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11 June 2022

Women aren’t choosing to be stay-at-home mothers – they’re forced

Huge childcare costs mean that however many years of graft you’ve put into your work you must pick: your career or your children.

By Terri White

This week, for the first time in years, I thought about Nicola Horlick. The “City superwoman” was plastered across newspaper spreads in the 1990s for juggling her six children and a high-flying career. The message in those days to young women was clear: not only could we have it all, but we must.

That may have turned out to be problematic in its own special way, but those now look like halcyon days compared with where we find ourselves in 2022. This week, the Times reported that the number of young women not working so they can look after their family has risen 5 per cent in the last year, the first sustained increase in decades. For women aged 25 to 34, it’s increased by a whopping 13 per cent. Among the “economically inactive” (those neither in employment nor looking for it), 28.5 per cent of women are not working because they are looking after family; among economically inactive men, it is 6.9 per cent.

All cool, right? A woman’s right to choose and all that. Except it’s predominantly not a choice they’re making freely but one they’re being backed into by the crippling costs of childcare, which leave millions of women (a third of those who return to work, according to figures from the charity Pregnant Then Screwed) only just breaking even or making a loss.

I know that pain. And to understand what’s going on in those figures, I offer up my own experience.

For the first six months of my son’s life I stayed at home. For the next year I went back to work as the editor-in-chief of a magazine. It was a job I loved; it coloured in the bits of me that my son couldn’t, nor should have to. But the inflexibility and unsustainable hours proved impossible. And when I eventually chose to leave, it wasn’t the rent I worried about finding, it was the childcare fees.

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He’s been in nursery since he was 15 months old. It was a decision we took for two reasons. My partner was keen to get back to work, to work he too loved. And our son was a Covid baby, born three and a half weeks before the first lockdown. We wanted him to socialise, to learn, to begin to form his own identity outside of our bubble. It’s the best – and most expensive – decision we ever made.

We pay almost £1,400 a month for four days (I take care of him on the fifth) in our local nursery in south Manchester. Between that and our rent and rising bills we have almost £4,000 committed before our wages even land.

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It simply doesn’t occur to me not to work, to give up doing something I enjoy and am good at because it’s so hard to make the numbers stack up. Still, I can only work four (not really full) days and need to structure my work – as a freelance journalist and screenwriter – around nursery drop-off and pick-up (my boyfriend works away). If my son is ill I have to cancel interviews and events with no notice and miss deadlines. I have to turn down anything early in the morning or after 4:30pm.

Mention this struggle, however, and the condemnation is swift. “Why do you even have kids if you don’t want to take care of them,” say the men who were raised by women who gave up everything for them, who are married to women who did the same for their children. It doesn’t matter: her dreams, her desires, if she might find satisfaction and success somewhere other than under their roof. After having a baby she has one identity – “mother” (two if you count “wife”) – and should be expected to give up everything else.

I am in no way denigrating the important work that many women do choose to do at home. But we have to recognise that it should be exactly that: a choice. It is OK for women to want something else.

But it has never been harder for us to make that a reality. Britain is one of the most expensive countries in the world to raise children, with childcare costs equalling almost 30 per cent of our income. A patchwork of government help is available to certain parents, depending on their income, but most families have to wait until the term after a child’s third birthday for the 30 hours of “free childcare” a week the government proudly purports to offer, as though children don’t need caring for before that age.

That policy choice comes with a huge presumption, one that echoes the cries of the men telling me to care for my own child. That it’s us – usually women – who should stay at home until a child is old enough. That wanting a career and a child is impossible. That it should be impossible.

Is this progress? Now, our message to women is that it doesn’t matter how many years of graft you’ve put into your work, how good you are at it, how much you love it. You have to choose. If you have a child, it’s your job to stay home and raise them – you can go back to work when they turn three, except actually that still leaves a financial shortfall that you must meet, so best leave it until they’re about to turn five and go to school, when you can work to your heart’s content (between the hours of 9am and 3pm).

The answer? It’s simple, actually. If we want people to keep having children (and with all the panic about the falling birth rate, that’s a serious concern) we need childcare reform, so that parents who want to work can. We need direct funding by the government to make childcare affordable. This isn’t radical; most of Europe employs this model (with some part-subsidised by parents). And if you’re not convinced by, you know, wanting to do the right thing by women, then how about the fact that investing in childcare benefits the economy? Studies in Canada – where the government is working to get childcare costs down to £6.33 a day – have shown that every dollar invested in childcare returns between C$1.50 and C$2.80 to the economy.

Happy bankers and happy mothers? Even Nicola Horlick would approve.

[See also: The UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world]

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