"Working motherhood" is political and divisive in a way that "working fatherhood" is not. Why?

When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular.

200,000 mothers forced into jobs, screams the front page of yesterday’s Telegraph. It’s enough to send shivers down the spine. Imagine being a mother and going to work! It’s as though life really isn’t a 1950s sitcom after all!

The Telegraph is responding to this week’s ONS report into women in the labour market, which the newspaper claims shows that “almost 200,000 women in two-parent families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011”. It’s a sharp increase but not exactly evidence of coercion, unless one counts needing money as “being forced” (in which case, aren’t we all?).

I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m a mother in full-time paid employment. I know that there are particular reasons why I don’t want to be in the office day in, day out. I want to spend more time with my children. I worry about all the hours they spend in wraparound care. I panic about how quickly they’re growing and how much I’ll regret not having been at the school gates at 3:15 every afternoon. Sometimes I feel a failure. Are you happy now, right-wing press? I wish things were different but there we are .It’s all a bit of a fudge. Only a person who’s been raised with an absurd sense of entitlement could believe his or her family is owed the perfect work-life balance.

And yet the sheer breadth of media responses to the ONS report suggests that saying “it’s a bit of a fudge” isn’t enough. “Working motherhood” remains deeply political and divisive in a way that “working fatherhood” is not. When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular. Pressure groups such as Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM) still push the idea that you’re either with stay-at-home mums or against them, yet for many of us, the decisions we make regarding our working lives are simply more pragmatic and personal than that.

I know, deep down, that things aren’t as they should be. We’re dealing with an economic system that no interest in recognising the value of unpaid domestic labour. The balance of power between employers and employees is appallingly skewed, making it harder and harder to ask for change. Low pay and high childcare costs exclude some potential employees from the workforce altogether. For these reasons working motherhood needs to remain a political issue, not least as part of a broader discussion on how we improve the social and economic position of all carers.

Right now, though, we don’t really talk about this. The needs of the many have become subordinate to the self-serving debates of the few. Working motherhood becomes all about Sheryl Sandberg-esque self-realisation or “I don’t know how she does it” comedy self-hatred. Meanwhile, stay-at-home motherhood becomes an exclusive club for the “right” kind of family (MAHM is very clear on standing up for the rights of “single-wage families” who “manage on one income”. Families who manage on one parent -- those who, if ever they earned enough to begin with, will be hardest hit by the child benefit cuts MAHM criticises so much -- don’t seem to get a look in). Social stereotypes that don’t reflect the experience of most families dominate political debate and media analysis.

It’s all very well to claim life should be fairer. Of course it should. Even so, I don’t think we should assume that “fairness” is synonymous with middle-class women being at liberty to depend on the incomes of their middle-class partners in order to care for their children. That’s just confusing fairness with something that, personally, we might like for ourselves and our children. It’s a shame that we can’t have it but there it is. It’s all a bit of a fudge but if we want things to be better, let’s at least be honest about who it is we’re asking for.

We need to be fairer on working mothers. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.