Why Do Some Mothers Pretend to Have No Help?

Having Help with Childcare

Why is it that mothers who have help frequently fail to ‘fess up? Alex Manson-Smith argues that they should do everyone a favour and be open about it.

If behind every successful man there’s a great woman, behind every working mother there’s often an army of cleaning ladies, nannies, dog-walkers and grandparents. Yet many of them still feel uncomfortable about ’fessing up to how much help they have. Instead they carry on giving the impression they do it all, from ironing the kids’ sheets to batch-cooking muffins for the cake sale.

To be fair, you can understand why. Admitting you have help can sound a bit spoiled and over-privileged. No one wants to be the blow-dried bitch in the SUV, moaning that the housekeeper shrank her cashmere. If you have help, you lose the right to complain or, certainly, the camaraderie that comes from talking to other mothers about what a shag it all is.

Mentioning your help can come dangerously close to bragging. Tell your friend who does it all about the fabulous ceviche your nanny makes and she’s not going to be thrilled for you: she’s going to quietly hope you choke on it. And who can blame her? Because there she is, knee-deep in dirty nappies and smeared with porridge, while you get to keep your hair appointment because you’ve got some willing aide to cover you.

But it’s not just the fear of being judged that stops women talking about the amount of help they have. There are other reasons to be embarrassed. After all, there are ethical consequences to employing that nice Brazilian who folds the loo roll into a point like they do at the InterContinental. If you’re so minded, you can tie yourself in knots about the morality of it – is it bad, employing women who often have to leave their children and emigrate for work? Or is it good that you’re giving them an income they’d never otherwise have?

‘Doing it all yourself has become such a badge of honour that outsourcing feels like cheating, somehow.’

And this attitude goes all the way up the social scale. In fact, it probably starts there. While over here promoting Miss You Already, Drew Barrymore spent very little time in interviews talking about the 16-hour days she must have put in on set, and an awful lot discussing being ‘present for her kids’, and ‘aggressively excited about tradition and values and Christmas cards and Halloween costumes,’ making every mother reading feel instant guilt for not making Martha Stewart spider web cookies, and assuming that nobody sends Christmas cards any more.

Similarly, a July interview with Nicole Kidman in US Vogue mentions that she has four films coming out, alongside her current stint in the West End. Yet to hear her talk, her life is all car-pooling, growing roses, making chutney and taking her kids to concerts. Clearly the woman has some serious help, though you’d never know it from reading the piece. Closer to reality, meanwhile, everyone knows someone who has four kids yet mans the fort singlehandedly. ‘And she doesn’t even have any help,’ we whisper of such women, in awestruck tones.

No wonder, then, that so few of us mention our cleaners, or that we ship off the ironing to that lady down the road. I often hear mothers refer to their nannies as babysitters (in fact, I’ve been known to do it myself – gulp), implying that they’re doing the odd evening stint, rather than the full eight hours, four days a week. Meanwhile, no one posts photos on Facebook of their kids larking at the soft play with the nanny, because that would ruin the impression that we’re always there, wiping every runny nose and overseeing every craft project.

Come on! Having help isn’t a sign that you’re spoiled and incapable of ironing your own jeans (or not necessarily). Rather, it’s a reflection of the fact that there’s so frickin’ much to do: cooking, cleaning, making sure that Johnny’s got his permission slip, swim kit and birthday RSVP, and that Ava’s read that tedious book about Biff and her magic key and remembered her recorder – if you want to get through parenthood without having a breakdown, you have to learn when to delegate.

And unless you’re one of those rare women blessed with a husband that does his 50% share, no questions asked (I’ve never met one of these women, but heard a rumour in the Guardian that they exist), then this will be you.

Whatever we are led to believe, there simply isn’t time in the day to sort the laundry and do the shopping, be there for the school assembly and take them to swimming before putting a tasty and nutritious meal on the table at 5.30pm. Oh, and to have a job – one where they think you’re a flake for not being able to make any meeting after 5pm. There is no way you can get it all done. Not without fast-tracking yourself to the Priory, anyway.

Although, to be fair, it isn’t necessarily your partner’s fault. After all, who does a straightforward nine to five these days? Most men I know work hours that our fathers would have considered insanity, or commute for two hours each way, leaving the women in their lives stuck on domestic duty. If these women have jobs of their own – well, something’s got to give. Which is where the help comes in.

You may also find yourself getting a bit angry and resentful at the fact that it always has to be you who makes the bed and picks up the pants and wipes the cat sick off the rug. You don’t remember signing up to that. In this regard, employing a cleaner has saved many a relationship.

But the trouble is, all the time that no one’s admitting how much help they have (and the ones who do are being judged as not quite ‘proper’ mothers), it gives the overriding impression that this parenting lark is a doddle, and that if you can’t mix kids and work with throwing memorable dinner parties and doing thrice-weekly Pilates classes, well, then you’re somehow weak or incapable.

It would be lovely if those are fortunate enough to have help were just a bit more honest about it. Next time Jenni Murray is fawning over some CEO on Woman’s Hour, asking how she does it, instead of mumbling something coy about what a juggling act it is, I’d love it if the CEO were to say, ‘To be honest, I only survive my life because I have an army of people who do it all for me.’ Because that’s the truth.

Alex Manson-Smith is a journalist, copywriter and blogger, and regular contributor to Mr Fox. She has two sons, aged 5 and 2.