It's easier to work than to mother

The government, it seems, will help you out with childcare, but isn't that keen on your doing any pa

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It is Monday morning on the eighth-floor labour ward at King's College Hospital, London, and Lynne Pacanowski, a senior midwife, is taking a call from Claire, another midwife. Claire, who has recently returned to work after having her fourth child, needs to juggle a shift. Her husband is a policeman. When she works, he cares for the children, and vice versa.

Pacanowski picks up a piece of paper on which she has mapped out the duty rota for the staff, taking into account the likely demands from expectant mothers, as well as the wish of every mother who works here to manage work and home. "I do it on paper. A computer wouldn't be able handle it," she laughs.

Outside, midwives congregate in green overalls, while relatives come and go visiting the newborn, which are produced here at the rate of 11 every 24 hours. A leaflet at reception advises parents of Southwark's new "wrap-around" childcare services, and a poster shows a beaming woman wrapping her arms around a baby: it tells new mothers that breastfeeding is crucial to bonding and good parenting. On duty today is Jenny, who is doing two shifts in one day so that she can be at home as much as possible with her two- year-old. A colleague, Sue, works nights so that she can be with her daughter during the day.

Maggie Blott, a consultant, works full-time and has a nanny for her three children. "You cannot be a high-risk obstetrician part-time," she says. "But I always have breakfast with the children and I try to go home to put them to bed, then often return to the hospital afterwards."

"They all want a balance," explains Pacanowski.

Juggling childcare needs is nothing new, as Margaret Hodge, the minister for employment and equal opportunities - and a mother of four and grandmother of one - will tell you. "I have done my fair share of juggling," says the former Islington council leader, after rushing late into her office - a vision in pink - fresh from announcing new curriculum guidance for teachers of small children. She now tries to juggle giving an interview with chomping through a snack lunch of cold cauliflower salad. "Get me a knife. I need a knife," she yells through to her private office.

"I have had to make difficult choices, believe me. I was once sacked by the council two months after I returned from maternity leave. The bastards."

This is national childcare week - neatly timed to coincide with the imminent birth of the new baby Blair - so new Labour's childcare strategy is on full public view.

In 1973, 27 per cent of women of working age with children under five were in jobs; by 1997, when Labour came to power, this had increased to 53 per cent. Two out of three women now return to work within 11 months of the birth of a child, and 73 per cent of mothers with school-age children have jobs.

In the past three years, the government has created more than three times the number of childcare places that were created throughout the previous 18 years. With a budget of £300m, it has met targets for providing nursery places for all four-year- olds and is on track to double the number of places for three-year-olds by 2002.

But just as provision of childcare has become a target for public policy for the first time, the goalposts have moved. As the voices from the labour ward suggest, the need for formal childcare is no longer the most urgent cry: what mothers want today is to choose to do some of the caring themselves.

As women move in unprecedented numbers into full-time work, the importance of parental involvement in a child's early years is being emphasised as never before. "'Criminals created at eight months,' says expert", "Working mother warning" are just two headlines that emerged from a parent-child conference in London last month. The headlines are not alone in stirring parental anxiety in the workplace; an extensive US survey of more than 4,000 children has found that three- and four-year-olds have lower verbal ability if their mothers work during their first year. The study, carried out by the University of North Carolina, also found that five- to six-year-olds have worse numeracy and verbal skills if their mother worked during any of the child's first three years.

Yet the debate that most working mothers want is not about whether women should work. They do work. It is about whether government and employers will help them find a balance between work and life.

Does Labour's strategy take into account this new mood?

Scrambled across at least five departments, the strategy is in urgent need of some joining up. The Department of Trade and Industry runs parental leave, the Treasury runs tax credits, the Department of Health shares Sure Start with the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), which runs most of the rest. Meanwhile, the Home Office runs family policy as a whole, and thus takes the lead. Or does it?

"We take the lead in co-ordinating everything," said a press spokeswoman. "Pulling it all together. But we don't take the actual childcare lead. That's the DfEE . . . I think. Let me just check."

To find where the government places its priorities, we need to look at tax and benefits. The most radical initiative has been the introduction of a childcare tax credit for lower-income families, allowing parents with one child to claim back up to £70 a week of the cost of childcare. But to qualify, both parents have to be working more than 16 hours a week, and their joint income should not exceed £29,000.

This has led to a much scoffed-at anomaly: a parent can pay government money to someone else to look after their child, but can't get money to do it themselves. Not only that, parents can't even get the money to pay a trusted family member, or friend, unless he or she is a registered childminder. The system is a clear incentive for both parents to work.The childcare tax relief rules are also heavily stacked against any parent who wants to stay at home or, even more unfair, work at home. A self-employed person can claim tax relief for an office assistant, or a secretary, but not for a childminder - even though he or she can't work without one.

Employers can claim tax relief on childcare facilities offered to their staff. So, absurdly, a home-working mother who hires a nanny or other in-house childcarer can claim tax relief only if that same carer needs childcare in the same house for her own child. In other words, the employer-mother can claim tax relief on the cost of her carer's baby's playpen, but not for her own baby's playpen.

It is, however, the rules governing benefits for lone parents that send the clearest message to mothers to get out to work. The rules mean that lone parents are automatically invited for job interviews when their child is five. From the end of this month, the interview will be triggered when the child is three; next year, those interviews are to be made compulsory.

"The intention is not to force these mothers away from their children, but to ensure their family income is raised to help the children," says Margaret Hodge, but she doesn't seem convinced.

Parents have made significant gains since 1997: new rights for part-time workers are being introduced, and the UK has adopted the EU directive giving parents the right to three months of leave after a baby. Nevertheless, parental involvement in childcare is not a central plank in the government's scheme of things.

Indeed, the entire discourse of the published strategy is couched in the language of the workplace. Glossy documents pour off Whitehall presses announcing that "playworkers" in childcare "settings" must be given "goals" and "targets". The Cheeky Monkeys playgroup, the Little Fishes nursery, provide "services", and those who run them are "service providers". Parents are "users" who play the childcare market.

So what does new Labour think of motherhood as a service provider? Could it make a comeback?

It is an awkward question for a party whose ranks are dotted with veteran Seventies feminists who valiantly championed the right to work - and who never thought that women would one day want the right to mother.

Tracy Wells, a 32-year-old mother living in a council flat in central Leeds, tried to pin down Gordon Brown and Tony Blair on the issue during a recent phone call into Radio Five Live. She described to me what happened. "I just wanted to ask them one question: 'Do you believe motherhood is a profession?'

"Gordon Brown at first rambled on about opportunities and all that. So I asked him again and he refused to answer. Then Tony came in more softly, but it was a real lawyer's answer. He said: 'Listen, Tracy. Nobody has ever said it isn't.'"

Wells has her own agenda. A full-time mother by choice with a partner on jobseeker's allowance, she believes people like her should be able to get the childcare tax credit and choose how to spend it, arguing that she is discriminated against by the government tax and benefit rules. And she is probably right. According to the Family Policy Studies Centre, incentives for low-paid mothers to work may distort the labour market and "disadvantage parents who wish to care for their young children at home".

The idea that mothers should receive government money for the periods of time they care for their own children - that, in effect, they should be paid for being mothers - has always been something of a joke.

"It's just not on," says Hodge. "Motherhood is a choice a woman makes. A private choice. It is not for the state to intervene."

Might such voices of conservatism soon have to give way? After all, the government does not mind stepping into the privacy of the home when it comes to teaching parenting skills to curb delinquency. And stamping right over the private domain is OK when it means ordering lone parents out of the house for job interviews.

Direct payments to mothers for the periods when they are doing the caring are, in truth, already on the agenda. Harriet Harman, an architect of the childcare strategy when she was the minister for women, and now the chair of the Childcare Commission which reports in January, has published proposals which will move in that direction. Her ideas spring directly from yet more research suggesting that mothers should be at home for at least the first year of a child's life.

Harman is proposing a "baby tax credit" which could be paid direct to the mother, replacing the present childcare tax credit in the first year after birth. And she wants to see an extension of maternity leave from six to 12 months, as well as a right to return to work part-time.

"We do need a fuller debate on the balance. But raising the subject is enormously complicated. We have to be wary of playing into the hands of Daily Telegraph editors who will just use the chance to argue that women should not be at work at all."

A growing body of academic opinion is calling for a far more radical reappraisal. Peter Moss, a professor at London's Institute of Education, believes that the government has failed to look at childcare in terms of what is best for the child. "Young children are understood primarily as dependants of their parents, in need of 'childcare' to enable their parents' employment, and as 'becoming' schoolchildren and economically active adults."

There ought to be a rethink, because some government childcare initiatives have simply gone wrong. Under the law of unintended consequences, the creation of new formalised childcare places has, in some areas, displaced existing informal places, thereby creating ever new demand and undermining community links. Old-fashioned playgroups, for example, have been unable to compete with their more target-orientated competitors; 2,000 have been forced to close. The number of registered childminders has also fallen since the new childcare tax credit system came in - showing that some attempts to regularise the market are backfiring badly.

It goes without saying that, before women have a real choice about how to balance work and mothering, there will have to be more fathers at home doing the hard work, too. And, arguably, nothing can be really balanced until employers find a will to end the long-hours culture and try flexibility. If one of the busiest high-risk labour wards in the country can do it, so can they.

In the meantime, we should watch the birth rates. More and more women are choosing not to have children because they can't see how to manage mothering and work. Birth rates in the UK are already well below what is needed for long-term replacement of the population; and it is forecast that nearly a quarter of women born in 1973 will be childless when they reach 45. Perhaps when the labour wards fall silent, mothers will finally get paid for their work.

The writer is a former Independent foreign correspondent

This article appears in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune