New figures show that women who go back to work after giving birth are downgraded. Has motherhood ever been so political?
Motherhood. So simple, so complicated. So rewarding emotionally, so punishing financially. So liberating, so constraining.
Having children is a common experience that, paradoxically, divides women like nothing else. But in recent months, what has served to unite them – us – is a growing frustration that something so intensely personal has become so egregiously political.
Political, that is, in both party and the wider sense. And what makes it worse is the fact that the mixed messages being bombarded at mothers from Right, Left and Centre are downright schizophrenic.
The Coalition, for example, has removed universal child benefit in order to discourage women from staying at home and bringing up their own children. Instead, women will receive a £1,200 childcare tax break per child, once they return to work.
Yet this week we learn that those women who do try to re-enter employment very often discover they no longer have a job, that their post has been downgraded or that they have not received the pay rises given to less qualified men.
Data analysed by the House of Commons library has revealed that up to 50,000 women who take maternity leave each year are effectively unable to return to their old job, often due to constructive dismissal.
“A hidden disgrace,” was the verdict of shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, 44, who was the first government minister to take maternity leave when she had her second child in 2001, when Labour was in power.
She and her husband, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, went on to have a third child in 2004, at which point she was shocked to find a prevailing attitude of hostility towards her maternity leave among senior civil servants. She claims they deliberately made it hard for her to stay in touch and, in her absence, tried to change her working arrangements. “It was sorted out eventually,” she said, “but it shouldn’t have been a battle.”
Needless to say, Labour aims to make capital out of the new research, and has pledged to crack down on employers who discriminate against women in this way.
But aside from the political point-scoring, it’s an indictment of employers that mothers – who make up around a fifth of the workforce – should feel they risk being penalised for getting pregnant.
Emma Stewart, of the Timewise Foundation, a social enterprise that runs a jobsite and a recruitment agency advertising part-time professional positions, adds: “An even greater challenge faces women who have left work, and are looking to re-enter the job market afresh. So few quality working opportunities are advertised with a part-time or flexible working option in the first place.”
The situation is not improved when the likes of former Apprentice Katie Hopkins announce that paid maternity leave should be axed and, instead, women should be entitled to six weeks’ unpaid leave.
“If someone wants to have a baby, then good for them. But it is their baby and their decision,” says the mother of three, who runs a consultancy firm.
“The employer was not consulted in the making of that baby, so I am not quite sure how in the UK the employer has ended up being responsible for paying for it. Having a baby is a luxury in this economic climate, and if you want to purchase that luxury item you need to take responsibility for doing it.”
It’s a rather facile argument, not least because if women were to agree with her and decide that having a baby was on a par with a new kitchen and could be reliably shelved for years, not only would their fertility decline but so would Britain’s long-term economic prospects.
Our rapidly ageing society is reliant on future generations of taxpayers to shore up pensions and the NHS. Or, to put it more succinctly, we need the patter of tiny feet to ensure the clatter of coins into the nation’s coffers.
But Hopkins is not alone. It would appear that Britain’s decision-makers broadly agree with her. What was once regarded, quite literally, as “life” – women got married, had families and brought them up – is viewed by George Osborne as a “lifestyle”.
Of course, deciding not to go out to work is a choice. It may be an easy choice for those families where there is a main breadwinner. But for those in the squeezed middle, subject to high mortgages and inflation-busting school fees, being a stay-at-home mother can entail a huge sacrifice.
For the Chancellor, then, to describe it dismissively as a “lifestyle choice”, is to relegate it to the realms of frivolous indulgence, like Pugin wallpaper or drinking only bottled water.
Weirdly, it also smacks of socialism – the hardcore Soviet version – to insist that mothers have a civic duty to outsource their babies and remain economically active.
But for the filthy kulaks – sorry, professional women – I know who stay at home, it’s not about luxury, it’s all about replicating the secure, traditional upbringing they had.
In the process, they forgo holidays abroad, avoid glossy magazines full of the latest fashions they can’t afford and drive battered cars worthy of Only Fools and Horses.
I have one girlfriend who even held a small, slightly tongue-in-cheek ceremony in which she lit a candle and “made peace” with the avocado bathroom that she swore would be torn out when she and her husband moved into their terraced London home a decade ago.
Three children later, their house has doubled in value, they have no cash for anything as fancy as a power shower, never mind a full refurbishment. But their children never go without properly fitted school shoes, and somehow the fees for violin lessons are found.
So where does society’s schizophrenic attitude to motherhood stem from? On the one hand, we have a culture where celebrity mothers are praised and applauded and their baby pictures pored over in glossy magazines. But there is a distinct otherness to the way in which they are regarded.
The Duchess of Cambridge was feted for courageously showing her post-baby bump (although what else was she supposed to do with it?) and wearing heels as she left hospital cradling her son, Prince George, the day after his birth.
But for real mothers in the real world, a warm reception is not guaranteed. Earlier this month, mother of two Stephanie Wilby was thrown out of a public swimming pool for breastfeeding her four- month-old son in public, a perfectly natural act that was lambasted by the staff as “unhygienic” and akin to “urinating in the water”.
Mrs Wilby later received an apology from managers at Manchester Aquatics Centre, but I found the disgust expressed by pool staff impossible to fathom. Not so a great many others in the Sisterhood; a breakfast television poll on the subject found just 26 per cent of viewers were in favour of breastfeeding in public pools.
The gulf between mothers runs far deeper than the chasm between “Gina Ford babies”, timetabled from birth, and babies reared according to the tenets of American academic, economist and father Bryan Caplan, who mischievously advocates “slack” parenting, as outlined in his controversial Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.
Down the years, every permutation of parenting has been identified; instinctive parenting, attachment parenting, helicopter parenting, authoritative parenting, permissive parenting, labels which arguably do more harm than good.
Fortunately, Tamsin Kelly, editor of well-known parenting website parentdish.co.uk, and a mother of three, says that women like her are bored of guilt-inducing headlines, celebrities and “government ministers sounding off on their special subject”.
“After a few years of motherhood, you learn to dodge the mixed messages lobbed at you from all sides,” she says. “One day, it’s 'Children of working mothers grow up feral’ then it’s 'Oh, actually, they do just as well at school’. Then it’s 'Career women are positive role models for their children’, followed by 'Scrap that, the happiest families have mums with part-time jobs’.”
Mothers find themselves under pressure from all sides, she adds. The best course of action is to ignore the attempts to make them feel inadequate.
“All we can hope is that we’re going to send our children into adulthood not cursing us for ruining their lives by giving them juice or having a C-section or short-changing them on pocket money.”
Children’s ingratitude is part and parcel of motherhood and while we may not like it, we understand it.
It is society’s ingratitude that really rankles. And until governments and employers start taking a more grown-up approach to childbearing and -rearing, we will all be left facing the mother of all confusion.
By Judith Woods
Source: Telegraph.co.uk - http://goo.gl/dQcoiu