Category Archives: Childcare and Working Parents

Over the lifespan of this blog, one of the themes I have returned to over and over again is that of childcare and “working parents” (specifically mothers).

Skiing backwards

Years and years ago, I read about a term applied to (or chosen by?) wealthy retired North Americans who ploughed their cash into giant mobile homes in order to overwinter in milder climes. There was  even a bumper sticker for them and their deluxe Winnebagos: “We’re SKIing”, they’d announce. “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I have no idea whether this is still A Thing, but it was a phrase that kept occurring to me during the years I was a stay at home mother. I felt, a lot of the time, like I was somehow frittering away something due to my children in the future. Saving was way down the list. Investing for their education, likewise. Hell, I was even depriving them of the example of an industrious working mother, with all the benefits I kept hearing came with that.

It was an insistent little niggle, not particularly assuaged by the knowledge that it was a luxurious niggle to have. I knew – I know  – that working far too often confers no such opportunity to build a buttress, however small, against fortune. In our case, though, provided I found a job which paid sufficiently to cover childcare, working would bring financial advantage…or, that whispering little voice kept suggesting, just put the children on a more level footing with their immediate peers.

I’ve written plentifully on here about the fact that having a parent at home full stop is perceived to be of little value. The papers seem to be full of the advantages of maternal employment on children, and study after study proving that they come to no harm through being cared for in a setting other than home. I have no doubt that either is true, provided that material circumstances are such to ensure quality of provision and a levelling of other factors domestically. I just wonder if, perhaps, in the perpetual race to demonstrate no ill-effects, there is a lost nuance of a benefit less tangible, yet no less real? There doesn’t after all, have to be one right answer.

When, half pushed, half jumping, I stepped into what I now know was a career break, it was as if blindfold, with no particular plan and little hope that I could go back to the profession I’d studied and trained for. Almost a year after returning to work, I still can’t believe my luck that it is, for now, working out. It is still faintly incredible that someone took a chance on me, and that I’ve ended up doing something interesting and rewarding, with the luxury and luck of supportive colleagues and near-perfect childcare. Along with the ever-present prompting from my resident Imposter Syndrome, who likes to remind me daily that I’m bound to cock it up soon, is a sense that is all too good to be true.

So far, so me. But what about the reasons for that career break in the first place? Are they thriving, now that I’m gainfully employed? Have I realised that I was, after all, squandering their dues by spending time at home with them? If I am being brutally honest, I think that this was one of my biggest fears when I went back. Fear that they would struggle with the transition, obviously; guilt that I was changing their lives so dramatically. Alongside that, though, a nasty little fear that I might have to admit that I had been wrong.

They are, of course, fine. There has been no sudden dramatic decline in their schoolwork; no outbreak of delinquency (or no more than they displayed previously). We don’t seem to have forgotten each others’ names, and they tolerate or seek out my company in roughly the same proportions as they always did. They are, in some ways, undoubtedly better off: I am better tempered, and marginally (though gratifyingly) more solvent.

Perhaps it’s a bad case of self-delusion, however, but I can’t honestly say that they, or I, were nett losers during the six years I was out of the labour market (excluding the birth of Number 3). There’s a relief, actually, in feeling largely the same. I still have the knee-jerk “It’s a job, love, not a fucking halo” reaction when I hear a particularly egregious example of Busy Working Mum-hood.

Yet how to quantify, how to value, how even to class as “gain” what they now no longer have? There are tiny details of their day-to-day lives I don’t share anymore. There are unscheduled, unlabelled hugs that don’t happen; walks and chats and games  that are replaced now with a briskly efficient-, timed-to-the-millisecond drop off and pick up. There is, on balance, less time – and how do you account for that?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without self-editing. So here come the caveats: of course I don’t think that every mother wants, or should want to, or should take any time out of her career other than that which biology mandates. Of course I appreciate that this whole vexed question is the domain of a relatively tiny privileged minority. But still, I see so many women who, after children, end up in jobs for which they are woefully overqualified, or scrabbling around to make a pittance peddling someone else’s dreams. I hear others who are working because, not to, would close a door forever on something they hold dear. Sometimes it’s a choice. Sometimes, a compromise. Sometimes, it really was the only thing going.

As much as it may sound it, this isn’t an exercise in smuggery. It’s just that, according to every available calculator, I am less than half way through my working life, and those few years out, in the overall scheme of things, don’t seem so much. And I can’t help wonder if my case (thank you, Imposter Syndrome, for as long as it lasts) really shouldn’t be such an exception. This isn’t about the choices people make; it’s about the circumstances in which they make them – and what could make it easier for time out with young children not to be an irreparable blot on a woman’s CV.

We have such a linear view of life, still; such a binary either/or approach to progress and achievement and worth. We’re programmed to stockpile for the future; armour our offspring as much as we can against their own forays into the world. But, perhaps, there’s not one single best way of investing; as we live longer and work longer and move around more, maybe a portfolio approach to building an “inheritance” makes just as much sense as anything else. Much more sense, in a lot of ways, than deeming anything which deviates from school-work-family-retirement as somehow doing things in the wrong order.

It’s an awkward exercise, I imagine, to shuffle a pair of skis in reverse. It’s hard to see what’s coming, and it’s fraught with the risk of capsizing. But perhaps, when you think about it, balancing on planks on snow doesn’t come that naturally either.

 

Don’t Call Me A Busy Working Mum

I have three children, a full-time job, and a to-do list with a life of its own.

I am a mum, and I work outside the home, and I am busy.

Yet I will never, ever describe myself as a Busy Working Mum.

It’s just a description, isn’t it? So why does even the sound of it make my teeth itch?

After all, I should be the perfect target demographic for all those adverts I see aimed at the Busy Working Mum, trying to sell me everything from frozen Yorkshire puddings to all-inclusive holidays. Last week, I even saw one offering ready meals just perfect for my lifestyle. I can only imagine that they promise to keep my efficiency and selflessness topped up to optimal levels as I whisk briskly through my days.

So yes, it may be a description, but it’s hardly a definition. It means precisely zero. What value is there in a label available to any woman with offspring in receipt of a salary and withheld from any who’s not? What, after we all, do “we” uniquely have in common?

It is nonsense to suggest that there’s some commonality of experience which binds together the woman doing a couple of school-hour days round the corner with the single mother scraping by on minimum-wage night-time shifts; the high flyer with a nanny clocking up a working week in triple figures with a part-timer whose parents or partners are on hand. Do we really believe that the simple fact of being paid for a portion of our time means that life is unavoidably harder, busier and more stressful than that of someone who doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason?

If it’s not a definition, then it’s certainly not an identity. It’s not the badge of honour I see it used as so often on Facebook posts or comments underneath articles online. “As a busy working mum” they start, before going on to outline why the commenter wishes she had the time to do or be or worry about whatever the subject of the article is. It’s a hard thing to say in this climate of “doing the right thing” by working, but having a job doesn’t confer any virtue or superiority in and of itself. I’m owed precisely nothing for working beyond the salary agreed with my boss. Sure, I pay tax and National Insurance, but that’s because I work, not the reason I do it. If you disagree, and you yourself work fewer hours or at a lower wage than you could…well, that doesn’t really stack up, does it?

And if I reject it as an identity, then I sure as hell won’t accept it as a destiny.

In our fairly bog-standard journey to parenthood, there has been one solitary inevitable given in the combination of family life with employment: that it would be me who would need some period away from work while the babies made their exits. All the rest, from (our relatively generous) maternity leave to who gets the call when little Jimmy barfs on the carpet at story time is the result of our society and its (and our) expectations. There is no particular chromosomal composition that confers a greater ability to RSVP to party invites and buy school uniforms, but “Busy Working Mum” in all her harassed glory suggests otherwise.

Perhaps I’m being over sensitive. Perhaps you wish you had the time to be bothered about it. Perhaps you’re right. But do me a favour. Look out for references to “busy working men”, or “busy working carers”, or “busy working daughters”. And if you don’t see them, maybe just wonder…why not?

Working v Occupation

I’m not a violent person, but there are times I’d love to unleash my inner Ally McBeal. No, not the needy, neurotic lawyer (quiet at the back there), but the one who combined cartoon and karma to deliver instant comeuppance to anyone who crossed her.

Recently, I’ve been channelling Ally when faced with stupid comments about going back to work. Primarily those delivered with a chortle, and some allusion to the fact that I won’t know what has hit me when I’m faced with a real day’s work. It’s satisfying to imagine a cartoon boxing glove bopping them on the nose, even as I smile sweetly and roll my eyes so hard the minute my back is turned that I get a diagnostic image of my brain.

I am in the perfect position to deliver final judgement (did you see what I did there?) in the hoary old case of SAHM v Working Mother, and I’m pleased to confirm that, in fact, both are harder than the other.

Only kidding.

The answer of course, if you’re interested, is that neither is “harder”. Why? Because, in large part, neither SAHM or “working mother” actually means anything much. It’s like asking “Which has more colour? Blue or red?” (If there is a scientific answer to that one, I don’t want to know it).

That notwithstanding, the last couple of months have verified what I have long suspected: not necessarily that many people think being a parent who doesn’t work outside the home is easy, but that lots and lots and lots of people think it just has no value at all. It is perceived as a kind of vacuum, an occupation of time which is neutral at best, a lily-livered, latte-fuelled skive at worst.

Around the same time as I was starting work (I’d like to say it was as I was filling in the forms for childcare, but that would be a lie for artistic effect) an email job alert pinged into my inbox. Someone not far from me was looking for a nanny; someone to look after three children before and after school. It was good money, and there was a formidable list of qualifications and qualities that the right person would need. If I’d been unfortunate enough to be being hounded by a Job Centre to find work at the time, I could unquestionably have taken that one and moved instantly from scrounger to hard-working taxpayer simply by changing the identity of the children I cared for.

Why, I wonder, does the lack of familial connection turn the self-same activities from a cop-out into a worthwhile position of employment? Why is doing it as a job perfectly valid, while doing it for any other reasons (cost of childcare, lack of availability or quality, family circumstances, child’s needs…) generally accepted to be an extended holiday from real life?

No3 has only just started full time school, so I didn’t have full “child-free” days before I went back to work, but even if I had, they would have only amounted to five and a half hours, not every waking weekday moment. Don’t get me wrong, I weep at the thought of that time now…but the point is that stay at home parents, even the ones with school-age children, don’t have whole days at their disposal. That, and the fact that when the children are around, they are an occupation in themselves.

I could talk about all the things that occupied me when I wasn’t working outside the home and the children were at school, but the truth is, I still do most of it  now in the bits of time that are available to me around an extended 9-5 and the best part of two hours’ commute. 

Maybe I’m doing something wrong, though, because I am not noticeably more tired. Maybe I wasn’t idle after all when I didn’t have a job. Maybe, just maybe, being a parent is hard work full stop. And doing that parenting, however long or short you spend doing it, is not an absence of occupation.
I worked a compressed day from home today to accommodate my youngest’s first day of school, and althoughI was really lucky to be able to do it, it’s reminded me of the wearying aspects of my old life that from the outside apparently seemed like such a doddle.

Now that they are back at school, the children are in wraparound care for four hours each day before and after classes. That’s four hours when I miss their company, but it’s also four hours when I don’t have to be available to play with them, feed them, or listen to them; four hours when I  don’t need to nag them to pick up their toys and step in to break up their fights. It’s four hours that don’t require my involvement in the ludicrously ill-named “school-run” (“life sapping school-drag in the invariably pouring rain” not quite having the same ring to it).

It’s four hours when I don’t have to tacitly accept in social situations that I am less entitled to be tired, less entitled to be stressed, less entitled to be too busy to take things on than the person I’m talking to who happens to be paid a salary in exchange for a portion of their time and effort.

And the holidays? Being able to have spent so many long weeks with my children and few other demands on my time has been a total privilege, but it also, at times, brought me to my knees. Admitting that, though, never felt like it was an option: after all, I was lucky enough to be doing what I chose, and whingeing about it was the utmost bad faith when others had to use precious annual leave. 

It’s time for my closing arguments, but I don’t really have any. I don’t have a neat conclusion that ties up all my thoughts on this into a simple, snappy summary; don’t have the will to win a jury to one particular way of thinking. I don’t even have a Dancing Baby to entertain you.

Instead, I have a pile of ironing, three children to put to bed and some stuff to get ready for tomorrow. That will do for now.

Let it go

One of the things about being a stay at home mother that has annoyed me the most has been the insinuations (from others) and the nigglings of guilt (from myself) that I was setting a poor example to my children, and my daughter in particular.

The insinuations weren’t just over-sensitivity on my part, either. When research about the apparent benefits to children of working mothers was rehashed in the press a couple of weeks ago, one commentator stated:

“In some ways [the study’s findings are]  a signal to women who don’t [work] that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother,”

I did think hard about it, before I even made the choice to leave work. How could I claim to be a feminist, how could I teach my daughter that her destiny was in her own hands, while the model I presented was one of absolute domesticity? She knew I worked from home, but that was an abstract, unseen concept. What she saw was someone who cooked and cleaned and fetched and carried: always at the school gate, when I wasn’t at the hob or forlornly harvesting socks out of the airing cupboard.

There’s no way of knowing how badly I have harmed her life chances (or otherwise). What could possibly be the control anyway? I would argue pretty strongly, though, that having always explained to her and her brothers that I chose to be at home with them while they were very little because the nursery they were at was going down the pan and because we had no-one on hand to help out with the inevitable, incessant lurgies of small childhood, that I was giving them a fairly good idea of what it means to be a woman and a mother. It wasn’t ideal – or certainly not idyllic – but it was a choice, a means to an end. It was being a grown-up (albeit one lucky enough to be able to make a choice).

It’s now that I am on the brink of going back to full time work, however, that I am really having to think about what my actions say and do. Not the working itself, but all the other stuff around the edges. The plan is that I will drop the children off at wraparound for breakfast, and that their dad will collect them and bring them home for an evening meal at about 6. And despite the fact that he is a fantastic father, a perfectly competent cook, and a thoroughly functional adult, he is having to chip my fingers off the meal planning to get me to relinquish control. My instincts are to write out what we are going to eat each night, to shop for it all and to plan the preparation necessary in order to ensure we eat a decent meal every (or almost every) night. But I won’t be here. This isn’t my role any more.

The same thing goes for laundry, for shopping for presents, for planning parties and filling in school slips and all the time-consuming minutiae of family life. While we divided our labour so that he earned the money and I ran the home, it made perfect sense for me to do all that stuff. I could explain to my children that I wasn’t doing it because I was a woman or a mother, I was doing it because that was how we had agreed to function as a family for a while. Children are very practical. That made absolute sense to them.

When I am working as many hours as their father, though, what kind of message will I be sending then about what it means to be a mother and a woman if I insist on hanging on to all the domestic stuff? If I cling to “wife-work” as somehow my domain, despite the fact that I also work outside the home? Surely they would, unavoidably, absorb the message that women are just inherently more capable of running round with a hoover or writing an RSVP and that men shouldn’t be troubled even to try.

I hate saying that my husband is brilliant around the house, though he is, because it makes him sound like a well-trained puppy.  He has always been hands-on with the children, right from the nights when he would carry a screaming colicky No1 to the back of the house to try and let me get some sleep. Now is the time that I have to let him step in to do what he is more than willing to do to keep our little crew of five afloat and show our children, not that women can have it all, but that there is absolutely no reason why they should have to do it all. That’s definitely a perception worth impacting.

The (Other) Mothers

Until very recently, if you’d asked me to tell you three facts about myself, I might have answered the following: I have bright red hair. I am incurably clumsy. I used to have a career.

To my immense surprise, if you asked me the same question today, the answers would be different. I still have hair next to which carrots look insipid. I still trip over invisible obstacles. But, somehow, the career has moved from being a thing very firmly in my past to being, quite possibly, a thing in my future too.

Being at home with my children for the past few years has been my choice, albeit one forced slightly by circumstances. It has been that most grown-up of things; a compromise, neither principled nor perfect, but good enough. Now that there is a chance of going back into work that I loved, though, I’ve been slightly taken aback by the sense of freedom I feel at the prospect of being something other than a mother and housewife again.

My feelings about returning to work are one thing. The varying reactions of other mothers in my circle, both online and in real life, however, have really struck me as worthy of writing about.

This is a post which has lurked behind everything I’ve ever written on working and childcare. The fact that I am now on the brink of working five days a week again, instead of being the loathed figure of the smug middle class stay at home mum, means that I feel free to write what I have always thought about the debates we have about working motherhood without being considered to have an agenda of defending or justifying my own situation.

Voices like mine, stories like mine, families like mine, with education and privilege and some degree of autonomy over our choices; voices that dominate the whole public topic of combining employment and parenthood, are precisely the voices that we don’t need to be hearing. With the best motivations in the world, with all our legitimate angst over the effects of our life decisions on our children, we skew the issues and contribute to narrowing the options for others who don’t have our advantages. It isn’t that our voices aren’t invalid or don’t matter; more that they set a narrative which just doesn’t match the reality which many women live.

I mentioned above the reactions of others to my proposed change of direction. Lots of people have been supportive, lots have said how much I will enjoy work again, notwithstanding the logistical challenges and the tug of changing my children’s lives so dramatically. But lots, too, have told me quite plainly that they think I am mad; those, by and large, who work because they have no choice but to do so, in jobs and at hours that they wouldn’t choose, with no discernible reward in achievement or pay, and with a complicated and costly structure of childcare keeping the whole thing together. These are women who feel like they are letting their children down by working too, just as I think most of us do (logically or otherwise) at some point, but who will never have the chance to opt-out or downshift or start their own business to work flexibly around the school day.

I chose to leave work, because I felt pulled in two and because our only viable option for childcare was naff at best. But I was able to make that choice because I had a husband with a decent income, and an education behind me which I knew would allow me to re-enter the world of work when I wanted to, even if in a different sphere to that I left. I choose, now, to return, with the benefits of being able to negotiate a degree of flexibility, with a salary which will smooth the way and with access to decent wraparound childcare which might not be exactly where my children would choose to be day in, day out, but which is more than fine. It’s not representative of most people’s circumstances, and it shouldn’t be used was a means to illustrate that working motherhood is attainable for all on the same terms.

Every time a politician or a journalist (or, let’s be honest, a blogger like me) writes about the importance and benefits of working to them personally and to their family, it reinforces the presumption that working per se is always without negative effects in all circumstances, and I just don’t believe that to be the case. Women across society may well have legitimate reason or need to prioritise being available to their children over paid work from time to time without it being deemed an excuse to skive.

I don’t believe that a its parents working harms a child, nor that a mother’s place is at home. I do, however, believe that very many women quite reasonably want to be able to be at home, particularly when their children are very small. I do believe that forcing women to take up low-paid work supported by poor-quality childcare is not in their best interests, or, more importantly, those of their children, and I believe also that there we don’t hear enough in support of these women or enough recognition that this is not what they would choose.

In an era of low wages and job insecurity, it is simply not fair to insist that parenting is an indulgence only available to those who have saved up enough beforehand. Many, many people will never be in a position to do that. Do we really want babies to be an luxury for the rich alone?

I’m not proposing a solution here, Nor am I criticising women who take any of the routes outlined above – increasing flexibility in the workplace can only ever be a good thing – or write about their own experiences. It is disingenuous, however, to translate this into meaning that all mothers can and should work in all circumstances without reference to the fact that they are mothers. I wish, without it being in my power to make it so, that we could hear from and accept the words of mothers from all parts of society, not just a small, comparatively fortunate one.

An overhaul of the social security system to allow ALL women to decide how to spend their children’s early years is never going to happen. We’re going in the opposite direction. Some honesty, though, that many, many mothers have no choice at all would, at least, acknowledge their situation rather than sugar coat it with the language of us who do – limited as it may be.

Child Benefit

For the purposes of my own amusement, I’m imagining that I have the chance actually to pose these questions to anyone who could or would answer them. I wrote extensively about the changes to Child Benefit which were introduced in 2013, unashamedly from a personal perspective.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep away from it, not least for fear of being accused of a narrow-minded jealousy rather than a genuine desire to understand what was happening to a fundamental part of our welfare system which has been central to the notion of social security from its inception. Increasingly, I no longer care how my motives are construed.

Today, No10 has confirmed that there will be no cut to Child Benefit, although there is still talk of restricting it to the first two children in each family. I welcome announcements that it is to be protected, but I would also like to ask: what is it paid for? I can’t find up-to-date figures for the overall cost of Child Benefit, but it appears to be around £12 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. Surely we deserve answers as to the grounds on which it is spent now that it is no longer universal?

It is impossible to argue that it is paid on the grounds of need. Presently, a family with an annual income of up to £120,000 could claim some amount of Child Benefit, provided that their earnings were split between them. A family with a single earner who made half that loses it all. Neither family could be claimed to be in any way to require financial support, given the extent to which both figures outstrip average incomes, but it seems peculiar that money is freely given out to groups who are by any measure considerably better off than those who don’t qualify. When it was a universal benefit, there was a principle behind paying Child Benefit with which many could disagree, but at least it was a use of public funds which could be justified by pointing to the reasons behind that principle. Now, it is little more than an expensive, arbitrary sop.

Is it, no matter how clumsily, a means of encouraging all parents into employment? Contrary to many reports, the changed regime doesn’t just penalise single income families (whether they have one or two parents). It also hits hard at those where one earner is above the threshold and the other earns a much smaller amount. A woman working at or near minimum wage level is considerably worse off in terms of childcare costs and take home wages than a colleague earning the same amount whose partner earned just enough to still entitle the family to retain Child Benefit. If anything, cutting Child Benefit from higher-earning employees makes it more difficult and less attractive for their partners to work in part-time, low-wage roles which are those which may be most family-friendly – particularly if the high earning partner has work commitments which make them less able to help out. Again, not the most pressing of social problems, but one which deserves an answer alongside the other, more serious, systematic injustices which squeeze parents between sanctions, benefits and work.

The cuts in 2013 were reported to have saved over £1 billion. Good, if that money is going to support children and families in need. It is hard to justify any money going “for nothing” to the well-off (see also childcare support for families earning up to £300,000) when people are reliant on food banks – although I don’t accept that one causes the other. But why are no journalists challenging politicians on the hard questions behind the current status quo?

It is hard to understand why hard-working taxpayers (to use the loathed and much misused phrase) are subsiding a system of benefits paid apparently on little more than a whim; more, are seeing benefits for which they are ineligible paid to those who are better off. It is hard to understand why, in this climate of “difficult decisions” and “hard choices” cuts are made to the incomes of those demonstrably in need while payments to those who are anything but are maintained.

Are journalists and media commentators afraid of being accused of sour grapes over their own lost Child Benefit, a cut which so many were so keen to welcome loudly in print presumably for fear of the same pointed fingers? They should find their courage. I understand the scant tears at the original cuts, but this isn’t about whining to get something back, it is about holding a government to account for awarding public money in a manner which, if applied to almost any other circumstances, would sound laughably absurd. Silence in the face of an ongoing random payment of benefits is dangerously close to complicity in its eventual dismantling.

On wife-bonuses, Lucy Jordan and being trusted to read the map.

By some cruel quirk of fate, I was a lanky redhead teenage girl in the early Nineties, when every other film seemed to feature a lanky, redhead leading lady. There is nothing quite like ticking off the constituent parts of beauty on your fingers to make you realise, sadly, that it’s a sum that will never come right without the addition or subtraction of something far harder to quantity than leg length or hair shade. On paper, there was nothing to stop me being Julia Roberts…but, try as I might to live in books, the world isn’t made of paper.

It wasn’t just Julia Roberts, of course (and oh, though I now see so many things in it to make me cringe, what sixteen year old girl didn’t dream of being her in Pretty Woman?) There was Nicole Kidman too, though she betrayed me twice over by going blonde and by marrying Tom Cruise. And there was Geena Davis, most especially in Thelma and Louise, which I watched over and over again, wallowing in not even trying to check my sobs at the end. I only watched it again recently, more genuinely upset at the tales of the two women’s lives than I understood enough to have been back then.

I’m still no Geena Davis, and I am quietly, bustlingly happy in a way that precludes a one-way road trip of any kind. I still find myself preoccupied, though, with that sense of the small incremental choices and curtailments, conscious or otherwise, that drive a life along a particular route; prey to the dawning realisation that some destinations are closed to me now as the likelihood of driving through Paris in a sports-car with the wind in my hair (although, provided someone else was at the wheel, I’d still welcome the chance).

This summer sees a milestone birthday (to hell with the coyness, I turn forty). I love the gifts that the years have brought me: an awareness of self, a valuing of others, a peaceful resignation to the state of not being Julia Roberts. It’s not the birthday itself that I mind, so much as the timid sort of existential crisis that comes with hitting forty as a housewife and a mother and little else. Demonstrable achievements feel as distant as dreams, now;  being Someone outside of the house an alien, exotic concept.

I need to plot my course for the next phase of my life, and I’m struggling to find my starting position, let alone identify a destination. Of course, there have been many forks in the road before now. Every choice closed off other options (and oh, how lucky I have been to have the choices that I have had). Maybe it is just the fortyness of forty, but the decisions ahead of me now feel definitive in a way that others haven’t. I’m entering the next decade of my life just as my youngest starts the adventure of school, and I’m needed, as much as ever, but in a distorted kind of way that squeezes me around the shapes of my children’s lives and leaves me unsure where they end and I start. Questions about work and career, about what I want and what they need, leave me wondering how to draw the boundaries without handing over too much of my own territory or encroaching too much upon theirs. There’s no sat-nav for this journey; no right or wrong turns, just a weighing up of what matters most, now and in the future, and accepting that something has to give.

There was much coverage earlier in the week of a strange phenomenon among uber-wealthy wives on Wall Street. Trading in their educations and careers for a gilded kept existence of social climbing and gym fanaticism, some have turned to negotiating with their breadwinning husbands (though “bread” seems an inadequate word for the dizzying sums we’re talking about here) to set measurable targets which bring the promise of a bonus payment beyond that of mere lifestyle accoutrements. I bang on often enough about women’s work – wife work – being undervalued, but even I don’t think that this is the right way to redress the balance (although nor do I think that navigating the social x-ray infested waters of Manhattan society sounds like a picnic).

What I disliked most, however, was the tone of the coverage. According to one headline, these women “think they deserve” the bonuses; others quickly spun a quirk among a freakishly wealthy microcosm of an alien society into a more general attack on what one called the “defensive manoeuvre” of the argument that being a stay-at-home-parent is a real job. Here’s the thing. I worked after I had babies. I am trying, actively, to get back into work, after a few years of half chosen/half imposed career break. I haven’t spent my time at home in a ceaseless loop of nurturing, I haven’t spun and spoon fed my way through a form of motherhood superior to that practised by my working sisters. But I refuse to accept that my time at home has been neutral at best. I agree that by contributing to the family income I will be helping my husband and setting my children a good example; that by using my skills and education I will be more fulfilled as an individual and quite possibly happier and less frustrated. At the same time, however, I can see that my presence here has allowed my children the advantages of activities they love, and lazy imagination-filled holiday mornings in pyjamas. It’s given them ambling walks to and from school, a swift collection when they are poorly, the security of a certain routine every day at 3.20pm. These things aren’t everything, I agree. But hopefully the fact that I am preparing to give them all up means that I am allowed to say that nor are they nothing. Why do we fall so easily into this trope that women who stay at home make their choice out of laziness, fecklessness or cupidity?

Gone, in the main, are the suggestions and downright insistence that a child being cared for by someone other than its mother is detrimental; gone too, thankfully, are mainstream pieces arguing that a woman’s place is at home. In their place, however, is a new accepted reality: that a mother who isn’t in employment is in some kind of vacuum, neither contributing nor occupying anything of value.

Fashions come, and fashions go. There are lanky redhead leading ladies still, but (I am reliably informed) the look to aim for now, equally unrealistic for most, is that of the opulent lips and derrieres of a new generation. It’s the same with motherhood, isn’t it? We start with where we are and what we have, and we rock it the best we can.

Sum totals

I blame the heroines of my childhood reading for my woeful lack of a scientific education. I passed GCSE Biology and Physics respectably (if, quirkily, without the binding element of Chemistry that might have allowed me to take either further), but it was at arms’-length, my nose metaphorically turned up at something I had no desire to find relevant to me. If Jo March, Darrell Rivers, Anne Shirley and Jo Bettany struggled with all things technical and flourished instead in the world of words, then who was I to try anything different?

So it is that at almost forty, I hide my discomfort around making an evidence-based decision. I seize upon the key figures in a report or piece of research, and try, in vain, to focus my attention on the footnotes sufficiently to draw my own conclusions. I am not in my natural element around statistics, much to my shame and regret.

It’s led me, in general, to avoid reading media stories which are based on studies whose worth I feel incapable of estimating. It’s a difficult manoeuvre when I consume newspapers and online articles with my compass finely tuned for stories on parenting and motherhood in particular. It’s hard not to see the plethora of headlines which allege harm to children or promise benefits proven from some act or omission of their mothers. From the time we conceive, through our behaviour in pregnancy, straight into the mined waters we navigate once our children are born, our every available “choice” is subject to scrutiny and academic study.

It isn’t that I think that dissecting the effects of various influences on a child’s progress is not a matter worthy of balanced consideration or the weighing of available evidence. Of course it is useful to know which chemicals are carcinogenic; that communication with babies and small toddlers is vital for their cognitive and emotional development; that certain amounts of sleep or particular foods in given quantities are indispensable. It is just that it seems sometimes that the whole process tends towards (and please forgive the probably incorrect use of a mathematically-flavoured term) a zero sum game.

I read a piece earlier called “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers“. It was interesting, reporting on a finding that of 50,000 adults across 25 countries, daughters of “working mothers” were likely to go on to to earn more, and sons of the same contribute to a greater degree to household chores than the children of women who worked exclusively within the home. It was interesting, but to a large degree, it was useless. The article itself admitted that “working mothers” is a meaningless term. If a woman reading the piece was to be, as it suggested, reassured that pursuing her career would not harm her children, she would in no way be able to take from the study whether there was any sliding scale of risk or benefit depending on the hours, environment or context of her working life.

The same criticism applies, very often, to studies which talk about the effects of breast or bottle feeding a baby, the impact on a child of being raised in any family setting other than that of two heterosexual parents, or… (and the list is extensive). From a scientific standpoint, doubtless it’s fascinating to tweak out the variables in the infinitely messy world of human life. From any other standpoint, however, particularly that of someone anxiously trying to ascertain if the decisions which she often feels she had no alternative but to make are causing damage to the children she loves, it is neutral at best.

I can’t really comment on or criticise the motivation to study parental impact. I can, however, rage against the way in which the results of such studies are reported. I didn’t (and don’t) parent on the basis that each choice I make needs to have demonstrable, material advantages for my children. When a study shows that breastfeeding may not offer any substantive protection against ear or chest ailments, I don’t start hunting for the receipt so that I can claim a refund for my breastfed children with, respectively, three sets of grommets and incipient asthma. If by staying at home with them while they were small I fail to see them pull ahead in terms of well-paid jobs and snug careers, I have no intention of claiming that I was defrauded into sacrificing years of my own life. My motivations, along with those of everyone else, are complex, contradictory and, quite possibly, indecipherable. I may indulge in some (scientifically illiterate) research, but I don’t approach the raising of my children in the same way that I approach the purchase of a car. I don’t think many of us do.

Media coverage suggests that mothers quite consciously plot their courses in order to secure some kind of cosmic leg-up for their children. The problem for us as individuals though is that the best researched study can’t advise us on our own circumstances. We don’t care if doing “x” causes “y”, we just want to do best by our own children in the situations in which we and they live. Moreover, we don’t need someone commenting on our choices on the basis of some loosely-reported study, or worse, constricting the ways in which we parent by citing – explicitly or otherwise – the reasons why we are unjustified in feeling or acting as we do.

Children aren’t raised in a vacuum; parents don’t start their task from an entirely blank slate. Little wonder that we all feel prey to such guilt when we are bombarded by mutually irreconcilable recommendations about the “best” way to go about it. Who benefits from such relentless reporting? I don’t think that mothers do, and I’m fairly sure their children don’t either.

Jigsaws

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.

Making families work

We will help families by expanding free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will also introduce a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm…underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.

This is a slightly awkward post to write. It probably comes as little surprise that my political leanings are left-ish, and although I am not so blinkered as to think that a Labour victory in next month’s General Election would mean a bright new (red) dawn for us all, it would be, in my eyes, distinctly better than any other likely outcome. I welcome most of the contents of today’s Labour manifesto as moves in the right direction, and I hope they get the chance to implement them. But one small section, playing straight to the gallery and cutting right to my own, admittedly subjective, preoccupations, made my heart sink.

I have written several times about how the “hard-working family” rhetoric grates. I have worked since having children, but I currently don’t do any paid work, since returning to my profession would, in our family’s opinion,exact too high a price of our children, and doing other work (even if I could get it) simply would not pay financially. It works, for us, as a family, for one parent to plough his energies into a career, while the other facilitates that by means of being at home. It isn’t perfect. I miss work, more money would definitely help, my future – financial and otherwise – preoccupies me. Yet this is the best compromise for now.

So, at present, I don’t earn. Do I work? Beyond the obligations of children and home common to all parents, in employment or otherwise, I would argue (and often do, in my head) that yes, I work. I do several hours of voluntary work each week, in the mornings when my youngest is at preschool; in the evenings when they are all in bed. I do it to support causes which matter to me, to keep my skills current, to give – as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds –  something back in recognition of my own good fortune in life. For the purposes of identity, though; for deciding whether we qualify as a hard-working family in the particular sense it now  has, I know that I don’t.

It perplexes me, often, to wonder how we value work and contribution. Is it required of us to earn to our fullest capacity in order to pay maximum contributions through income tax and National Insurance? Surely not, or we would laud those with the highest numbers on their PAYE slips and denigrate down shifters, or those taking early retirement. Those struggling to survive on incomes stitched together from long and insecure days working jobs at minimum wage and on zero hours would be hailed as paragons of virtue compared to those shirkers who pick up a few grand for a day or two’s non-executive graft. And this is just “work” in its recognised sense of paid employment, leaving aside the immeasurable effort expended, for little public recognition or thanks, in terms of caring responsibilities for dependent relatives or friends.

None of this is Labour’s fault, of course, nor even that of any one particular political party. Our changing concept of “work” has been shaped by shifts in our economy and society which go beyond the reach of any government. It still begs the question, though, of what this means for the very specific needs of the “hard-working family” with whom current candidates for No10 are desperately trying to connect.

So what has this pontificating on the meaning of the word “work” to do with the quote above, taken from today’s manifesto? On its face, it sounds like an eminently sensible proposal, and one of sufficient clout to have seen itself included in summaries of Labour’s key promises. Going back to the above, though, I would ask two questions.

Firstly: how is a “working family” to be defined in order to access the enhanced provision? Will it be required to demonstrate parental employment for the full 25 hours of entitlement, or would a parent who worked fewer hours still be eligible? Will self-employment count? How will those with insecure or fluctuating work patterns fare? Will childcare settings have to juggle two intakes, one, due to family situations which could include disability, caring responsibilities or other issues, who don’t meet the necessary criteria, the other who does? Is this increase, in short, a reward for working or a purely practical way of facilitating it?

Secondly: (and leaving aside the question of qualifications, aptitude and ability) who, precisely, will deliver these “voluntary and charitable” extracurricular activities? Parents are expected to be working, after all, not least since we are talking week days here. Grandparents are increasingly tied up with providing childcare within their own families, or supporting their own parents, let alone continuing to work past the age when a pipe and the sofa would once have been the norm. Is it envisaged that locals will pop down to the school between 3.30 and 7 a few times a week to play Snap? Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get people to come to a short meeting once a term since work – even if it doesn’t coincide with the meeting time – already trumps all. This proposal boils down to a systematic subsidy of paid work, universally accepted to be of value, by its unpaid counterpart, which we are generally told doesn’t count. Do voluntary workers become hard-working if their work allows other workers to work hard?

It’s an interesting and, I think, well-meaning proposal; one which recognises the challenges of combining a job with school-age children and aimed at helping families who are under enormous pressure, but some of the assumptions need examination. More, they need challenge. The irony is that although so many working parents cite childcare as a huge priority, what they often mean is that they wish they weren’t forced into a situation where it becomes so. Really addressing this will take more than finding a way to remove children from the equation. It requires a proper consideration of how and why families work – in all senses of the word.