I’ve been worried lately by something a few of my friends have been saying.
“I’d probably never vote Tory… but” it starts.
Can you guess what it is they’re talking about?
If I tell you these friends of mine are parents that look after their children full time, that might give you a clue.
Yes, that’s right. The think tank that brought you the frighteningly anti-Muslim briefing, and the would-be-laughable-if-they-weren’t-serious anti-scouser briefing also brought us the radical suggestion that mothers should be paid for looking after their children.
And what I want to know is, why has this idea, which, if it wasn’t for the language of “mothers” rather than “parents” sounds incredibly feminist (“Equal Pay for Equal Work” – and we so often say “but stay at home parents are working!), been co-opted by scary neo-con right winged think tanks?
Of course, the right winged press seized upon the idea, as “paying women to stay at home”. Which sounds terrifying, admittedly. But if you actually dig down into the policy, it is about giving mothers (I do wonder where fathers would register in this, of course) control over how they source their childcare. So a mother would receive a grant towards childcare which she could use for daycare, or alternatively, give to a relative, say a grandparent, who looked after her child or children, or keep herself and take the option of avoiding work outside of the home.
And the thing is, it does sound like a good idea. An idea which could do wit some tweaking, of course, to make it more friendly towards stay at home fathers, but a good idea, and a feminist idea at that. So I can’t help thinking, why isn’t it coming out of feminist mouths?
A recent survey of 3,000 UK women (done by Babycentre) found that over half of working (paid work) Mums would prefer to stay at home. Now you can make the case that this is because they have been socially conditioned to be nurturing. You can say that stay-at-home-mothers are colluding with the patriarchy (yes, I have heard that one). That they should want to go out to paid work and isn’t it disappointing that they don’t?
But I personally believe that although every choice we make (or want to make) can never be completely viewed without the lens of feminism, women are not complete idiots. If so many mothers are saying, actually, we’d rather stay at home with our children, but we can’t, isn’t that a feminist issue?
Current policy in the UK is very much geared to getting mothers back into work as soon as possible after their maternity leave finishes. You only get jobseekers’ allowance if you’re actually actively seeking work. Adverts on the buses into my nearest city Liverpool tell me “you might find childcare is cheaper than you think!” and give me the telephone number of jobcentre plus so I can find out just how to get my hands on this cheaper childcare. It seems to me as though the government genuinely believes the only thing that is stopping mothers returning to paid work is lack of cheap childcare.
And I think that many of the second-wavers thought the same thing. One of the demands of the Women’s Liberation movement was for free 24 hour nurseries, under community control. And of course, we’ve never got anything even close to that. But what we do have is a system that will support us to some extent financially should we decide to put our children into official, state childcare (nurseries or OFSTED registered childminders).
But was the demand for free nurseries inspired more by Betty Friedan, or by Ruby Duncan (who tellingly doesn’t even have a Wiki entry)? Did poor women, who already combined work and childcare (often by taking children to work in dangerous conditions, or by leaving children with a relative until eventually the oldest child was able to look after the younger ones, or even leaving their children in ultra-cheap local nurseries with a whiff of laudanum about them) get asked if this was what they wanted? Sometimes I wonder. But current government policy seems to be based on the idea of “all women would do paid work if only childcare was free or very cheap”.
In fact, many women do get free or cheap childcare offered to them, usually in the form of relatives (often grandparents). And yet, I know of more than a few who have still refused this free childcare in favour of staying at home with their child or children full time.
The trouble is, as soon as we start talking about “incentives” for either not going to paid work, or going to paid work, we’re saying one is superior to the other. And at the moment, the government is saying that going out to paid work is the “right” choice. And no matter how much those parents – usually mothers – who stay at home rightly claim “but I am working!” – they will not be believed. The government doesn’t believe them; why would – for example – a husband believe “but I do work!” when his wife isn’t paid for the work she does.
But of course, as soon as we start talking about incentives for staying at home, we end up with the other problem. “Latch-key kids and their evil selfish mothers” and so on and so forth. Social problems are all the fault of mothers wanting to go out to paid work, of course. Women should be kept at home at all costs. And I think this is where policy exchange, sadly, are coming from.
And yet, the idea of a grant towards childcare – however that childcare is sourced – is in my opinion an excellent one! It tells us that those looking after children are indeed doing a job. But it also doesn’t favour SAHPs over WOHPs either. It may even encourage more men into SAH parenting.
And isn’t equal pay for equal work a feminist idea? I want to see this idea reclaimed by feminists and not shied away from out of fear of returning to some kind of middle-class 1950′s suburban nightmare. At least, until we have truly flexible working available to all, this idea of paying parents for their work, might just be a good one.