Page 3 | 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: |
WlderRosie Thu 15-Jul-21 06:13:22

‘ 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).’

Seriously? What’s the evidence for this?
There are so many assumptions in your post. You barely mention fathers. Why not? Why do you assume everyone is heterosexual?

BigGreen Thu 15-Jul-21 08:34:35

Some thoughts:

1. This is about fathers too. The assumption that it's women that want to be home with young children is a huge problem. I'd love the Scandinavian system of properly funded parental leave for both parents (if Dads don't use it, they lose it). This would have to be done as part of a wider campaign focusing on changing norms.

2. Part time work is increasingly precarious. It's rare in my field do get a part time perm post. It is excessively stressful to try to string short contracts together. Part time working is devalued because women do it. We need changes to labour rights.

3. Housing costs are the elephant in the room. Everyone is having to work harder and for longer to afford a basic home. We can never have greater choice for workers (who might also be caring for elderly parents or pursuing a hobby they love) when housing costs so much. In many parts of the U.K. the government's policies have only served to drive prices further out of reach. We also need rental reforms akin to Germany so that it's possible to rent long term w kids.

LorelaiVictoriaGilmore Thu 15-Jul-21 11:01:09

I haven’t done the maths but if dh and I both worked a four day week so that we only needed three days per week of childcare, I think we’d be a lot happier if not better off financially. But whereas my four day week is considered perfectly acceptable, dh wouldn’t dream of asking for one. I think that’s partly because he is male and partly because of the industry he is in (energy…)

MaryHarrington Thu 15-Jul-21 11:08:00

Hi all, I know JuliaMumsnet said I'd be here at 2pm but (ironically given the topic) preschool term has ended early because of coronavirus. Mercifully my mum has come over a bit, so I can log on and respond to people here...

MaryHarrington Thu 15-Jul-21 11:13:39

Thanks everyone for comments and thoughts. I tried to keep the post succinct so as not to waffle on endlessly, but loads of you have made really important points. A couple that stick out to me:

- Yes this isn't just about mums - when DD was born DH was still doing the commuter thing from the shires to London, and after he went back to work we'd barely see him from one end of the week to the next. He rapidly got really out of sync with us and felt like he was losing touch with his baby daughter which made him so miserable. A few quite rocky years later he's now WFH running his own business, and we split childcare pretty much 50/50 around funded hours, which is lovely. I think he would have loved to drop to 4 days / week while DD was tiny (I would have loved it too) but fathers get MASSIVELY judged for expressing any desire at all to spend time with their kids, especially in very competitive professions. It's made worse by the fact that there are hordes of single/childless/super-ambitious people snapping at the heels of parents so the pressure on you to be always-on is relentless.

- 100% agree that housing and the cost of living is a massive issue. It's meaningless to talk about 'choice' when it comes to spending time with your kids, if you could 'choose' to see your kids more but only at the cost of getting your house repossessed.

MaryHarrington Thu 15-Jul-21 11:21:47

Wilderrosie - I don't assume everyone is heterosexual, though it is in fact accurate to say that most people are: according to the latest ONS data around 6% of the adult UK population identifies as LGBT (link) meaning the other 94% is heterosexual. Of course gay and lesbian parents exist, including my DD's godmother, but for the sake of brevity here I opted to write about that 94%.

On the evidence for the social background of MPs, the proportion of serving Members of Parliament who come from a manual occupation decreased from 16% to 3% between 1979 and 2015 (link) which rather suggests the majority of politicians of both sexes come from the professional classes.

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MaryHarrington Thu 15-Jul-21 11:35:08

@PacificState "I think there is a special category of thing that the state should support actually - which is love/care work. Not just for infants, but for family members with higher needs of any sort. It's not the same as wanting to sack off work because you prefer gardening or reading books. Care work is absolutely fundamental, to society and human happiness, and at the moment the people who do it (mostly but not exclusively women) are almost completely unsupported and have to sacrifice their own financial interest and long-term security to do it. It's hard, skilled, crucial work and I think the state should pay people to do it!"

I have no idea how you go about doing this but essentially I would love to see this happen - whether it's a seriously beefed-up allowance that makes it affordable for one or both parents to work less when kids are small, changing the tax code or what, I don't know. But I feel like there's a blind spot in government policy when it comes to care-related activities that goes wayyyy beyond family life, and plays out in underpaid healthcare workers, social care crises etc etc etc.

WlderRosie Thu 15-Jul-21 19:25:36

Thanks for responding to my points. I don’t agree inclusivity needs to be sacrificed ‘for the sake of brevity’. Assumptions of heteronormativity, class, preferred working pattern, traditional gender roles and indeed what a family is and looks like, seem to underpin your thoughts and questions. Are these your assumptions or do they come from the New Social Covenant Unit?

Unfortunately the link given for MPs backgrounds is the same as the ONS sexuality link, so I’m not able to look at your data, but it sounds as if you are concluding that a low proportion of MPs from manual labour backgrounds equates to ‘the kind of professional women who are more likely to want to work full time’. If so, this is an extraordinary conclusion. Are you really suggesting that non-manual workers are professionals with a preference for working full-time? When it became easier for junior doctors, for example, to work less than full-time, many of both sexes, parents and non-parents, took this up. Why would this not be the case in other professions or in non-professional, non-manual careers?

MaryHarrington Fri 16-Jul-21 07:32:20

Oh - my mistake on the second link - here it is.

On sacrificing inclusivity for the majority, in political terms you are of course right but I was thinking more editorially - when you write something you have to make decisions about what to focus on or it just becomes incoherent and over-long.

My sense is you want me to acknowledge that the picture is always more complex than broad-brush generalisations can acknowledge. This is not in dispute! And of course graduate professionals don't all work full-time - but the stats show that full-timers tend to cluster toward the higher-earning end of the scale. I think this helps foster a blind spot in policymaking. That is not the same as making a blanket pronouncement about the social background of ALL politicians, or the desires and working patterns of ALL parents. But the existence of exceptions to a pattern doesn't mean the pattern is not worth discussing.

ListenToChickens Sat 17-Jul-21 07:40:32

For what it's worth, OP, we are same-sex parents.

Per my reply above, I was more offended that you thought my career meant I was more likely to want to work than spend time with my child, rather than any absence of 'inclusion' as to my family circumstances. Naturally, most discussions about this relate to mother/father set-ups.

I am the biological mother of our children, and my partner has stayed at home with them. I have been badly judged for not being all things to all people, in a way that a father in a 'providing' role would never have been. And I would have loved the roles to be reversed, but it wasn't feasible without losing the house. Ultimately, I think it has created a greater balance - although I have birth, their non-biological mum is the primary carer.

excitedemmi Sat 17-Jul-21 09:17:54

Hi OP - I know this isn't the point of the post and I think that sexuality (and sex) are irrelevant to who "wants" to stay at home with children, and who "wants" to work full time/part time etc., but your link says that 2.7% of the adult UK population is LGB (not the 6% you reference). Just getting stats straight!

UKSub Sat 17-Jul-21 16:30:40

MerryDecembermas

I'm scratching my head wondering why this is yet again focused on women's "choices". Fathers, men? What are their choices? Fathers have even fewer "choices" than mothers do. Can you imagine a world where men frequently went part time after becoming fathers, to spend more time with their children and to pick up their fair share of the domestic load?

It may come with a side serving of belittlement, undermining and snidey comments, but I have much greater leeway to make work "work for me" than DH does.

This is a really interesting point@MerryDecembermas. My DH would love to be a SAHD. He wanted it before DC and he’d love it now, but sadly I don’t earn anywhere near as much as him so it’s just not possible (my salary was rubbish despite being management and was way below industry standard but that’s another days gripe).
Perhaps if we valued women in the workplace more and valued SAHD more and have things equal viewing then the situation would be different. It would be incredible if both parents could go part time and raise their children equally. Breastfeeding aside of course.

Marmitemarinaded Sat 17-Jul-21 16:59:22

MerryDecembermas

I'm scratching my head wondering why this is yet again focused on women's "choices". Fathers, men? What are their choices? Fathers have even fewer "choices" than mothers do. Can you imagine a world where men frequently went part time after becoming fathers, to spend more time with their children and to pick up their fair share of the domestic load?

It may come with a side serving of belittlement, undermining and snidey comments, but I have much greater leeway to make work "work for me" than DH does.

Exactly

I feel blessed and very happy I was able to be a sahm, alongside many others, and loved it. Loved the free days with the children.

Then… enjoyed returning to work. Part time. No judgement whatsoever.

But men…. This just isn’t really available to them in reality. Yes on paper but not in reality.

Tigertigertigertiger Tue 20-Jul-21 10:54:59

I’ve never felt Judged or guilty for any of the choices I made as a mother.

This is a tired stereotype, along with ‘ being a mother is. The hardest job in the world”

It really isn’t.

Marmitemarinaded Tue 20-Jul-21 17:49:00

Tigertigertigertiger

I’ve never felt Judged or guilty for any of the choices I made as a mother.

This is a tired stereotype, along with ‘ being a mother is. The hardest job in the world”

It really isn’t.

Yes yes yes!!!! You have said what I have tried to articulate

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