Women & Children, Women & Work

Should women take a back seat in difficult economic times ?

mothers workLast Sunday (21 August), BBC1’s “Sunday Morning Live” asked the hackles-raising question: “Should women take a back seat in difficult economic times?”

The premise seemed to be that a job and an independent income is properly a man’s thing, and that we can indulge women with an imagined independence while the economy is buoyant, but when the going gets tough, we should keep jobs for the boys.

Women should stay home, rearing children into good little citizens who will know their place (and perhaps not riot).

Oh dear.

The quality of the argument wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those engaged in it.

 John Gaunt’s opening remarks were his belief that “we had a better society when women stayed at home and looked after the kids”.

 Women should stay home, he felt, because “the woman is the nurturer”. Let’s not list the notorious women throughout history that this sweeping statement overlooks.

Julie Bindel, while making good points about the inconsistency and hypocrisy of a government that insists single mothers should return to work earlier and earlier in their children’s lives, while at the same time making it harder for mothers to be part of the workforce, could not hide her contempt for women who do chose to stay at home, likening them to Doris Day figures baking cookies.

 At-home mothers don’t deserve to be caricatured this way. Andrew Stone, defending women in the workplace, perpetuated yet another stereotype by implying that women in the workplace “add a great emotional environment”.

 Thankfully he stopped short of ‘helping’ the feminist cause by saying that women make the place prettier too.

The argument was flawed partly because it automatically conflated womanhood with motherhood.

 Not all women are mothers. And women who are mothers are not ‘hands-on’ parents for ever. My traditionalist, ‘ah-home’ mother, for example, hasn’t had a dependent child at home for nearly 20 years.

 Defining women by something they may one day choose to do, or once used to do, makes no sense. Of course women can and should work. How else should we would we sustain ourselves? Must we depend on men to ‘look after’ us? Of course not.  

Narrowing the argument down a bit, what about mothers of dependent children?

Should they work?

I still can’t believe that we ask the question. Do we ask it about fathers? No we don’t. It is a sexist question. It assumes that parenting is about gender. Pregnancy is unavoidably about gender. Breastfeeding is about gender. But beyond those aspects, parenting is about love; love as a verb rather than an emotion. Unless we want to stereotype men as incapable of loving, parenting is not about whether you are a man or a woman, a dad or a mum, but about the practical ‘how’ of loving your children, day-to-day, week after week, year in and year out. Anyone – male or female – should be able to choose to parent their children and have a job outside the home at the same time.

This is why I loathe the phrase “full time mum” as applied to women who are at home with their children. It implies that women who work outside the home as well are only ‘part time’ mothers. This is not true, and the phrase would never be applied to fathers in the same way. We only imply men are ‘part time’ dads if they don’t actually live with their children. We fully accept that a man can be a good parent and also work outside the home. This is true of women too.

Does that mean that women who have paid work outside the home as well as unpaid work in the home are in some way ‘superior’ to women who don’t? Are they working harder?

I would say no. They aren’t superior, and they aren’t working harder. They are simply working differently. What studies do show is that they are generally working harder than men who are also parents.

Dads who work outside the home do less of the parenting and fewer household tasks than women do, even when women and men in a parenting relationship have equal responsibility for generating family income.

Women’s additional contribution in these circumstances is often undervalued, unrecorded or taken for granted. Sunday Morning Live asks whether women should step away from paid work; I notice no one considering what would happen if women stopped all the unpaid work they undertake. I see very few people urging men to take on more of it.

I have been an ‘at home’ mum and a ‘working outside the home’ mum, and I am clear that either choice should be respected and valued. My personal preference is to be at home when my children are still very young, but then to work outside the home as well, once I and they are ready for that separation. Not every woman has that choice. Some (particularly single mothers) are propelled out of the home sooner than they or their children are ready, by financial necessity or by government policy; others are forced to remain at home when they would be happier and more productive doing other things, because the labour market still discriminates against women and because childcare costs are so high.

 A genuinely equal society would make this decision cost-neutral for families (whether of the traditional ‘nuclear’ type, or any other combination of genders and single / partnered parents).

We say that we value good parenting, we claim that a child’s early years are vital, we bemoan the lack of good role models for our children, and we blame parents for wrongdoing that we ascribe to young people (often without a shred of evidence), but yet we are entirely unwilling as a society to support parents in making good choices for themselves and their children (and which would benefit the whole of society in the long-run.

Instead we seem to have a government made up of John Gaunt-alikes peering through rose-tinted spectacles at a 1950’s vision of a ‘better’ world, in which women and children are dependent on men.

David Willetts is explicit in his book “The Pinch”, that he doesn’t regard women as suitable for independent existence, writing of ” A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.”

Policy after policy from the current government undermines both women’s independence and support for good parenting, whether through charging for the use of the Child Support Agency or slashing the childcare element of tax credits; reducing housing benefit or reducing maternity entitlements.

 The government creates circumstances in which more women and children will have to stay in conditions of violence and abuse, fewer women will be able to work their way out of poverty, more women parenting alone will be forced to leave their children in the care of others sooner than they are ready to.

Mothers work. Inside the home and outside it. Parenting is paradoxically both the most rewarding and most thankless activity that most of us will ever engage in. We are raising the friends, lovers, carers, workers, taxpayers and parents of the future. We must do it wisely and well.

The whole of society benefits if we get it right, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ way of doing it. Government must at least enable women as well as men to make the decisions that best suit us and our families.

And the media should stop asking silly questions.

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