As Tolstoy never wrote, every working family works in its own way. I’m not sure he would have had cause to make the observation in nineteenth century Russia, but it strikes me that it’s one worth making, here in a 2015 Britain gripped by General Election…well, if not fever, then certainly a bit of a nasty bug. Parents’ perceived priorities are high on the agenda.
It’s just that creating policies for “(hard)-working families” makes about as much sense, really, as creating them for people called Tom.
How on earth is a “working family” to be defined? I’m not even going to address whether unpaid work in the home counts; this is specifically about paid employment of one kind or another. People – and for the purposes of this post, I’m really thinking about women – have educations, lives and jobs and then – oops! – they reproduce, as people (women) have been prone to do since long before Anna Karenina got herself in such a muddle.
And after reproducing, there they are, suddenly, with the pieces that made up their lives hitherto needing to be rearranged into a pattern which best suits them. And those patterns are infinite.
For every parent who works in order to pay the bills, there’s one whose job provides a welcome but not indispensable addition to the family budget.
For every two-income household, there’s someone on their own stretched to breaking between the demands of employer and home.
For every parent racked with guilt about leaving their child when they have no choice, there’s another who could never be the parent or the person they are without the chance to do the job they love.
For every one parent motivated by ambition and passion for their career, there’s one who simply likes the adult time.
For every parent who believes on principle that a child’s place is in the home, there’s one who knows that their child thrives in nursery, or with its grandparents, or in the care of a childminder.
Parents choose, or they compromise. We aren’t motivated by any single factor, and from my own experience, ideology very rarely seems to come into it. We make it up as we go along, and – do you know what? – I think that left to our own devices we get it right.
I’ve tried, for a long time, to steer clear of anything about the tired old Mummy Wars, that tainted, painful, unwinnable argument over Who Is Doing It Right with a side order of bludgeoning for the ones Who Are Doing It Wrong. It’s hard to avoid, though, because we are all so sensitised from media coverage which seems determined to polarise, and, increasingly, clumsy political rhetoric which leaves those in one situation feeling victimised or unfairly judged.
It seems too much to ask that we move the discussion on from whether one type of behaviour should be selected as preferable and rewarded, and more to how we can recognise that parents’ circumstances are as unique and as shifting as sand on a beach. I don’t want to talk about whether free childcare penalises those who don’t or can’t work for whatever reason, I want to talk about how we ensure it doesn’t compel parents to work longer hours than they want to and rely on leaving their children in settings they wouldn’t choose. I don’t want to argue about who is more deserving of state support, I want to ask politicians to grant parents pragmatic and flexible ways to manage their own situations.
It’s probably too much to ask. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own jigsaw and trying to resist the temptation to compare it with everyone else’s.