Who’s holding the baby? How working mothers navigated the 20th century

Since the turn of the 20th century, Britain’s working mothers have been faced with the ultimate juggling act: holding down a job while raising a family. Helen McCarthy traces women’s attempts to solve the childcare conundrum

Women load up scrap metal at a major steelworks, 1942. During the Second World War, the government opened hundreds of nurseries to encourage women into work but, as Britain returned to peace, most closed. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1947, the British government launched a patriotic appeal to the nation’s wives and mothers. War debts and the costs of rebuilding bomb-ravaged cities had sucked the life out of the country’s major export industries, from textiles and clothing to shoe, boot and hosiery production. Hospitals and schools were short on staff, while farmers had no one to harvest their crops. Only the married woman at home, ministers insisted, could restore economic prosperity by offering her labour. “In the next big effort,” one newspaper advert read, “you can be one of the women who turn the tide of recovery.”

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A key question, however, was left unanswered: what would happen to the children of these selfless volunteers? The war nurseries, established after 1939 for use by munition workers, had closed their doors, while the expansion of nursery schools promised in the landmark 1944 Education Act was making little progress. After-school or holiday care for older children was practically non-existent. One mother from west London expressed her frustrations to the Daily Mirror: “Of all my many anxieties, the school holidays present the biggest problem. For six or seven weeks in summer, three at Easter, two at Christmas and one at Whitsun I am at my wits’ end to know what to do for my little girl, aged nine.”

Working mothers everywhere felt her pain. Throughout the 20th century, women’s choices concerning paid work – where to do it, when to do it, whether to do it at all – were shaped by the options available for the care of children. Mothers sought employment for many reasons: to feed their families, to enjoy a higher standard of living, to get a break from the housework, or to pursue a career.

But whatever a woman’s motive, the problem of childcare had to be faced – and it was largely faced by her alone. Neither government nor employers saw it as their responsibility to help working mothers balance their double job except at times of national emergency, such as war. Fathers became more active in the home over time, but the burden of childcare – either doing it or organising it – continued to fall largely on women’s shoulders.

Children underfoot

Was it always this way? In pre-industrial times, care-giving was considered a female domain but it blended more easily with the economic rhythms of the household. Spinning, baking and brewing, running a shop or working the land were not incompatible with nursing babies or supervising children. What’s more, extended kin, servants and lodgers could often lend a hand.

Home-based production of this kind did not entirely disappear with the coming of the factories in the 19th century. Many mothers solved the childcare problem by overseeing family businesses or securing waged work that they could do in or close to their place of dwelling. A great deal of home-work was performed by women with babies or toddlers underfoot, from taking in washing or cleaning for neighbours to finishing trousers, mending sacks and assembling matchboxes, often on exploitatively low piece-rates set by local factory-owners.

A woman makes matchboxes in London’s East End, c1907, at a time when thousands of working-class mothers worked from home with “babies and toddlers underfoot”. (Photo by Mary Evans)
A woman makes matchboxes in London’s East End, c1907, at a time when thousands of working-class mothers worked from home with “babies and toddlers underfoot”. (Photo by Mary Evans)

Cleaning was another job popular with mothers caring for small children during the day. One man who grew up in Leeds after the Second World War recalled how he accompanied his mother to her weekly cleaning job in a large private house: “I had to sit on the step outside and if it was raining I was allowed to sit next to the bins where there was a sort of lean-to-shelter. When mum had finished she would call me inside where I would sit, without a word being spoken, and have a cup of tea, a piece of brown bread and cheese, followed by a thin sliver of fruit cake.”

These sorts of ad hoc solutions persisted into the later 20th century. One 1980 study estimated that 15–20 per cent of wage-earning mothers took their children with them to work rather than paying for care. New technologies connecting home and workplace seemed to promise greater flexibility for mothers doing higher-level professional jobs. Yet answering phone-calls or drafting reports for your boss against a backdrop of wailing babies and demanding toddlers was hardly a recipe for career success.

Nannies and minders

A privileged minority of women could always rely on paid help to ease the load. Until the mid-20th century, middle and upper-class families routinely employed nursemaids and nannies and sent older children to boarding schools. Most wives used their spare time for leisure or voluntary work, but some seized the opportunity to pursue professional vocations. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, for instance, gave birth to three children in the 1870s but continued to practise medicine from her private consulting rooms in Marylebone. Her contemporary, the writer Alice Meynell, produced large volumes of poetry, essays and reviews from her smart London home while bringing up eight children, to whom she was known as the “pencilling mama”.

In the 1930s, the crystallographer and future Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin persuaded Somerville College, Oxford to provide her with paid maternity leave after the birth of her first child and to repeat the experiment for her subsequent pregnancies.

Private incomes or ample salaries enabled these mothers to pay others to look after their children, a pattern that was embraced by high-flying professionals long after the decline of residential domestic service. Margaret Thatcher had a long-serving nanny who looked after her young twins while she climbed the greasy pole of politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Her contemporary, the barrister Barbara Mills, hired no fewer than five nannies to care for her four children as she made her way in the world of law. “Any working mother must have competent and reliable domestic help, and be prepared for emergencies,” Thatcher remarked in an interview. “You must have a nanny who can change a wheel and mend a washing machine, someone who has practical brains,” was Mills’ advice.

Any working mother must have competent and reliable domestic help
Margaret Thatcher

A cheaper option was to engage an au pair, who became a familiar presence in the middle-class household. These young European women spent a year in the UK attending language classes and living with an English family, receiving free bed and board in return for helping with children and light household chores. In practice, the au pair’s ill-defined status, somewhere between a house guest and servant, created tensions and misunderstandings. One mother complained that her au pair was “exceedingly extravagant with hot water, heat, electricity, and everything else including the telephone”, but she felt unable to reprimand her “like you can your own family, because the au pair leaves you”.

Journalist Shirley Conran found the annual churn of arriving and departing au pairs too great a strain. She decided instead to teach her children to cook and, with the money saved, to buy a fridge-freezer and dishwasher, neither of which, she observed, were “likely to have an affair with my husband”.

These private childcare solutions lay well beyond the budget of most working mothers. Middle-class women were accustomed to employing people in their homes, but working-class mothers were more likely to leave babies with relatives or pay trusted neighbours to mind their children while at work.

This was the well-established pattern in Lancashire, where mothers had found skilled employment in textiles mills since the early 19th century. The suffragist Ada Nield Chew recalled how two cotton-weavers of her acquaintance carried their sleepy-eyed children every morning to a minder who lived a few streets away in a house which was “an exact replica” of their own. The mother collected and fed the older boy during the dinner hour and called for both children on her way home from the factory, buying fish and chips for the family’s supper. The rest of the evening was spent polishing the grate, scrubbing the kitchen floor and getting the children bathed and into bed.

Grandmothers were a crucial source of childcare in working-class communities. The housewives studied by Pearl Jephcott in Bermondsey in south London in the 1950s leant heavily on their mothers while they worked part-time shifts in local factories. Jephcott described granny as “the minder-in-chief”. Sometimes daughters would pay or offer services in return, such as picking up shopping or cooking hot meals.

These reciprocal arrangements were replicated in some multi-generational south-Asian households. Harbhanan, a Punjabi migrant from east Africa who moved to London in the 1960s, was able to continue working as a machinist for a clothing manufacturer thanks to the childcare provided by her resident mother-in-law.

Children play in a Northamptonshire nursery school, c1940s. The supply of childcare places failed to meet demand then – and that remains the case today, argues Helen McCarthy. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Children play in a Northamptonshire nursery school, c1940s. The supply of childcare places failed to meet demand then – and that remains the case today, argues Helen McCarthy. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The ties of kin were not unbreakable, particularly as families became more geographically dispersed and older women were themselves more likely to be back at work. Some grandmothers admitted bluntly that they did not want the burden of caring for small children and were looking forward to a rest in later life. In the late 1950s, a Bethnal Green woman complained about the noisy demands of her grown-up daughters, who came to her “with all their troubles”, including requests for baby-minding: “I say when they’re married, they’ve got to look after themselves. They’ve made their bed and they’ve got to lie on it.”

Later in the century, taking on regular childcare duties held even less appeal to well-off baby-boomers eyeing up the alternative attractions of retirement, from adventurous travel to part-time degrees.

Comprehensive failure

Informal, family-based care dominated the childcare landscape for so long because the chief alternative – well-run and affordable day nurseries – was so hard to find. Unlike countries such as France or Sweden, Britain did not develop a comprehensive system of state-funded pre-school provision. Efforts were made in wartime to lure mothers into essential industries with the promise of nursery places, but these were strictly temporary measures.

The number of local authority nursery places fell across the postwar decades, with only one place provided for every 30 children in the under-five age group by 1977.

Priority was given to groups deemed to have special needs, such as unmarried mothers or so-called ‘problem’ families, whereas the ordinary working mother was expected to make her own arrangements. As one local health official put it: “If the career mother wishes to park out her child for a substantial proportion of the day… she should at least be asked to pay the full cost, and should not expect the state or the municipality to subsidise her.”

The maternal presence

The conviction that childcare was no business of the state found an ally in the rise of a new consensus around infants’ emotional needs. In the late 1940s, popular psychoanalysts like John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott told parents that children required a continuous maternal presence in early life if they were to develop into well-adjusted adults. “The ordinary good mother knows without being told that during this time nothing must interfere with the continuity of the relationship between the child and herself,” Winnicott warned in his regular radio broadcasts.

Looked at this way, nurseries were undesirable institutions because they enforced separation. This message was driven home in 1956 by the magazine Picture Post, which illustrated a long feature on working mothers with an image of a forlorn-looking toddler, pictured behind the bars of his nursery cot.

One magazine ran an image of a forlorn-looking toddler, pictured behind the bars of his nursery cot

By the 1970s and 80s, these attitudes were being challenged by a vociferous lobby of feminists, trade unionists and childcare experts. They argued that nurseries were a social priority, essential, as the book Nurseries Now put it, “to ending sex discrimination and promoting equal opportunities”.

Women employed in large corporations put pressure on employers to step up. At the BBC, a group of senior female managers campaigned for the establishment of a workplace crèche, arguing that “a forward-thinking employer with positive policies for the welfare of its staff would be able to see the increasing need for nursery provision and act on that need”.

Such demands fell on deaf ears amid the public spending cuts and deregulatory policies introduced by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Some change came in 1998 with New Labour’s National Childcare Strategy, designed to expand capacity within Britain’s creaking childcare system. A mixture of grants, tax credits and vouchers yielded impressive results, with the proportion of under-twos in formal childcare rising from a quarter to nearly 40 per cent over the next decade, and take-up of subsidised places for three and four-year-olds running at more than 80 per cent.

Yet too many mothers have still had to battle to find good quality nursery care – at a cost they can afford. Critics argue that recent moves to extend the free places have been woefully under-funded, as many childcare providers struggle to meet parental demand while paying their staff a decent wage.

Back in 1947, when the British government tried to rally housewives behind its Women in Industry campaign, it met with an unambiguous response. Mothers were not prepared to undertake strenuous, full-time factory work if the state was not prepared to help solve the childcare problem. The Daily Mirror took up their cause, paying tribute to the thousands of public-spirited women who, like the anxious correspondent from west London, would gladly answer the call “IF THE GOVERNMENT WOULD LET THEM”. Such mothers, the newspaper observed, “ask so little – somewhere to leave their children where they know they will be well looked after”. This, it appeared, was asking too much in the late 1940s. Seventy years on, working mothers are still asking.

Helen McCarthy is lecturer in modern British history at the University of Cambridge. Her book Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood was published by Bloomsbury in April

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This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine