Crib Sheet: The motherhood-as-misery exposé

In the first of a new regular series looking at parenting books, Glosswitch takes on Jessica Valenti's "Why have kids?" and other miserable-mummy manuals.

Expecting your first baby? Then allow me to patronize the living daylights out of you! I already have kids, you see, which makes me wise and all-knowing, whereas you don’t have a single clue about what awaits you. You might think you do, but you don’t. It’s not all gurgles, cuddles and fluffy bootees. Here, for instance, are some of the cold, hard facts about kids:

  • Newborns are, basically, rubbish at everything
  • Toddlers are marginally more interesting than newborns, but make crap conversationalists
  • As soon as your children can communicate fluently, you will embark on a lifetime of exchanging knowing glances with other parents before noting sagely that it was so much better “before they could answer back”

It’s not that I don’t love my children; they just don’t fulfill and complete me as a person. However, admitting to this involves breaking a massive taboo. So look at me, everyone! I’ve just gone and said the unsayable! What’s that you say? Betty Friedan and Marilyn French got there first, followed up in more recent times by Rachel Cusk? Gah! Is there nothing sacred for the likes of me to piss all over?

The motherhood-as-misery exposé should, of course, be essential reading for any woman planning to reproduce. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find the motivation to read such a book unless you’re already pregnant, at which point you find yourself in some terrible no man’s land, having already taken the plunge but unable, as yet, to confirm whether or not motherhood is as bad as they say. You half suspect that it can’t be all that terrible, otherwise no one would ever have more than one child. But then again, perhaps by the time you’ve had one you’ve ruined your life to such a degree that there’s nothing left to do but plunge headlong into further misery. Who knows? I do, obviously, for I have bred. But so too has Jessica Valenti.

In the somewhat plaintively titled Why have kids? Valenti seeks to explore, yet again, “the truth about parenting and happiness”. Unfortunately this truth is based on the assumption that before she actually experiences motherhood, every single broody woman is a complete idiot:

Women expect to get pregnant relatively easily […]; they expect to have a healthy baby, to breastfeed without complications, that their significant others will pick up half the slack, and that their children will fill them with happiness so pure that they’ll be content staring at their wee faces for hours without regard for life, limb or bathroom breaks.

I read this and can’t help feeling grateful – albeit briefly – that I’m one of life’s pessimists. I sure as hell didn’t think that. My feelings were more “well, I really, really want a baby, but I don’t know why, since they’re dead tiring and expensive. Oh well. Probably hormones or something”. Then I spent most of my first pregnancy panicking that I’d made a terrible mistake, usually because colleagues who were parents already seemed to take a huge amount of pleasure in sauntering up to my desk just to let me know how terrible their lives were and how I’d got “all this to come”. And it’s true, many things about the day-to-day practicalities of parenting are rather rubbish. Valenti writes of “the ennui, the feeling that this could not possibly be it, all that parenthood is cracked up to be”, and while it’s a step up from the “shit and string beans” depicted by French in The Women’s Room, life as a parent is far from perfect. It’s nothing like in the adverts, but then nothing ever is.

Valenti traces her own dissatisfaction as a parent to the traumatic premature birth of her daughter and her early fears that her daughter would die. I can identify with this; one of my children was very ill in the first few weeks of his life, and it did make the initial bonding far more tentative and fearful. All the same, the most miserable parenting memory I have is far more mundane than that. It involves sitting in a room with two children, one two, one seven months old. The two-year-old is obsessed with playing with wooden trains but continually tearful and frustrated at not being able to make incredibly long trains turn corners without coming off the tracks. The seven-month-old wants to stand up, all the time, but obviously he is unable to do so, so he insists that Mummy holds him up with both hands. He screams whenever she puts him down to do something else (such as put some wooden trains back on the track). Mummy is sleep-deprived, bored out of her mind and spends hours, days in fact, in the two-year-old’s bedroom with the wooden trains and the screaming baby. It is Hell, and it’s not even exciting Hell. It’s other people, sure, but Sartre never mentioned that said others would be your own kids.

And yet, it’s not all that bad, really. I’ve done equally boring things at other times, in other places. I used to do voluntary work for Oxfam, standing behind a till listening to the muzak equivalent of African tribal drums played on a loop for hours on end. Like looking after children, it was worthy and unpaid, but I hated it. That, surely, is more of a taboo than saying that childcare is boring. Working in Oxfam is boring (but worth doing, too, obviously. Not least because you get first dibs on all the second-hand clothes). I suppose none of this matters as long as you don’t feel the pressure to be “fulfilled”. Perhaps that’s the real difference between Valenti and me.

Valenti wants to change perceptions of motherhood (and on that I’m with her 100 per cent)  but she also wants us to be HAPPY, dammit, in a way I find quite terrifying:

But just because parental joy isn’t necessarily a given – or because it can be a dangerous expectation – doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Or that we can’t put an end to all of the things that are making us miserable. The truth is, we should try to get happy for our sake and for the sake of our children’s sake. Kids who have depressed parents are interacted with less than their counterparts with happy, non-depressed parents; kids of dads with depression have smaller vocabularies at two years old than kids of non-depressed dads. We owe it to our kids – and to the kids who aren’t ours – to ask questions about why parenthood is so hard, what we can do to make it an easier, happier endeavour, and what we’re lacking to ensure that happiness.

Bloody hell. I now feel horrendously guilty and unhappy about having been slightly guilty and unhappy to begin with. Can’t we just focus on valuing parents and children and understanding their needs, without this desperation to banish common-or-garden Weltschmerz? I might be a mummy, but I’m still not ready to throw out my Joy Division cassettes (moreover, I’m not all that keen on suggesting to parents with clinical depression that they’re harming their children simply by being sad).  

The truth is, I have more empathy with Rachel Cusk. When A Life’s Work was published in 2001, I didn’t have children, but the extreme reactions it provoked suggested to me that Cusk might have a point. Having re-read it since becoming a mother myself, I have a lot of time for the view that motherhood is devalued precisely because it is so laborious, so repetitive, and yet so central to our very existence. All the same, there is a part of me who looks at Cusk’s prose and thinks “crikey, aren’t you over-thinking things a bit, love?” Then I feel that I am too stupid, or at least not quite thoughtful enough, to grasp the magnitude of what I am doing, and that I am too selfish to have allowed motherhood to change me in more fundamental ways. For instance, here’s Cusk describing shopping for clothes in Oxford Street without her daughter:

I want to buy clothes, to make up for two years in which I have been as far from fashion as an anthropologist on a long field trip; but the rack of things looks incomprehensible and unrelated to me, like costumes for a drama in which I no longer have a part. I lack the desire for myself that would teach me what to choose; I lack the sense of stardom in my own life that would urge me to adorn myself. I am backstage, attendant. I have the curious feeling that I no longer exist in synchronicity with time, but at a certain delay, like someone on the end of a transatlantic phone call. This, I think, is what it is to be a mother.

Cripes! Looking at my bank account, I really wish I had that problem. Since having children, I have had no problem at all in wandering off on my own to over-spend on garments just for me. In fact, since breastfeeding has left me a bit smaller “on top” and thus a more average size than I used to be, a whole new world of clothing over-spend has opened up to me (wish I’d had that in the Oxfam days). That’s something they never mention in the books.

Don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s important to view parenthood in an honest light, and it frustrates me when mothers in particular are merely patted on the head and told that they’re doing “the most important job in the world”, as though such praise compensates for no one listening to their concerns. Even so, it worries me that parenthood is taken quite so seriously by some. Yes, it’s a huge undertaking, but providing you don’t get too wrapped up in metaphors of transience and loss, it doesn’t have to destroy you. Sure, there will be times when you regret having kids, but you know that if you hadn’t, there’d have been times when you regretted not having kids. It’s just one of many lives that got away.

And anyhow, once they’re there, they’re there. Certainly, I have moments of feeling overwhelmed by it all. My children will be tearing each other apart and I’ll say to myself “okay, it’ll all get easier when - *runs through childhood, fraught teenage years, exams, relationships, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, expensive higher ed and/or unemployment* - oh, actually, I forgot, it never gets easier”. But with moments like that, you just have to push it all to the back of your mind.

It’s rather like being vaguely aware of your own mortality, coping with the knowledge of what having kids really entails. You don’t need a book to help you through it, just as long as you don’t think too far ahead and don’t ever ask yourself what it’s all for.

Shopping, mummy-style. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.