered old crone (consider those your four ages of womanhood, ladies). But one in particular has for too long got a free pass: the guilty working mother.

It is now taken as such a given that a mother who works will feel guilty – how dare she not take her darling to the playground every day? – that even the phrase “guilty working mother” feels tautological. She’s a working mother: of course she feels guilty! If I listed all the examples from movies and TV shows it would probably fill the internet, from Teri Garr in Mr Mom, who goes back to work and her house and family all but collapse in protest, to Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know How She Does It, crying in the street because she missed her child’s first haircut.

Framing the subject of whether a mother works or not as 'a debate', as if women have a choice, is a privileged position

I’m rather bemused by the tenacity of this trope because, despite going back to work full-time when my twins were four months’ old, I have never felt any guilt. Ever. Nada. None. And at least some of the reasons why were answered by a rather extraordinary column that ran last weekend.

The article was headlined “Why do we work so hard to avoid our children?”, which is odd because I thought women work to earn a living. The article continues in that vein, written by a woman who now so bitterly regrets not having spent more time with her kids when they were little that she suggests being a working parent will one day be seen as negatively as being a racist. Don’t ask me to explain, I don’t have the time: I’m a busy working mother.

Anyway, the column makes the argument that families could just opt to be “a bit poorer” instead of having two working parents. Now, let us leave aside that this argument doesn’t exactly work for single parents or those for whom “a bit poorer” is less of a quaint lifestyle choice (only one ski holiday this year, kids, sorry!) and more the difference between paying the rent and not. Let us also leave to the side the weariness that comes from a writer extrapolating from their very personal experience to make a point about “all mothers”, as well as the yet to be answered wish that, one day, someone would write an article about motherhood that doesn’t casually demonise other mothers’ choices. Let’s instead take it for granted, as the writer does, that columns like this are addressed to women like me, middle-class women who work and have a partner who also works.

Related: Spot the working mother: happy, busy, and still treated as the caretaker | Hadley Freeman

There are many possible reasons a woman works: she probably needs the money because the family can’t survive on one salary. She may love her job. She knows that while young parenthood is intense, it is brief, and soon the kids will be at school full time, and it is not easy for a 40- or 50-year-old woman to re-enter the workplace. She might want financial independence and to know that she’d be OK if her partner died, was made redundant, or they broke up. Perhaps she finds that not working is bad for her mental health and she needs time away from home to be a better mother. And maybe she thinks there is no reason she should feel guilty about any of this when no one expects the same of her partner. Consider all of these reasons fully ticked by me, which is why I don’t feel guilty for working, and never will.

Of course some working mothers do feel guilty. It is also true some women don’t even have the option of feeling guilty and have to stop working when they have kids, either because of their family or their work situation, just as many don’t have the option to not work. So framing the subject of whether a mother works or not as “a debate”, as if women have a choice, is a privileged position. But this assumption that working mothers should feel guilty is so clearly unhelpful to women, just as it is to suggest a woman who doesn’t breastfeed, or needs a C-section, or an epidural, should feel like a failure. All of these things are completely fine. Really, it’s enough to make you suspect that none of these things are actually about what is best for kids and are just ways to make women feel bad about themselves, isn’t it? Surely not!