We learned this morning, courtesy of the Telegraph, that middle-class women are “deserting” the workplace to look after their children. These are presumably those same women who, in a parallel universe, “abandoned” those same children in order to go back to work at all. Britain expects every mother to do her duty: apparently, by dint of being in two places at once.
The Telegraph report this morning focused (of course) on middle class mothers. In an attack of the vapours at the loss of their Child Benefit, these over-entitled Boden-clad sybarites have flounced out of the office, announcing that it’s not fair and they’re not going to play at being professional grown-ups any more.
I’ve written about the changes to Child Benefit on here before. So far, so schadenfreude, but it’s still worth reiterating that a hypothetical two-child family with a single earner over the threshold is several thousand pounds a year worse off than their hypothetical neighbours earning the same gross income between them, regardless of their respective circumstances. That there are children far more badly affected by far more unjust changes goes without saying, but it’s disingenuous to insist it is a fair measure, or that it doesn’t have a genuine practical impact on calculating whether it makes financial sense for a mother to return to work. That’s not being middle class. That’s just maths.
The article also highlighted that in the most deprived areas, use of childcare has increased by 15% – undoubtedly linked to the rolling out of free provision for some 2 year olds. It’s unclear to what extent those same parents are now in paid employment more than before. Zoe Williams pointed out this week in the Guardian, though, that changes to employment and welfare law are quietly putting a deadly squeeze on the parental rights of low-paid workers. “Family-friendly” is a mockery in a context of zero hours contracts, disregarded legislation and an absolute precariousness of employment status. In how many households are benefit changes forcing mothers to take jobs with uncertain, ever-changing hours, using formal childcare only as one part of a complex, constant shifting of the children?
Two different extremes, but I notice a similar thread running through both – and beyond. Mothers, for the purposes of these arguments, are only such by virtue of there being children in the picture too. I want someone to champion children’s welfare and the importance of family life in all this. I don’t want “family friendly policies” which increase childcare availability from 8am to 6pm year round. Nor do most of my fellow parents, according to the survey reported in the Telegraph. Most mothers, whether working or not, say that they want to be able to spend time with their children, and to play a hands-on role in bringing them up. I find it sad beyond belief that as a society we essentially reply to this: you’re lying. Wanting children to have time at home, to have time with their family, to have a chance to do some of their growing and developing and thinking away from their peers isn’t an excuse for an easy life around the school run.
I am tired of hearing parenting (by which I mean, really, mothering) belittled and denigrated, turned into a consumer choice-cum-logistical problem to be solved by getting children out of the way and allowing their parents to work unfettered. Of a reductive approach to child rearing which could see a battery of well-trained dogs performing the bare minimum of keeping them out of physical harm and ensuring a constant supply of educational material. Of a shorthand which sneers that “middle class” mothers have children to skive and drink lattes, and that everyone else does it to get the benefits.
We are witnessing the rapid commodification of something intangible and invaluable. Women seem so rarely to be given credit for acting as adults, in good faith. I don’t want a return to the saintly idealised Victorian mother figure, but I don’t think we’re doing women many favours with the current model either. As long as childcare is treated solely as a woman’s issue, as long as children are equated to a drain on resources, an adult equivalent to “the dog ate my homework”, all parents, and more importantly all children, stand to lose out.