Mums and work: tell Rebecca it gets easier but only a bit

Rebecca Asher is – depending on your point of view – either a whinger who doesn’t understand how life works, or a modern woman who has discovered she’s been sold a pup.
As a journalist, she seems to have got published a feminist book that many of us have effectively written in blogs, talked about in playgroups or NCT get togethers but have not got the time or energy to write down on paper.  She’s called it “Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality“.
Very clever.  I’d say shattered is just how most new mums feel.
The essential question is:
I’ve been educated as well as any man, secured a high flying job as well as any man, earned my own money, built a social life, but – now I’ve married a man and had a baby and my life revolves around their needs- was this all a lie?  Are we really any further on than the 1950s?

And the honest answer is: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I know exactly where she’s coming from.  There’s no easy answer.  Misogynists on the comments forums at the Guardian say that “you want to have your cake and eat it“, or “you should’ve thought of that before having a baby”.
Comments also call her spoiled, that it’s all a sense of entitlement that’s been frustrated and not a legitimate complaint.  Often there’s a comment from someone saying something like I hold down two jobs, I’ve got four children and you don’t catch me being all self-pitying.
Or, I did all this twenty years ago and it’s tough but you do it…  To be honest, I dislike those replies more than the misogynistic ones.  After all, they seem stuck in the view that things have to be the way they are, defeatist rather than simply offensive…

There is no real feminist answer to this problem.
Feminism focuses on work, treatment of women and sexual politics (including the avoidance of children) but this element of the majority of women’s lives is controversial for feminists.
Instead we have conflicting values at play here.  Let me show you why.

I want to work.
Work helps me feel a sense of self-worth, justifies the education that previous generations of female campaigners fought for me to be able to have, enables me to use my mind and skills putting something useful into the world, and have income to spend to make the money go around.

I want to raise my son.
I went through a lot to have him here safely, he is the most precious thing in our lives, I don’t think anyone else can raise him as well as his father and I can, he’s lovely, funny, interesting, cuddly, and I want to be with him.  I enjoy the camaraderie of early years motherhood (both online and in person) and, unlike Rebecca, I positively like the singing at toddler group (I’d better as I lead it!)

We have allowed the debate to become polarised, to become a choice.
Are we “real mums” who stay at home?  The household lives off their partner’s single income while they raise the children, balance the budget, avoid disposable nappies, chocolate and sweets, do baby signing, eat organic vegetables from their own plot, make the easter bonnets for the school competition and act as taxi service, PA, life coach, chef etc. etc.?
Or are we “real women” who go out to work?  We juggle career with home life responsibilities, earn our own money, build our careers and become the women we hope we can be, living as full, active members of the workforce.  And so our children go to daycare, and other people help with collecting them when the work deadlines have to take precedence, and we come home to collect overtired children that have been learning bad behaviour from the others they’ve been left there with…
Neither satisfies.

Society constantly undervalues the roles involved in childrearing.  Intelligent conversation, answering questions through exploration, reading together, learning tool use and acceptable behaviours… we have treated these as menial labour, partly because of an erroneous assumption that childcare involves a lot of gloriously free time (I learned otherwise – not all babies sleep in the day time), partly because looking after children ends up resulting in lots of genuinely menial work (more washing than you could ever imagine, feeding, napisaning the “real” nappies and tidying after toddlers).

In business, we are always told that the most important and valuable asset that a company has is its people.  Then look at the pay of childcare professionals, up to and including qualified teachers, and tell me that the pay really matches the long term investment that we as a society are making in the next generation of workers…

Then look at attitudes towards mothers in the workplace.
Leave aside the idea that it is middle class women that have benefited from feminism at the expense of working class men.
Despite the skills learned through parenting: multi-tasking, time management, compassionate communication (as one Guardian commenter described it), persuasion (getting my son dressed and out the house is sometimes the most difficult negotiation I have in a day)… none of these things matter one jot because they were away from the office and were not meetings-based skills (if you chair the PTA, that counts).

We are not the society we were in the time of the baby boomers.  Unlike our parents who are retired (and therefore able to help with the childcare?  But having done it once, why would they want to again?) we expect to work into our late sixties, to have minimal pensions, live into our eighties.
But we know that the penalty of taking time out of our labour market for childrearing impacts for the long-term.  So why allow 50% of the population to have their careers permanently scarred because of their gender and not their talents?
And just as our careers have to last longer, the need to be carers for partners or parents kicks in too.  The vast majority doing this at present are women – but that is generational.  What are today’s mums of young children going to say if it is them that this burden falls to again – because they’ve already lost out on career development through childrearing?
One woman commenting in the Guardian comments said she resented mothers expecting to pick up their career where they left off because they should accept the penalty for having had a baby and “working at 75% for 10 years” but a father was better than a bachelor because he has to work to support the family.  I’m horrified that another woman would say that.
I’m all for a right to request flexible working for all, including part-time working, but this commenter’s attitude shows there needs to be social pressure not only on companies but also with co-workers to ensure that working parents are not being made to feel guilty that they need to use leave, and work their conditioned hours so that they can spend time with their children rather than always the pressure to stay longer, and quantity of work appearing to be valued over quality.

And don’t think this is just a middle class issue – how many mothers working per hour in jobs that just about fit in with available childcare or school hours can’t get promotion because of not being able to take on the more awkward hours?
And if you drop out of the labour market, how will you get back in?

We need proper, high quality childcare available term time and holiday, recognising both the needs of the child in terms of care and learning, and of the parent in terms of a happy place to let their children develop which also allows them to work.

In the workplace, the first issue is one of recognising employees as humans not just resources.  Everyone has a life outside work – it ought to be a prerequisite!  But while being a champion skydiver is something to be respected and time allowed, accept that parents ought to put children first, or carers their care-ee first. Be clear that this is understood and they’ll be grateful for the flexibility and more dedicated and loyal as a result. Normalising shared parenting  – say, meaning that each parent has four days in their office each rather than five and three, now that would really help.

Finally, no one tells prospective parents what hell awaits them: birth, post partem life, colic, sleep deprivation, sore nipples, breasts as public property, being constantly covered in someone else’s bodily fluids…
This new job, at least in the first few months, one that is not limited in terms of office hours. So the men complaining that they’ve gone to work all day and why should they be handed a screaming bundle on returning home miss the point – the parent out to work may have worked nine hours but so has the parent looking after the child, and that evening caring time should be shared.

But it gets easier.  And after a year or so, they’re a delight.  When they go to nursery, you realise you’re sharing your house not just with an extension of you but an individual with thoughts, feelings, options, preferences, ideas and a whole life ahead of them which is theirs, not yours.  And with wrap around childcare you can even work!  Now, what to do about school journeys and school holidays…

But let’s challenge the perception that life isn’t fair and women should just accept it.  We do the next generation a disservice if we can’t persuade fathers that their role is with their children in person, not just as the wallet in the workplace, and employers that letting employees be themselves will help their wellbeing and their productivity.

Is society structured against mothers?

(NB this lovely image is from which currently has an interesting article on the issue of being a working parent… more soon)

Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s “contraversial” question about motherhood is now on Comment is Free in the Guardian Online.  She commented in the Sunday Telegraph that:

“I was perfectly capable of setting up a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, ‘Now is the time to have a couple of children, and when I am 30 I will go back and I’ll get my PhD.'”

CiF asks for comments on whether she is right. 
Of course she is right. In part.

Not about setting up home at 14 – my idea of being grown up at 14 was so far from what I now know to be what being adult actually is actually about as to make my diaries from that time both embarrassing and naively charming.  
And it’s time spent “growing up” – either in the world of work or learning to live away from home at university that makes it possible to deal with the complex and multiple demands that you have to handle both in raising a child and running a household.

Commentators have tried to turn her words into a row about teenage sex.  Just to be clear, in my heart of hearts I don’t think that people should be having sex outside marriage (or civil partnership) and that a lot of heartache and pain could be avoided by people not doing so. But I also live in the real world and realise that they do, and will.  As a former student of history, I also know that 200 years ago people were betrothed and married in their early teens. What they were not doing was using sex as a form of social communication.  But I digress.

I think that Hilary Mantel’s point is not that people should be choosing to have babies on their own with no visible means of support aged 14, but that currently societal norms are structured against female biology. 
Women are most likely to have problem-free births and pregnancies in their 20s.  But if you have gone through school and university, in your early 20s you are only a couple of years into a career. 
There is in any case a gender pay gap that appears between male and female graduates within three years of graduation, but we also know that significant time out of the labour market early on in your career and the need to work part-time seriously affect your ability to “get on” in your career.

The jobs market is still broadly structured around the (convenient for men) idea that you get educated, take up a career (whether via an apprenticeship or not), work at it, taking on more and more responsibility until either the Peter Principle kicks in (or indeed the Dilbert Principle) or you become the boss.
Needing to take time out in the middle of that to ensure that there is a next generation that can pay for your pension when you are old doesn’t really fit and leave millions of women these days in a daft situation: have kids and accept that either you’ll take a lot of time out and perhaps never attain a position matching your ability level, try to work part-time in an environment of fine words but ultimately scepticism about whether your are truly “committed” to your career and straddle the two worlds uncomfortably, take the male executive route i.e. have kids but never see them, or don’t have kids.
This is such rubbish.

At the moment many women are putting off having kids until their late 30s, or later.  There are articles in the press about getting eggs frozen, about how it’s your “right” to have kids when you want, how many cycles of IVF you should be entitled to (or if you read the other sort of newspaper, how women should not be working but running the house and popping out babies and getting homecooked dinner on the table for their man). 
But the truth is that having a baby is more difficult as you get older, that it is harder and more risky for both mother and child, and the risk of Down’s Syndrome and similar increase exponentially. 
There was a story in the press a year or so ago about the rise in births of children with Down’s, saying that the “caring UK” was a more accepting place in which to raise disabled children than in the past.  But the rise of the older mother is also a factor, and while you love the child you have you do wonder if all of the people that put off having a child until so late in their reproductive lives fully realised the potential impact of that decision.

Besides, getting woken up at all hours of the night is hard at any age, but even harder as you get older. 
How much better to have your kids when you are physically at the optimal point to do so?  

Of course there are arguments too.  How would it be possible to afford to raise children without a decent salary behind you?  How will you ever get women at the top of businesses if they don’t even get going on their careers until their 30s?  What about more equal sharing of parenting responsibilities?

And doesn’t the structure of the modern relationship also argue against this alternative model? 
If I’d been having kids in my very early 20s, I’d have been having them with one of my university boyfriends and we’ll never know if that relationship would have endured with children involved (it didn’t with none, obviously, and that’s something of a relief for both of us). 
But while I’m a monogamist who believes in marriage for life, many people see it as until divorce does us part, a situation rendered even more painful and complex when children are involved. 
Would that, too, be changed by following a different life pattern?

The rush to condemn Hilary Mantel as condoning teenage pregnancy (a curious target which the government surely cannot really be held responsible for bringing down directly unless there are taskforces standing by to invade teenage bedrooms, bathrooms, parks and wherever else couples-of-however-transient-a-nature are trying to get it together…) risks overlooking her fundamental point that society still does not operate to the benefit of men and women equally.

For me, this is so obviously true, I can’t believe that anyone would even try to deny it or defend it as self-evidently the way things need to be. 
But it’s not just women alone that are being overlooked. 
Until we value motherhood (and fatherhood too) as necessary for the rearing of well-rounded children best able to achieve their potential rather than as an inconvenience that takes people out of wholehearted pursuit of money, and children are not treated as an irritation, a “choice that other people have made that I should not have to pay for” or worse, as a threat, then we will keep having this ongoing issue of arguing whether women should be in the workplace or the home, or whether there is a gender pay gap and if so why and can and should anything be done about it.  Can’t we just accept that raising the next generation is actually a very important job and value it as one?

Why Mumsnet politics matters

mum in boden
Oh dear – Janet Street Porter seems to be upset about having been invited to a party to celebrate Mumsnet’s anniversary.

I’m a member- but not a regular user- of Mumsnet. Also of Netmums, and a couple of other parenting websites.
It’s a legitimate forum for parents to come together and share common experiences.

I have a bit of Boden in my wardrobe (not too much – Johnny seems to imagine that yummy mummies have breastfed so long that they have lost any semblance of cleavage so I can’t buy the majority of the tops).  I thought the dresscode of “Boden” she mentioned was very funny, very knowing (as in that’s what they think of us shorthand irony).  Yep, I wear it both to work and socially, but never to “hubbie’s office dinner” because – do you know what?- in our working lives to date, it’s been my jobs that have generated all the out of hours socialising-as-business events.  And some of those have been black tie… ah, but those days are over now.
But then I’m problably the suburban middle class mother that JSP would despise. 

The Mumsnet discussion of all this shows the diversity of the women involved.  The common thread is motherhood but age, job other than parenting, marital status, location, interests, and frankly spelling ability and ability to articulate are hugely varied.
Yes, as with all online forums there’s an element of bullying.  But I don’t find that there’s a received way of thinking – far from it (a debate with a politician felt like it got hijacked by the home-schoolers recently and while no one says why on earth would you do that, it was hardly a mainstream concern shared by all – but the questioners were about to make the points they wanted to and get a response on an issue that they could have spent years writing to DCSF about and not had anything as clear or direct).  
And Mumsnet can’t be said to speak for all mums.  My favourite stat is the if you had all the members together physically in one place, say a football stadium, rather than online no one could say that they should be overlooked- but of course the point is that you never could do all that and no one would expect them all to be friends or have a common view or purpose other than the specific one that’s brought them together. A bit like football fans actually.

But JSP is wrong to suggest that it’s the kiddie sick element of parenting that would form the main part of conversation at a party like that – if Mumsnet were inviting the sort of people that post it’d be so much more interesting than that. JSP herself says that it is likely to be “packed with high achieving women”.

And that’s the point.  Mumsnet and other online forums can’t easily be dismissed as JSP points out because it is expected that women will be the swing voters in the coming election.
Talking about being parents is not enough though – if the high achieving women of Mumsnet are intelligent too, they are unlikely to be impressed simply with an “I’ve got a family too and I love them” approach by politicians (although I have to say that unless you’ve been a parent or raised a sibling etc. you really don’t know what it’s like to be one!) unless we’d got evidence that they too had had childcare logistical arrangement trauma, needed both parents to work to meet the bills, fought to get into the right schools and all the other little day to day dramas that parents deal with everyday but which I could not have possibly anticipated would be so complicated until actually faced with handling it.
(As an aside, I once asked a schoolfriend of mine who had three children and was pregnant with her fourth whether she’d gone back to work.  Bless her, she didn’t actually cut of contact or shout at me but with just one I can now see how naive a question that was!) 

I would have thought that – if women are to be the battleground – vocabulary like “swingeing” public sector cuts would be dropped given that that is more likely to affect women than men as they are more likely to be working in the public sector. 
And far from calling it “smug”, why don’t we just acknowledge that women, whether SAHM (stay at home mums) or working like me, using their own little vocabs on the web like DH for darling husband (no worse than football fans, or car owner forums etc.), are a legitimate voting demographic?  
Yes, so are the “women over 40, single and divorced” – interestingly JSP’s own demographic on and off- both are valid.
But that dones’t mean mums are irrelevant.  And politicians
have found a direct way to talk with some of them, which both parties like (many politicians like to extrapolate from the specific to the general – Alan Johnson said on BBC4’s “The Great Offices of State” this week that he liked to get out and talk to policemen on the frontline rather than just read briefs compiled by civil servants, as if the specific expereinces of a few could be presumed to be similar to those of the whole – which is of course the basis behind sampling too).

But please, JSP, can you help celebrate that some women, and not just those working like men, or with lots of money, or for whom children didn’t happen and could focus wholeheartedly on careerbuilding at the crucial 20s-40s period and who have climbed the greasy poles are getting their voices heard too?  It’s shouldn’t be either/or, it should be “yes! And now let’s make sure the next group can also be heard! ”

Mums, whether working or at home are voters too, and the politicians are recognising it.  So the willingness of senior politicians to be participating in Mumsnet debates matters.
If it could be done in a non-patronising way that’d be great.

A mother of a big issue…

MOTHER clipart

Interesting, thought provoking Comment is Free piece in the Guardian today, on early years parenting. 
Why is it increasingly contraversial to suggest that the best people to raise children, especially when they are very young, might actually be their parents?