In October last year, our daughter was three months short of her third birthday. Six months pregnant with Number Two, my wife sensibly decided to take a 10-day break from us at a Scottish retreat.
As several readers have done, from time to time she good-naturedly pointed out that I really had no idea just how tough the job of mothering was. OK, I might look after the babe for a few hours, but that did not mean I understood what it was like to be doing it virtually 24 hours, year-round, years on end.
Having read the scientific evidence regarding its toughness (see pages 211-220 of my book, They F*** You Up), I thought I knew this intellectually, and from my brief watches at the tiller, I felt I could extrapolate. I wrote in my book (before our daughter was born) that, 'Overall, there is no doubt that newborn babies pose a serious threat to the mental health of many mothers' and that 'the fundamental problem is the total dependence of the baby, 24 hours a day, resulting in a total loss of autonomy'. How right I was.
Sure, there's the physical exhaustion and the growing shambles of dirty clothes, toys and nappies, mirroring one's mental state. There's the remembering you have forgotten her Bear-Bear just when you get to the top of the stairs, and the lack of time for anything of one's own, whether to wash your hair or speak on the phone (reading the paper? Ha bloody ha). And then there's the short-term memory loss. But none of this compared to the sheer relentlessness of the baby's dependence (and this just for 10 days with help from my sister-in-law).
I also liked to think that I was relatively immune to the need for work success to boost my self-esteem. I'm freelance, don't like offices and don't want jobs with important-sounding names. So I was appalled by the extent to which I craved the reassurance of work achievement. I eagerly read my emails in search of good news about future projects, tore open letters hoping for money, was pathetic.
Since the birth of Number Two at the beginning of the year, I stopped work (apart from writing this column) to cushion the blow to our daughter of losing mumma to a rival, and much to my surprise had occasional bouts of depressive thinking - generalised negativity, irritability, stressed incompetence. Over half of mothers of babies say their exhaustion leaves them in 'a state of despair'. Small wonder that 10 to 15 per cent of mothers suffer postnatal depression and that about one quarter are depressed by the time their child is one.
Our home has most of the advantages that money can buy and two pairs of hands. God knows how a low-income, single parent copes with one child, let alone several. It should be a matter of law that all fathers (especially politicians) are forced to care for their first child exclusively for a week before it turns three. Only then would men in general and our leaders in particular start legislating to create a social context in which carers of babies are maximally supported.
The mental block
Are women who are prone to see their boyfriends as romantic fantasy figures less ambitious in their careers?
Three experiments (detailed in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) asked American female students to link key men (eg, boyfriend, father, brother) in their life with realistic (eg, average guy, predictable) or fantasy (eg, chivalric, heroic, Prince Charming, Superhero) ascriptions. They were also asked about their career aspirations.
Women who were more fantasy-prone also tended to aspire to occupations which required fewer qualifications, would be paid less and they had less interest in high-status jobs (eg, corporate lawyer, senior manager). They were also less keen on roles that required being a group leader.
By contrast, when the same experiments were done with men, fantasticality of romantic desires did not predict their career aspirations. Overall, men were also significantly more ambitious than women.
The findings suggest that quite a few women, even educated ones, may still idealise and depend on men rather than seek their own fortune, which, combined with the Glass Ceiling, perpetuates gender inequities.
A meta-analysis of 37 studies of the effectiveness of massage therapies showed they really work, including effects on mental health. Compared with people who had had no massage, those who had several sessions had lower blood pressure and heart rates but, more dramatically, their levels of depression, anxiety and chronic pain were reduced.