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"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.

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

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.