Imagine, if you will, Kevin the Teenager, as written by Lewis Carroll, stumbling into a plot scripted by Orwell.
Because that is how I have felt, in my numerous attempts to write this post over the past few months. I fact, I’ve written and rewritten; published and made private; doubting myself.
Faintly surreal internal dialogues, in which I try to hang on to the conviction that black is not, in fact, white, against the niggle of a background chant to the contrary.
An increasing tendency to rub my eyes and wonder if it is I who is seeing things wrongly.
And a stubborn, niggling howl of “it’s not fair!” (complete with virtual door slam).
I blame most of it on a long-founded habit of waking up to the Today programme. In a game of what I like to call Etonian Roulette, this makes me run a daily risk of waking up to a well-modulated mauling of something close to my heart. The most deadly days are those in which privilege affects to pull me into a bear hug before aiming the bullet into my temple. Today’s culprit, albeit via Twitter rather than Today, is George Osborne; asserting, yet again, that our family set up amounts to nothing more than a frivolous and rather selfish “lifestyle choice”.
You see, the problem is that I Just Don’t Get It.
Having come from a background which was by no means privileged, I studied and worked, then studied and worked some more. And my husband: well, he did the same thing too, though usually simultaneously. In the meantime, in the midst of career progression, we had some babies, and we realised (eventually) that where they spent the majority of their waking hours was really not where we would want our children to start to take on board the world around them, and after trying (and failing) to find any alternative we decided to choose that I would look after them at home instead.
And it was a choice that we were lucky to be able to make, in that it allowed us to consolidate 50-odd years of education and experience into one family income, and to cut our cloth accordingly. But it wasn’t akin to winning the lottery, or condensing all of that effort and time into any kind of financial windfall. We (and mainly I mean I) were holed below the waterline both in terms of income, but also in future career prospects and pension provision. We did what was right for us as a family at the time, but with no wandering off into some gold-paved happy ever after.
The thing is, that nearly 4 years on, we are feeling increasingly muglike. We keep paying a big chunk of “our” gross income to the government, though we’ve lost our Child Benefit, while we saw millionaire friends with multiple homes, children at public schools, and/or working scant hours (though living mortgage-free) retain theirs. Life is full of inequity, though, and we took comfort from the fact that although my husband’s long hours and stressful workload didn’t afford us luxury, they did confer a degree of security and a lifestyle way beyond many, many people.
Then the scheme of tax relief for childcare was changed, such that only families with two incomes would be able to benefit. It won’t affect us as such, but both the concept and the increasing rhetoric around all these changes (“helping hard-working families who want to get on”) are starting to feel rather insulting. We can manage on one income; we couldn’t really afford for me to work. Why, then, does the government continue to insist that I should, regardless? I am perfectly happy for our tax to support those who need it; I am spitting mad that it is being paid out to those who manifestly don’t to shore up some half-baked rhetoric (Marriage Tax Allowance, also).
We have people close to us where both parents (or the family’s lone parent) have no choice but to work flat out, or face the prospect of being unable to meet mortgage or rent payments. We also have friends with children for whom accommodating grandparents, luck in the property market, flexible employers, or undemanding hours make an extra income just that: a bonus which is an extra emollient to a fairly lovely lifestyle. Friends whose careers mean they work in cities and both have access to job markets; friends who draw salaries from their husband’s business and benefit from the consequent tax savings all round.
I would struggle to identify which are the hardest working families among us all. Apart from some obvious examples, any kind of ranking on wealth or contribution would be impossible too, especially when volunteering, studying, caring or plain old doormat duties (“oh, could you pick up X for me since you’ll be doing the school run anyway?”) – as well as tax and NI contributions – make the calculation as to which of us contributes more than others problematic.
The official subtext of “two incomes good; one income bad” grates especially badly when so many families operate as such: a unit, each making decisions based on its own needs and circumstances. I don’t expect official bouquets for our decision, but neither do I think we deserve brickbats.
Not all parents stay at home because they want to. Not all work because they have to. Making policy, and allocating financial benefit and incentives, on the basis that the reverse is the case is not only cynical, but lazy, divisive and unfair. I am not suggesting that we deserve government cash; I’d far rather it went to those in need. I am, however, saying very loudly that it shouldn’t be handed out to very wealthy people (£300k, anyone?) either.
A small, truculent, (and quite possibly spotty) part of me is starting to ask: “what did we do wrong?”