They don't know how we do it, and they don't care either

Financial pressure and guilt are driving middle-class working mothers out of their careers, to becom

I have a friend who probably won't bother to vote because no one is offering anything that has any relevance to her life. I'll call her Caroline, as it conjures up the right image: excellent comprehensive, history degree from Durham, a high-flying job in broadcasting.

Since she had a baby last year, her perfect career and wonderful life have fallen apart. She's still married, her baby is healthy, she has kept her job. But her life has become one of quiet misery.

Where she was once a star player, her employers now see her as a special case, and enjoy reminding her that they are providing the ultimate in generosity and political correctness by letting her work a four-day week - a favour she is never allowed to forget by her childless and/or male colleagues.

More than two-thirds of her income is wiped out by nursery and childminding fees. She feels she should be pathetically grateful for her four-day week, but in her heart, she knows that the set-up has made no difference, apart from making her workmates resentful and envious.

Like so many middle-class mothers, Caroline is close to cracking. They feel they're not giving their children or their work their best, and that they have let themselves down as well. Too rich to get any help from state initiatives, too poor to live off their husband's salary or afford a full-time nanny, they are stuck in the middle: supposedly privileged but unhappy and guilty.

This is not a group that immediately or obviously inspires sympathy. But it should. This is a generation of women that has had the opportunity to climb the career ladder and reach senior positions - managers, supervisors, leaders - but what they have achieved is being taken away. They are finding that family circumstances are driving them back into the Fifties. Many are likely to end up as increasingly desperate housewives.

On paper, middle-class mothers are well off, their households generating more than the average combined income of £41,000. In reality, their comfortable life has changed unrecognisably - and not just financially. Their status has dramatically altered, too. Suddenly, the woman's salary is seen as some sort of optional extra not making that much difference. This feeling, coupled with the guilt factor over full-time childcare, is pushing too many women back into housewife territory. It's the "sod this, I'm giving up" attitude echoed by the women interviewed in last month's deeply disturbing New Woman magazine survey. Two-thirds of respondents said they thought men should be the main breadwinners, and 70 per cent said they didn't intend to work as hard as their mothers.

Telling middle-class mothers to shut up and get on with it, or to opt out and become domestic goddesses, is like telling a child to eat everything on the plate because there are babies starving in Ethiopia. Working-class women will not be any better off if middle-class women stop complaining and/or give up work. Another aspect of moving back towards the Fifties is a lack of female role models further up the food chain.

It's hard to know where election pledges could make headway here. In some ways, this is not an issue about party politics as, in essence, the three main parties' pledges on families and children do not differ substantially. They all want to increase the payment for and length of maternity leave (which, incidentally, not all mothers support, many wanting flexibility when they return, not more time off). They all want increased numbers of childcare places and increased support to help parents pay for these. They all offer something to new mothers and the worst-off. None of them offers anything to women such as Caroline, who want plentiful, affordable childcare options and more support at work.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives plan to continue with Labour's most sensible initiatives. Labour's Sure Start programme in particular deserves applause, currently pledging 250,000 more childcare places by March 2006. These initiatives focus on low-income families - and rightly so. If only politicians would stop pretending that they offered something to all parents and not only to the worst-off.

Labour has lifted more than half a million children out of relative poverty and more than two million out of absolute poverty since 1997, when Britain had one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe. Families are on average £1,350 a year better off in real terms as a result of tax and benefit reforms. Labour has done a lot to provide choice and opportunity for lower-income families and single parents.

But, at the other end of the scale, women are leaving the workplace and learning to live within their partner's salary, because the whole exercise is pointless. The Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit go some way to helping families where both parents work, but they are beyond confusing, even to accountants. Most bafflingly, Citizens Advice warns that tens of thousands of families have received the wrong credits and will have to repay them. I know of only a handful of parents who have bothered with these credits at all, and most of the so-called middle class are in any case ineligible. And yet these initiatives are trumpeted constantly as potential vote-winners - until you look at the small print. It is only in families with incomes of less than £22,000 that any significant benefit will be felt from Labour's last Budget.

There is no easy solution. The Sure Start initiatives are laudable, but they affect only the over-threes and even then not until 2010. A state-funded childcare place for every child over the age of two should surely be a realistic goal. The precarious status of the childcare workforce needs urgent attention, too: starting salaries for nursery nurses range from £7,500 to £10,400 a year, and many earn little more than the minimum wage.

Most of all, someone has to take charge of putting employers under pressure to introduce parent-friendly hours and policies rather than just paying lip-service. For many women, opportunities for part-time and flexible working are close to non-existent, unless you opt out of the system completely. I took this route myself, jumping off the carousel to work as a self-employed freelance writer. But I am fortunate; not all jobs can be done from home with a baby strapped to your chest in a papoose.

All this is not just about politics; it affects our whole social culture, which is maybe why politicians steer clear of talking about it, let alone addressing it properly. It's time they came out fighting.