A new study on child development claims that children suffer no adverse effects if their mothers go out to work. Katie Boucher meets some UAE mums who have had to make the decision to stay at home, or continue to work To work or not to work? That is the question faced by a multitude of mothers who, if they are lucky enough to have the choice, must decide whether to put their careers on hold to care for their offspring, or continue working as they were and hand over the reins of responsibility to someone else - be it a nanny or a nursery.
It is a hotly contested topic and one that few can agree on. Much of the research carried out over the past 20 years has indicated that children do worse if their mothers return to work when the child is very young. Now, though, according to a ground-breaking study on the effects of maternal employment on child cognitive and social development, which American academics claim is the first truly comprehensive one of its kind, working mothers can, in fact, sleep easy.
"The good news is that we can see no adverse effects," said Jane Waldfogel, a visiting professor of social work and public affairs at the London School of Economics, who was behind the research, to The Guardian newspaper. "This research is unique because the question we have always asked in the past has been: 'If everything else remains constant, what is the effect of a mum going off to work?' But of course, everything else doesn't stay constant, so it's an artificial way of looking at things."
Instead the study, which was led by Columbia University School of Social Work in New York, found that if you offset the disadvantages of the mother returning to work within the first year of a child's life against advantages such as increased income, a greater chance of receiving good-quality childcare and the mother's mental health, the net effect was neutral. "This is especially good news for US mothers," added Waldfogel, "who typically go back to work after three months because of a lack of maternity leave."
In the UAE, a lack of part-time opportunities means that mothers are often confronted with an all-or-nothing situation - return to work full-time or not at all. For those who choose the former, it means finding alternative care when their child is still very young (most private sector and government companies offer 45 days paid maternity leave). Ros Alston, a mother of two young boys, decided to return to full-time work in community management at Aldar. Rex, two, was initially cared for at home by their Filipina nanny, but started going to Bright Beginnings nursery in Abu Dhabi three days a week when he was four months old. Rafe, five months, will start in September.
"For me, it's about maintaining my independence and staying on the career path," she says. "It also helps my sanity to be at work. I enjoy being with my family more if I am not with them all the time." The logistics of it - her office is only a few minutes from her house - make maintaining a work-life balance possible. And from the boys' point of view, she sees no disadvantage in her not being with them all the time. "Rex is a very sociable child and I think being at school has really helped that side of him to develop. In fact, when he's not at school he gets quite stressed and bored in the house. Having the stimulation of other children really does help him to learn."
Does she ever feel a pang of mother's guilt? "No, because I know I'm doing the right thing by them. I wouldn't be able to give them the same kind of educational play that they get at nursery." Instead, weekends are for quality family time. "I love cooking with Rex at weekends, and I often think: 'Oh, wouldn't it be lovely to do this every day?' But I know I wouldn't." In fact, she says, even if she wasn't working, she would still send her children to nursery some of the time. "I just don't think I'd have the energy if I was with them all the time."
Bex Clifton, an Abu Dhabi mother of three children, aged seven, four and nine months, returned to her job in London as a fund manager soon after her first son was born. "I saw him awake at weekends," she says. "That made me pretty unhappy." She took redundancy after six months to be at home with him. She is not currently working. "I wanted to be at home when they were small," she says. "I think it definitely helps them. It's the consistency of me being there. My mother did the same for her children so I could see the advantages." Having trained as an early years teacher in between her first and second children, Clifton intends to return to work when the youngest is at nursery age.
In the meantime, though, she admits that spending time away from them is important for her sanity. "You have to keep in touch with friends and do things that get you away from them, so it's not all about them," she says. Life for a stay-at-home mother can be demanding and demoralising, even with the help of their Sri Lankan maid. "But overall I'm happy and the children are happy." Jane Bevan, from Dubai, chose a more flexible, if no less demanding, path after the birth of her daughter 18 months ago. Instead of returning to the auction house she had worked at for seven years, she decided to set her up her own venture, Infinity Baby Care, a service that offers community-based pre and post-natal baby care.
"I was passionate about doing this because the level of care I wanted hadn't been available when I had Alice," she says. The fact that it meant flexible working hours was an added bonus. "I work extremely hard, but this way at least I can be at home when she needs me. I didn't want to miss out on her first steps or when she was ill." Each way, it seems, has its advantages and disadvantages. So who's right? What's the ideal childcare scenario? "It really depends on the child," says Jane Bailey, an early years child practitioner who runs Bright Beginnings nursery in Al Mehairba, Abu Dhabi. "And every child is different."
In an ideal world, she says, very young children would be looked after by their parents until they were old enough to go to nursery, at about two years old. In an environment like the UAE, though, where there are few playgroups or opportunities for mothers and babies to socialise, and for working mothers for whom the alternative is leaving them at home with a maid, putting them into nursery earlier has its advantages. "There's the opportunity to socialise," she says, "and the day is very much supervised under an umbrella of early years understanding. If you had the baby at home with the maid, there just wouldn't be the same stimulus."
Ultimately, though, it is the style of parenting that has the biggest impact, says Jay Belsky, a professor of psychology at the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, at Birkbeck University in London, who is an expert in the field of child development and family studies. "If you are going to be a sensitive mother and the home environment includes resources such as education, a loving spouse and income, our evidence shows that putting your kid in full-time care at three months isn't a big deal because you compensate for it."
"If you show them all the love and care they need," says Alston, "and let them know you're around, even when you're not around, the boys are happy."