"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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue