Having been raised in a working class, left-wing, trade unionist, family, I have been treated to practical and theoretical exposure to ‘radical’ politics. Not in a Ralph Miliband North London socialist academic kind-of-way. More in a baked beans again for dinner for Mum and Dad so the kids could eat properly; and Dad shovelling snow for a living after losing his job, while Mum worked full time. We yearned to spend more time together as a family. I was schooled in nationalisation vs privatisation, living wages and strike action from a young age.
Ours was a family where Mum was desperate to be at home with her children (and Dad would have loved to have been in a position to support her to do so) rather than working full time with a commute to break the best of them. She missed those early years where she had been able to knit and sew our clothes; spend time with us, reading and cuddling; cook thoughtful meals; look after the home; and keep on top of the laundry pile. You know, real every day concerns for those without cleaners, people who collect the ironing, or au pairs. And they still are every day concerns; and they’re still looked down on by the political elite, the professional classes and the academic heads-in-clouds who write a good walk. Such women, they’re not at all ‘aspirational’ or ‘hardworking’ (those new buzz words). They’re a bit too ‘housewife’ and unambitious. Petty, basic and far removed from the boardroom and the broadsheet, where the ‘real’ battle is taking place for women and equality.
A huge issue facing mothers is Snobbery – in both directions. The class system is alive and well, yet no one mentions it any more, do they? It’s the elephant in a banquet hall. Problem is, snobbery has a bedfellow of old: Sexism. Not just sexism against women (that’s getting plenty of press and plenty of champions, male and female) but sexism against mothers; not just in the workplace but in life, in practice, in reality. When you combine it with its current bed-buddy, snobbery, you have a pretty miserable combination for those mothers – and there are many – who either desperately wish to be raising their family at home, or struggle by to do so. Others work in evenings to enable them to be with their babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers instead of placing them with strangers – how is that equality? TWO JOBS, exhaustion and burnout. Great stuff, this equality by employment. Those who do manage to avoid the triple shift are labelled privileged or lazy. Shame-based politics at its best. When organisations such as Mothers as Home Matter raise the issue of greater financial support for parents at home they are challenged with ‘why should we should pay for someone else’s children’. The critics must have missed the memo: the State is chucking money at ‘hardworking families’ to subsidise childcare for couples earning up to £300,000. So, actually, they’re objecting to paying the mother; and that is fundamentally sexist.
If we fail to see the importance of the unpaid work a mother will do when raising her family, it demonstrates how snobbery and sexism has permeated the core of today’s political agendas and social climate. I have already discussed the absolutely retrograde, sexist betrayal of women in the destruction of universal child benefit – a feat accomplished by the exploitation of class and income tensions in this country.
Boring disclaimer, but one which works both ways: Not all women are the same. Not all are mothers. Of the huge percentage that are, some enjoy their paid jobs, others enjoy their career, some prefer part-time work, others prefer to care for their families. Equality must take notice of each choice, and give each equal respect. Anything less is not justice, is not fairness and is not equity. Men may also want to do the home care. And good on them. No better than that done by women throughout time.
The Mother Problem
Mothers are seen as a problem to be solved. Mothers are a class to be crushed. Mothers have a status to be removed and disappeared, photo-shopped from existence, transplanted into jobs where they can do ‘real work’ and receive ‘respect’, and their activities otherwise dissolved into ‘parenting’. Child rearing is still seen as a burden to be lifted from women – despite a third of employed women wishing they could be doing it, and many many more wishing they could reduce their hours to be in with a chance of enjoying more family time and caring for their families themselves. Are we reaching the point (as the Government Family Test showcased in 2014) that the word ‘Mother’ is erased, the new untouchable, the unmentionable? Are we experiencing a prevailing public discourse which undermines, at every turn, the opportunity for a mother to remain at home with her family, and slanders her competence in doing the actual job – for which the growing childcare industry is gladly seeking to pick up the imaginary slack?
We are facing a situation where lies, damn lies, and statistics are being used to skew the debate away from family-based care and children’s wellbeing. For example, studies (which set at is parameter education attainment rather than more global wellbeing, emotional security and happiness generally) show a short-lived slight educational advantage in the first two years of school) from a limited number of hours of pre-school education, not daycare for long hours from a young age. Other studies showing a benefit to seriously disadvantaged children of early years schemes, where they effectively receive respite from, say, alcoholic parents or other objectively problematic behaviour, are extrapolated to the wider population as though a child from a loving, competent and good enough home will benefit from the care only a paid professional can provide, in group settings for long hours from younger and younger ages. ‘The Place to Grow and Learn’ says many a poster outside many a nursery – as though those homes in which a child is happily nuzzled at the breast on the sofa is ‘The Place to Waste Away and Be Stifled by Layabout Parents’, the child doing nothing but wasting the talent of her mother and failing to enjoy the checklist prescribed by Ofsted in its New Testament-like authority.
A Living Wage for Care
Having spent an afternoon this week with amazing women I have long admired, including Global Women’s Strike’s Selma James and Nina Lopez, discussing a living wage for care, socialism, feminism, devaluation of women’s work, and barriers against mothers proclaiming proudly ‘I demand the right to support to do the important work of family’, I remain firmly of the view that the new radicals are not men demanding this and that through their unions, or the Green Party seeking anti-austerity full stop or a universal income, nor the female politicians seeking boardroom participation, nor those advocating ending poverty in this country by forcing mothers out to work (as though maternal employment is the only solution) – rather, they are those who challenge accepted, inherently sexist, standards and definitions of what constitutes ‘work’, what is ‘valuable’, what is worthy of respect and protection. They are those who dare speak the words ‘love’, ‘care’ and ‘maternal bond’. They are those who support a very unfashionable right: the right of a mother to care for her child and to do the work of family. That is a right which is diminishing with every ‘full female employment’ target of the EU, national governments, and the UN, necessarily implying that caring is not work; that caring is not valuable; that caring for children is worthless and best left to the childcare sector.
If you want to read something radical today, here is what Global Women’s Strike (see their website and petition HERE) say about the notion of a living wage for carers, and have been saying for decades:
- “Every worker is entitled to a living wage. Women do 2/3 of the world’s work – in the home, on the land and in the community – but most of this work is unwaged.
- Women are the primary carers everywhere in the word, fighting for the survival and well-being of children and sick, disabled and elderly people, in the home and outside, in peace as in war.
- Women grow most of the world’s food.
- Most carers, starting with mothers, get no wages and aren’t considered workers.
- Many carers are themselves disabled; many are children caring for younger ones or for their disabled parents; many are grandparents leaving retirement to care for their children’s children.
- Caring is demanding work but the skills it requires are undervalued even in the job market – domestic work, homecare, childcare and even nursing are low paid.
- Valuing caring work would help to close the income gap between women and men. It would also draw more men into caring.
- Financial dependence when caring work is unwaged often traps women in violent relationships.
- Many mothers do several jobs and have to fit time with their children around their job – this is exhausting and stressful for all.
- When mothers are impoverished and overworked, children suffer: hunger, ill-health, violence and exploitation.
- Mothers who have to return to work soon after childbirth are less likely to breastfeed.
- Workers who take time off to care for children, or other loved ones, lose pay, promotion, social security and future pension.
- Devaluing caring work devalues people, relationships and life itself.
- Investing in carers redirects economic and social policies towards survival, health and well-being for every individual and for the planet which sustains us all.”
So here’s a challenge to the Government, to the Green Party, to the Labour Party, to the newly formed Women’s Equality Party and politicians generally: if you want to capture the imagination of millions of people in employment with young families who are currently trapped in feeling that ‘something’s got to give’, consider expanding your ideas of what ‘equality’, ‘work’ and ‘value’ means. Equality of regard for the work mothers do (by choice, for many, if only there was the opportunity) is a fundamentally ignored issue, worldwide. Objections since the 1970s to Global Women’s Strike’s demand for wages for care have consistently let women down – we are no better off, our families are no better off, and many are now shackled in employment against our wishes, suffering double and triple shifts and facing intolerable pressure, pushed out of our homes by increasing bias towards commercialised care.
So. An income for Care. Ain’t it radical?