Why a second child spells ruin

There's a mother gap as well as a gender gap at work. One child is bad enough; another could rob you

Just what is it with this country and children? How do we manage to combine an attitude of saccharine sentimentality about the sanctity of the home with the most punitive employment practices for anyone who dares to let home interfere with work? Look at all the fuss about David Beckham missing a training session to be with his ill baby. If you are reading this, David, you might like to know that my husband was also at home on Monday afternoon looking after a sick child. Of course, no one cared much in our case, which may be something to do with the pay differentials between soccer stars and academics. But the important point is this: Beckham got a bollocking by the boss and a dressing-down by the British press, when what he deserved was a round of applause for putting his family first.

Despite 25 years of so-called equal opportunities, raising families is still widely regarded as women's work, and still comes with huge costs attached. A report from the Women's Unit published on 21 February showed that women not only lose out financially for being women, but are additionally penalised for being mothers. There is both a gender gap and a mother gap.

Modelling women's incomes over a lifetime, the report calculated that a mid-skill woman (with qualifications at GCSE level) earns £241,000 less over her lifetime than her male counterpart. She earns £36,000 more than a woman of exactly the same skill-level, but with a child.

The long-term financial costs of having a second child are even greater. The Women's Unit calculates that a high-skill woman loses £19,000 by having a second child, a mid-skill woman, £140,000, and a low-skill woman £269,000, or a staggering 58 per cent of her lifetime earnings. And that's without accounting for expenditure on clothing, toys, food and childcare.

Over the course of her lifetime, a low-skill woman with two children will earn around £500,000 less than her low-skill husband. To put it another way, his lifetime earnings will be nearly double hers. At the other end of the scale, a high-skill mother of two earns £160,000 (or 14 per cent) less than her husband.

Poor, uneducated women are hit hardest by motherhood, because they are the ones least likely to remain in any kind of paid work, and to have the lowest rates of pay when they are earning. But for mid-skill women who return to part-time work after just two years, the penalties of mothering are also very high. As Katherine Rake, lecturer in social policy at the LSE and editor of this report, points out: "Going part-time involves downshifting in the pay-scale. Part-time workers are being paid less now than in the 1980s. It's not just a case of mothers working fewer hours; they're also being paid less than other part-time workers for the hours they do work."

Is it pure coincidence that as part-time work has become increasingly attractive to women seeking to combine unpaid mothering and paid work, it should have become increasingly poorly paid? Is it not strangely reminiscent of what happened with rates of pay in social work and teaching as they became feminised occupations?

The big success story of late-20th century feminism was that increasing numbers of women were returning to work after becoming mothers; by the end of the century, motherhood for most women had stopped looking like a career choice, and had become one of several things that a woman might do with her time and energy. Eighty per cent of women now carry on working in some form or other after the birth of their first child, and yet this figure is not sustained for very long after the birth of their second. With two children, traditional patterns quickly reassert themselves for all but the most highly skilled women, and the majority of mothers drop down to part-time work after having their second child, or stop work altogether. Which begins to look less like progress and more like the usual roadworks.

This "second-child effect" has received relatively little attention from social scientists until very recently, but it is fast emerging as an important new trend in women's employment patterns.

An on-going study by psychologists at the University of Kent, looking at how women's attitudes to work change after they become mothers, found a marked shift between the first and second child. "The majority of women intend to go back to work after their first child is born," explains Diane Houston, "and they are carrying out that intention, even if their views and feelings about work change once the baby actually arrives. But the second child seems to precipitate a big change in a woman's attitude to work, and crucially in her intentions. In terms of the choices women make about working outside the home, the second child is making a real difference even before it's born."

Childcare costs are obviously a major factor in many women's decision-making. Often, paying someone else to look after your children while you work stops making financial sense with two.

Twenty years ago, women looked pretty much like each other in terms of employment patterns and mothering; today, they are becoming increasingly polarised along class and education lines into work-rich/child-poor on the one hand, and child-rich/work-poor on the other. This is not a sign of healthy diversification, but rather an indication of how limited the options are to individual women wherever they fall on the employment spectrum.

Despite enormous changes in the past two decades in the patterns of women's working lives, the workplace revolution still shimmers on the horizon, as infuriatingly distant as ever. Eighty per cent of mothers may be in paid employment, but bearing children actually has a worse effect on women's earnings now than 15 years ago.

The "choices" a woman makes about whether and how much to work after having children are informed by a complex web of factors, including her financial situation, her marital status, her age, class, education, and her partner's occupation (and by less obvious factors too, such as how well the children sleep at night). Inflexible, long hours and low pay still stand between women with small children and paid work.

Women alone cannot make the workplace into a fairer place. What most women want is more flexibility in the workplace, and more commitment from government to encourage and enforce this. What would help women and men, (not to mention children and families) is a concerted challenge to the long-hours culture; a more positive attitude from employers towards flexible and part-time working; more recognition of a father's needs; more support for parenting as a responsibility shared equally by fathers and mothers; and the recognition of children as a collective responsibility, rather than a private obligation.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of "Mother of Two: how your second child changes your life all over again", to be published next year

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain