The price of mother-work

As well as being a writer who cares passionately about writing, I am a mother who cares passionately about my kids. I see it as my full-time, round the clock job to care for them and be there for them. I don’t know if you remember but children don’t get worried, confused, scared, funny, excited or in need of a heart to heart only after office hours.

As the childcare debate goes on, and the government seems to be seriously suggesting schools stay open till 8pm to accommodate working parents, I have become borderline obsessed with the way we position the work of childcare as a necessary evil to be escaped by intelligent people at all costs. (And recruiting nursery staff with A levels is not the answer…)

I have been a higher education junkie in my time and love sharing my accumulated knowledge both with my children and my creative writing students. But whatever the IQ, mothers who stay at home through choice pay a status price. And that price is often extracted by other women who elect to or have to work in different ways.

Issues of class and gender abound, and taboos around payment for the work of bringing up the next generation of workers to feed the system (how hard it is to escape!) are entrenched. Much to write and think about. In the meantime here’s an article I wrote for the excellent TPPSG (Tufnell Park Parents Support Group) magazine last year. More to come.

Childcare. What’s the real cost to women?

Being at home and working freelance around two young boys constantly teaches me new skills and daily increases my job satisfaction (though of course some days it is a complete and utter nightmare and I want to write mindless blurbs in a funky office from dawn till dusk instead….)

One of things my experience has given me is MASSIVE respect for childcare and child-carers. Whether that’s the girl next door conscientiously babysitting so I can have the odd night out, or those who run fabulously stimulating nurseries. Plus every fun au pair and reassuring nanny in between.

However, there is currently a hum of disquiet around childcare. The cost, so the papers tell us, is keeping people (almost invariably women) from going back to work.

What seems to be overlooked is that it is working women who provide the childcare. They are doing a job. And they are usually dedicated to it, qualified to do it, and good at doing it. Just like the women who go back to banking, or marketing, or teaching.

 How to ‘win’ at childcare

Yet somehow childcare is presented as a difficult and devious contest that women who work in professions other than childcare have to ‘win’ at. Take this, from The Telegraph’s Family section, 8th July 2010, where Sally Richards*, who is a teacher, finds a solution to the rising cost of nursery care:

On a friend’s recommendation, Sally made enquiries with < a nanny agency > and was put in touch with Martha*, a professional nanny who charges a flat rate of £8 an hour who was happy to fit in with Sally’s part-time hours. The Richards now spend £450 a month on childcare, roughly the same amount as they paid when Henry* was in nursery. “We get the flexibility, since Martha is happy to come to our home and fit in around my work, and Henry gets the one-to-one care – it’s fantastic. And now I’m pregnant with our second child we’re even more pleased we made the swap. We could never have afforded nursery fees for two, while the price for Martha remains the same.”

So Martha is expected (perhaps she herself expects) to look after two children for the price of one.

In what other working environment would an employee be expected to double their workload for the same money? Here’s hoping their union would immediately gallop to the rescue. And yet a woman has been encouraged to believe that it’s ok to do this to another woman.

What I fear is that the concern over the cost of child-care is a red herring which is doing a very effective job of pitting women against women.

The most important job in the world?

And perhaps we go along with this because of the way society encourages us to think about the work of childcare – as a necessary evil to relieve us of the drudgery of parenthood and allow us to work in a more fulfilling way for ourselves; something to be resented because it is too expensive to allow us to do the above; something that should be extendable at whim depending on whether one of our own clients or bosses fancies having us work outside our contracted hours at no notice….

Child carers feed our children, wash our children, amuse our children, work with our children, manage their moods, their sadnesses and happinesses; make them feel secure and keep them safe. In a thousand tiny ways each week, they keep them alive for us – they help them cross roads, patch their skinned knees, steer them around a hundred invisible hazards, make sure they don’t choke. There aren’t many jobs that carry such real responsibility.

So why don’t we respect the work we do?

If we don’t enjoy – or even respect – the work that is required to take care of children, we will resent paying for others to do so when we return to work.

If we had more respect for ourselves, and the extraordinarily versatile job we do as mothers, at-home carers and custodians of the next generation – with all its practical qualifications based on experience – we would have more respect for the other women we pay to help us with this job.

Is it perhaps because we do the work for free that we expect others to do it for as little as possible?

Pay at-home parents? Why not!

Perhaps we should seriously consider paying at-home parents. Not as a bribe to persuade them to stay at home – that has been a hard-won choice for women and must remain a choice – but to acknowledge the work that is done in the interest of society as a whole.

In a society where absolutely everything else has a price, this shouldn’t be too much of a shock. The only logical argument against is that there is no short-term economic return…

The real meaning of investment

…but that didn’t stop banks asking us for our money to ‘invest wisely for the long-term’. And I suggest that the likelihood of parental investment (time not money) in a child for 18 years – given a following wind – has more chance of a flourishing return than an 18 year financial investment is showing up just now.

It’s a taboo. Even the most politically-interested women I know are horrified at the idea that they wouldn’t do the work of a mother for free. ‘For love.’ But where did this social narrative come from? And in whose interests is it, really?

When it means that we devalue the work of women whose profession is child-care; when it means that we don’t value our own daily triumphs and the massive life skills being a decent parent delivers; when it means employers don’t have to adapt their working hours to recognize the value of parenting…

I think we just need to think about it.

What do we believe is really worth paying for?

And perhaps the current economic turmoil is the perfect time to decide what is of value to us. What we really want to pay for. What will really give us a return on investment.

Whatever we do, let’s not be tricked into a situation where women blame women – or take advantage of women – for a story whose script is so seldom written by women and just about never by mothers.

We can do better.

* I have changed the names. Full article can be found at

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/7879932/Childcare-Living-in-a-nanny-state.html

Painting words

I had almost forgotten about this – a friend stumbled across it on the National Gallery’s website today. It was published under a previous name.

A lovely project – the Gallery invited writers to respond to a work they found themselves particularly drawn to. I’ve always found this painting mesmerising.

On Zubaran’s St Francis in Meditation