Page 2 | Guest post: "you can’t win as a mother. If you’re not being judged for staying with your baby, you’re being judged for not leaning in."

(65 Posts)
JuliaMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 08-Jul-21 11:23:20

How do we navigate the tensions between work and family, community and the individual? Mary Harrington is a MNer, journalist and advises the New Social Covenant Unit:

"In the course of being not very good at numerous jobs, and spending a lot of time online in the office when I should have been working, I discovered Mumsnet long before I actually had a child. (No, I’m not going to post my old MN handle - there’s wayyy too much oversharing there).

I spent many happy afternoons skiving off jobs I didn’t especially enjoy, reading (now classic) threads like the Pom Bear dinner party or the DH who ate a fat ball. Then when I did have a baby, MN was a lifeline via all the collected wisdom on the boards, and the 2016 pregnancy bus that morphed into a real-life friendship group which is still going strong five years and many meetups later.

After DD came along, I spent some time as a SAHM. It wasn’t really planned that way - my contract ended and it didn’t feel right to get a new job while pregnant but not showing yet. And as it turned out, not only did I not have a job to go back to, and a DH working long hours in London, but I also found I really didn’t want to leave DD. She was so tiny and I didn’t even really like my then-career (I was also rubbish at it). I was lucky that we could get by on DH’s wage, so I just sort of carried on not looking for a job.

One by one, the women I’d spent maternity leave with, or chatted to in my MN bus group, went back to work. Not many wanted to return full-time and not all had the choice either way. Lots found being away from their babies difficult to begin with.

There were conversations about how you can’t win as a mother. If you’re not being judged for staying with your baby, you’re being judged for not leaning in. But one size really doesn’t fit all. The sociologist Catherine Hakim studied women’s work preferences and argued that, where women do have a choice, roughly 20% of women prefer to work full-time, another 20% prefer to be SAHMs and the remaining 60% prefer a balance. Anecdotally, looking around at my peer group and MN discussions on this subject, that sounds about right.

Some 38% of working-age women work part-time, which equates to around 6.18 million. Of these, 4.85 million are voluntarily part-time (nearly 80%) – that is, they didn’t want full-time hours. This compares to the 1.2 million voluntarily part-time men out of a total of 2.22 million: 54% of all part-time working men. Considerably more women than men prefer to work part-time. This is widely associated with having dependent, and especially young, children.

But preferences also vary by job type. It makes sense: you’d expect someone with a fun and lucrative career to be more enthusiastic about returning to work than someone who mainly works to pay the bills. Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK government data show full-time female workers cluster at the top of the pay scale. And the strongest public support for mothers working part-time or staying home (60%) comes from those in unskilled or routine occupations.

But government policy skews toward these full-timers and only grudgingly sees the rest. At the 2019 General Election, all the major parties vied for who could offer to spend the most on providing childcare so women can work more.

Since I had DD, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have fallen by accident into a pretty ideal work setup: writing from home, which I can do flexibly around preschool hours, and I have a supportive DH who now also works from home. I count my blessings every day. I’m also aware that not all work can be done from home and some people are working not because they want to but because they have to.

I don’t think anyone should be guilted for doing the best they can for their family. But my sense is also that some mothers might, if they had the choice, spend less time at work and more time with their children, especially when they’re very young.

Politics is mainly done by the kind of professional women who are more likely to want to work full-time (or men who are married to, and socialise with, such women). It’s understandable that many will assume the same is true everywhere, and thus the best way to address the interests of mothers is always more and cheaper childcare. But I think government could do more to reflect the full range of mothers’ priorities.

This is such a sensitive subject, and it’s nearly impossible to raise without someone feeling criticised when we’re all just doing our best. The pandemic has been rough on everyone but perhaps especially mothers, many of whom have shouldered the lion’s share of home schooling and childcare while keeping work ticking over as well. I’ve no desire to go back to a world where mothers are tutted at for working, and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution.

But I was grateful for the chance to be home with DD for nearly three years, and I’m also grateful for being able to work flexibly now. I don’t think the answer is trying to make anyone get back in the kitchen (unless that’s where they want to be). But I’d like to see more politicians break the mould like Miriam Cates recently, when she called not just for policies aimed at giving families the option to work, but also the option to be with our children more.

Whether that’s a lump sum to help ease the financial hit of being very part-time or taking a career break, loosening rules for childcare co-ops or subsidising grandparent care, or campaigning for a fully transferable tax allowance, I don’t know. I would love to know what MNers think. I’m now standing by for a flaming, for leaping head-first into this radioactive territory. But I want to say it: I suspect that more childcare is not always the answer. And I think we should talk about it."

Mary Harrington is a journalist and advises the New Social Covenant Unit which exists to promote ideas that create a more local, more connected, more sustainable life for all by strengthening the associations that make individuals happy, safe and free - such as the family. The Unit will launch a campaign on family finance in the autumn. She's on twitter here.

Mary will be coming onto the thread to answer your questions at 2pm on 15th July.

OP’s posts: |
SmashingBlouson Fri 09-Jul-21 17:42:27

It seems parents work far more these days than they ever did. We both work full time and we are not rolling in it (thanks massive childcare costs) but it is a choice we made as we did not want to get in debt and having started my career later in life, I was worried about the impact of taking time out, despite working for an employer that offers decent part-time roles and promoting part-time workers.

The families I know with a SAHP are either in debt or are being bank rolled by wealthy parents. This is even with the working parent on a good salary. We both have ok salaries - above the mean for the area - but this is still not enough for decent housing and there is absolutely no way we would survive on one income. There is always the assumption that one person in a household earns a good salary, not two people earning average salaries, which makes it harder for one parent to stay home.

The issue really is housing and the cost of living - it is far too expensive for anyone to even have a choice. This needs to be addressed or it is not worth discussing about working patterns that aren't available to most people anyway. I would love for us both to work less hours (30 each would be ideal). It would relieve so much stress and chaos in our household, but as we don't qualify for any govt help apart from child benefit, we can't afford it. Eighteen odd years ago it was very different and there was a lot more support for working families.

Employers also seem to expect the other parent to pick up the slack when the child is ill/parent wants to drop hours for a better work life balance. I agree with a pp about shared parental leave. My OH employer is fairly flexible if he needs to leave to pick our son up from nursery, but in terms of reduced hours or shared parental leave, this would not be considered. There is still a lot of assumptions about roles in the family and how men and women differ in the hours they want to work as a parent.

butwhatcanwedo Fri 09-Jul-21 18:31:35

I think that tax free childcare and the increased free childcare should be universally to working parents available but they are not. This is because if one of a couple is a high earner (£100k+) then nothing is available at all.

This isn’t a popular view because people just think that £100k is huge and the family shouldn’t get any help. But it’s usually the woman who is disincentivised to work, who in turn has fewer rights and opportunities and is more likely to be financially vulnerable if the couple separate or divorce.

The old tax relief for childcare which is no longer available to new joiners was available to everyone but the amount capped. That was much more fair.

Phineyj Sat 10-Jul-21 08:09:01

It was a negligible amount though, the old childcare voucher system. It wasn't enough to change the viability of whether someone worked or not. It was also a huge paperwork hassle, was only offered by a few employers, and employers and recipients didn't understand it well. Disclaimer: I haven't tried using the new system. However, I think the new system is £2k per child per year? That would have covered 2/5 of a day at nursery per year for us -- also not enough to change the decision about whether to work or not.

The '30 free hours' is more generous in terms of £££, but is aimed at getting DC into pre-school childcare and not at retaining women in the workforce.

None of these policies can succeed while we're so confused about the purpose of all this.

Waferbiscuit Sat 10-Jul-21 09:49:12

Having small children costs a fortune, whether you put them in daycare or whether one parent reduces their hours and therefore

My partner and I separated soon after my daughter was born and I had to continue to work FT, going back from 6 months - which I thought was the right thing and which everyone on MN says to do - stay in work! But I went into huge debt to put my daughter through childcare - some months paying 1500/month fees while my total salary was 2300. I had to live on credit cards and accrued 20k in debt which I am now finally paying off.

Could the govt introduce a no-interest loan scheme for parents of small children (age 0-5) so they have more options and to ease the financial burden of some of those decisions. It would help people like me who are working but having trouble affording childcare, or could be used if one parent wants to work less hours, as a financial buffer. This would be a more equal approach than investing purely in childcare schemes which don't benefit parents who want to stay at home more.

The govt has a help to buy scheme for housing and they have a loan scheme for Univ students - so a no-interest loan scheme for young parents wouldn't be that different!

JustGotToKeepOnKeepingOn Sat 10-Jul-21 10:43:14

I've never felt judged. I did what I had to do to keep a roof over the heads of me and my DD.

Affordable childcare would be a really good start. Nursery fees are a joke. And if you're the 'squeezed middle' it really is the pits. Too 'rich' for any help, too 'poor' to do anything but live hand to mouth.

Legomania Sun 11-Jul-21 09:57:18

I think the place I felt most judged/overlooked was actually by several of the local primary schools (in our large commuter town) who either offered extemely patchy wraparound care or didn't open it to Reception. One of them also has a month of mornings only to settle into Reception.

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Legomania Sun 11-Jul-21 09:57:51

* as a FT working parent

wombatspoopcubes Sun 11-Jul-21 15:00:55

Challengerice

Who’s doing all this judging?

I’ve been a sahm
I’ve been part time
I’ve been full time

I have never ever felt judged


My ex colleagues judge me most for being a SAHM. Ironically, financially we are better off than most of them.

Italiandreams Sun 11-Jul-21 16:08:05

I would love to go part time but unfortunately in my field it’s really hard to find part time jobs that don’t mean a huge drop in responsibility so a huge pay cut that we can’t afford. I would love it for more jobs to be flexible. I haven’t been made to feel guilty too much but I do feel like I’m missing out. Would love to have a bit more flexibility.

Challengerice Sun 11-Jul-21 17:37:04

@wombatspoopcubes
What do they actually say?

Xlalalaladdd Mon 12-Jul-21 07:44:28

I think it's different for all mums- I was desperate to get back to work, but felt very guilty to do that any time before the year mark in case it looked like I wasn't enjoying my baby or maternity leave (tbf I wasn't!)
As others have mentioned, why is this all so centred on the mum? Why does no one assume that dads want to spend more time with their child, or go part time? I felt very oppressed by the cultural expectation that I was the primary caregiver and the only one who wanted to be around my child, whereas my husband could 'escape' to work.
In our situation, it's a bit of both. We both do 4 days now, we both appreciate time with our child and we also appreciate time at work. I think the current one year of maternity format really is strange, it's so all or nothing. Actually I would have preferred to go back soon, but more flexibly

Ozanj Mon 12-Jul-21 12:05:57

This isn’t a popular view but I do think things like part time working contracts should be short term agreements and prioritised for parents with children under 3. The reason why many parents, particularly mums, leave after mat leave, is because key time working is declined often because the roles are ‘blocked’ by women who find them convenient but maybe don’t need them any more.

For example, I am in a nursery, and I had to leave my last nursery because all the key time workers were ‘lifers’ with either older teenagers or even twenty something old ‘kids’, who got used to part time life & cut their lifestyle accordingly.

Challengerice Mon 12-Jul-21 12:40:41

Ozanj

This isn’t a popular view but I do think things like part time working contracts should be short term agreements and prioritised for parents with children under 3. The reason why many parents, particularly mums, leave after mat leave, is because key time working is declined often because the roles are ‘blocked’ by women who find them convenient but maybe don’t need them any more.

For example, I am in a nursery, and I had to leave my last nursery because all the key time workers were ‘lifers’ with either older teenagers or even twenty something old ‘kids’, who got used to part time life & cut their lifestyle accordingly.

They may be dealing with their own family issues that come with being older

Elderly parents with dementia for example

Phineyj Mon 12-Jul-21 15:56:57

But 'full time' and 'part time' are pretty much completely arbitrary distinctions and industry and norm dependent, as well as seasonal. I work part time but when I fill in surveys, the hours I work count as full time.

I would definitely not support pt workers needing to "deserve" to be part time. You get paid less! That's the compensation for the employer. That line of argument leads to women not "deserving" jobs because they're not the "breadwinner".

It is not the place of an employer to be making those kinds of value judgements.

Hardbackwriter Mon 12-Jul-21 23:16:45

Ozanj

This isn’t a popular view but I do think things like part time working contracts should be short term agreements and prioritised for parents with children under 3. The reason why many parents, particularly mums, leave after mat leave, is because key time working is declined often because the roles are ‘blocked’ by women who find them convenient but maybe don’t need them any more.

For example, I am in a nursery, and I had to leave my last nursery because all the key time workers were ‘lifers’ with either older teenagers or even twenty something old ‘kids’, who got used to part time life & cut their lifestyle accordingly.

I think we'd actually be a lot better off if part-time working was seen as less just the preserve of parents (almost always mothers), not more. I was delighted that a man without children on my team at work dropped a day a week at the same time as I did because it made me feel less 'mummy tracked'. I wish it was more normal for people to work part-time because it suits their lives in lots of different ways not just because they have young children.

WaltzForDebbie Tue 13-Jul-21 08:27:35

My husband has dropped his hours slightly this year and he definitely felt judged. After a few months he was asked by his manager if he was going to go back full time soon and all of his colleagues have been really surprised.

We have an adult son with a disability and it puts enormous pressure on is as a family. It's not just people with small children who need part time work.

maxomroyxa Tue 13-Jul-21 15:59:48

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

BeamerTown Tue 13-Jul-21 18:53:27

I have a question for the OP - what are you hoping to achieve from this? That women will throw down their working yokes, rejoice and say “thank you for freeing me to care for my kids?!”

I think it’s worth recognising the organization that you work for - the new social covenant unit - has what a lot of people would consider regressive and patriarchal views on marriage and children.

From your website: “Marriage represents the regulation of baby-making… It is, or was, a means of tying men into family life, for their own good and that of women and children.”

Bleurgh.

I for one am glad that we are moving to a time when men (so absent from your piece!) and women take a more equitable approach to work and child rearing. I’d welcome the economic policy levers to make this happen - subsidised/ tax free childcare, enhanced shared parental leave - over this “let women stay at home” small minded conservatism any day.

excitedemmi Tue 13-Jul-21 21:04:21

Thank you for this thread, OP, but I disagree that the stats of women being more likely to stay at home or work part time is because they truly want to - it will partly likely be borne out of necessity and societal expectations. Also, where are the percentages of work preferences for men who want to work full time/part time/stay at home, because I imagine if you ask the vast majority of the population (even those without kids!), most people would want "a balance" as it's referred to in the Catherine Hakim study in your post. I think we DO need to prioritise childcare and also even up maternity and paternity leave as a start, as well as address other structural inequalities to allow parents (not just women) the real choice.

ListenToChickens Wed 14-Jul-21 07:58:42

I'm in a 'professional' role - the type that you'd suggest would make me less likely to want to stay at home, OP.

I hardly had any maternity leave (self-employed) and remember expressing milk in toilets etc., fully kitted out in my professional gear. It was awful.

I worked (and work) days, evenings and weekends.

Because I am female, I am expected to be Superwoman by my neighbours and family, who often make hurtful remarks. If I were a father, they wouldn't bat an eyelid re:my work/life balance.

Many colleagues have asked me what I do about childcare over the years. I work in a male-dominated profession, but have yet to see a man asked the same question.

LorelaiVictoriaGilmore Wed 14-Jul-21 11:22:24

Professional career and high earner - I work 5 days a week but get everything done in 4 long days. I get paid for 4 days but make up a bit in bonuses.

Sometimes it is awful - lying on the floor of the disabled loo while pregnant and vomiting to lying on the floor of the disabled loo on my first day back after maternity leave having a panic attack.

But I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Mostly work is my sanity and my independence. I worked my ass off for it for most of my life. I earned it and I am keeping it!

I am extremely lucky that I earn enough that no one can pressure me to give up work. Not my husband who thinks I work too much, not my father in law who offers us chunks of money to try to make me stop. £3k per month goes to the nanny and nursery. Even earning 6 figures, that’s quite painful.

In an ideal world, every woman and man should be able to go to work and every woman and man should be able to afford to stay home for a combined year after their baby is born. In my opinion, the government’s first job is to make these two things easier, including better support for returning to work (earlier free childcare etc) and better supported maternity and paternity leave. Once you’ve nailed that down, then go ahead and come up with a way of better supporting those who want to stay home with their kids for longer. Maybe I am biased but, in my mind, that is secondary.

Invisce89 Wed 14-Jul-21 16:05:47

This is good guest post that we learn many thing from kids and mother.

Marmitemarinaded Wed 14-Jul-21 17:55:53

LorelaiVictoriaGilmore

Professional career and high earner - I work 5 days a week but get everything done in 4 long days. I get paid for 4 days but make up a bit in bonuses.

Sometimes it is awful - lying on the floor of the disabled loo while pregnant and vomiting to lying on the floor of the disabled loo on my first day back after maternity leave having a panic attack.

But I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Mostly work is my sanity and my independence. I worked my ass off for it for most of my life. I earned it and I am keeping it!

I am extremely lucky that I earn enough that no one can pressure me to give up work. Not my husband who thinks I work too much, not my father in law who offers us chunks of money to try to make me stop. £3k per month goes to the nanny and nursery. Even earning 6 figures, that’s quite painful.

In an ideal world, every woman and man should be able to go to work and every woman and man should be able to afford to stay home for a combined year after their baby is born. In my opinion, the government’s first job is to make these two things easier, including better support for returning to work (earlier free childcare etc) and better supported maternity and paternity leave. Once you’ve nailed that down, then go ahead and come up with a way of better supporting those who want to stay home with their kids for longer. Maybe I am biased but, in my mind, that is secondary.

Do you think your solutions ie earlier free childcare should also be fully available to you as someone earning six figures?

LorelaiVictoriaGilmore Wed 14-Jul-21 19:35:51

Absolutely not!! I want other people to have the freedom I did - I earned enough (although when I first went back to work after my first child, only just enough) that no one else got to make the decision about whether I went back to work or not for me. That’s the position I want everyone to be in.

I also got to stay home for a year without really worrying about the cost - I want everyone to have that too.

After that I want paid carer’s leave for everyone - I get 5 days paid per year so I don’t have to miss doctor’s appointments or panic when childcare falls through.

I feel very, very fortunate and life with two small children is still really hard! I just want people to have the same as I have had or better!

What I don’t expect is to be given money to stay home with my kids for as long as I want. I am not sure that would have led to me making good decisions - but obviously I am not speaking for anyone else on that point! I just know myself and having that kind of option would have been disastrous for me!

MrsRobert Thu 15-Jul-21 00:53:19

I've noticed that even the most open minded can't get their head around men working part-time for childcare reasons. Compressed hours seem to be (just about) acceptable.

The couple of years between maternity leave and funded care is where many of us drop our working hours. Term-time funded hours are for the child's development and not about helping parents get back to work.

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