Blame is heaped on bad mothers, bad employers, bad government. No bad fathers mentioned whatsoever

Lately life has come to resemble the Harry Enfield sketch "Women, know your place". Various public-safety announcements are appearing all over the papers amounting to the same thing: "Women who work are in danger of damaging their children." As I pay a lot of attention to these things, being a form of child-abuser myself - that is, a mother who . . . gasp . . . works - I can sum up the extensive research for you to save you the bother. If a mother, as opposed to a father, has a job, it is more than likely that their child will be a moronic crack-head burglar. Unless they are middle-class, in which case the child might get one less A-level.

What seems clear from all the panic about "mothers who work" is that, while the children may be more or less OK, the mothers are obviously not. This was the only real conclusion I could come to after watching Panorama, in which the reporter Sarah Powell told us that mothers are finding it harder "to balance work with children". She then interviewed two exhausted women and pointed the finger at nasty inflexible employers. I'm with her on that, but it is not that simple. I am not of the dump-the-baby-get-the-promotion-and-go-back to-work brigade; but nor am I with the stay-at-home-bored-out-of-your-brains-for-the-sake-of-your-children lot. It goes without saying that what mothers who have young children should do, is a matter of individual choice. The reality, sadly, is that only individuals with money can make any real choice. Most women work because they have to.

As a single parent, I am particularly daunted by the way that the over-privileged lecture women. If single mothers don't go to work, they will live on benefit, which is seen as increasingly unacceptable (though not to me). Give me a choice between mothers who work and mothers who shirk, and I'll stay with the shirkers every time.

The whole spurious debate about working mothers is couched in terms that I think we should question. For a start, I am sick of hearing about women's "careers". Most women don't have careers, they have low-paid, often part-time and often boring jobs. One of the great successes of capitalism over the past 20 years is that governments on behalf of employers have somehow persuaded ordinary people that they work not just to get paid, but because they also achieve huge personal satisfaction through it. Most of the time this is a lie, but women in particular have fallen for it. Some work may be satisfying some of the time, but to follow the Blairite fallacy that all work is good is simply wrong-headed.

It may actually be better to have less work (and therefore fewer things) and more time, whether you are a parent or not. That is a people-friendly policy.

The other factor that no one seems to take much account of, but I see from personal observation as hugely important, is that women are having babies later and later. It is very different having a baby before "a career" is established from having one when it is. I know, because I have had both experiences. Watching my friends having babies in their later thirties, I have seen how they have more to give up and are therefore more inflexible about everything and, as a result, often very tired. Having said that, I see most of us achieving some sort of balance. We have our bad days, but we are not all deranged, and most children I know assume that their mother will have a job and that's it.

I assumed I would work because my mother always did. I remember as a child feeling rather sorry for middle-class children whose mothers stayed at home and had coffee mornings, affairs and sherry instead. At the time, I just thought that posh people were just too stupid to find themselves jobs - though now I can see the attraction of such a lifestyle.

Fretting about working mothers in the year 2000, however, strikes me as akin to worrying about sex before marriage - it is something that has been happening for a very long time now, but the media behave as though they've only just noticed. This is why blame must be apportioned. Bad government, bad employers, bad mothers, bad children. No fathers mentioned whatsoever. It is only right to press for better parental leave and affordable childcare, though it is hard to see how this particular government - so bowled over by businessmen and so work-oriented - will deliver these. Yet with the best will in the world, not every woman with a child will be happy and guilt-free at work, because work is still designed as a place where men can get away from home. I am lucky in that I have mostly worked from home for years - because I have children, and because I just don't know what to do in offices except pretend to be busy.

I like to think that means I have missed many great opportunities. If I hadn't had children then I would probably be the editor of a national newspaper, or at least have written American Psycho or the Satanic Verses or something. I know it's rubbish, but it's comforting rubbish. For when I looked at those poor women on Panorama, I felt sorry for them - I couldn't see what was so great about their jobs at all. But class will rear its ugly head, and I felt a lot more sorry for a woman married to a steel worker who needed the money than for the publishing woman married to the publishing man who didn't. To be struggling and guilt-ridden is a lot worse than to have money and feel angst.

The debate about working mothers - a good thing or a bad thing - can only really be had by what Bridget Jones would call smug marrieds - that cosy world of middle-class coupledom. The rest of us just get on with it. We do not feel guilty. Just mightily pissed off.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain