The needs of the work­ers or the needs of so­ci­ety or the needs of the par­ents are not nec­es­sar­ily the same as the needs of the child

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - THE ‘MAM’ FAC­TOR

The first thing you no­tice about Linda’s home is the dog. Af­ter a brief mo­ment of ec­stasy over the un­ex­pected ar­rival of vis­i­tors, he scut­tles back to his bas­ket by the win­dow and looks dole­fully out to sea. Rows of mis­shapen pot­tery crafted by lit­tle hands are stacked over the TV and a clut­ter of fam­ily pic­tures butt up against colour­ful pots of home­made slime. A “posh cof­fee” ma­chine whirs in the back­ground. It’s 10.30am on a school-day and there’s not a break­fast dish in sight.

Linda is a stay-at-home mum, one of a num­ber of women with ca­reers who are throw­ing in the towel at work, in or­der to throw them­selves into par­ent­ing, full-time, in the home.

“It feels good when we’re all to­gether,” Linda says from the other side of the kitchen work­bench. This is where she stands, most evenings, to eat her din­ner while fetch­ing things for her four chil­dren seated at the other side.

“The busy­ness of it… there’s very lit­tle time to­gether,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s any dif­fer­ent if you stay at home or go out to work. You’re just swap­ping one sort of chaos for an­other. It’s maybe just not as con­densed.”

Con­verse to the idea of the stereo­typ­i­cal 1950s mother, who had no op­tion but to stay in the home, to­day, stay­ing at home to raise a fam­ily can be a pro­gres­sive choice.

Econ­o­mists have long recog­nised the vi­tal hu­man cap­i­tal that moth­ers rep­re­sent to so­ci­ety. Yet there is now an over­whelm­ing sense that women who opt to stay at home are swim­ming against the tide of so­cial re­form. Gov­ern­ment pol­icy, such as paid parental leave and child­care pay­ments, is be­ing con­structed to keep women in the work­force once they be­come moth­ers. It is part of a move to pro­mote greater equal­ity be­tween men and women. And eco­nomic con­straints — such as the cost of hous­ing rel­a­tive to in­come — in­crease the pres­sure for house­holds to have two salaries.

So does opt­ing out of the work­force once you be­come a mother fly in the face of ad­vances be­ing made in gen­der equal­ity?

When it comes to in­di­vid­ual fam­ily life, it seems that ‘equal­ity’ isn’t al­ways an ob­jec­tive mea­sure­ment.

“What do you mean when you talk about equal­ity? Is it in the de­ci­sions you make for your fam­ily? If I plan and book the hol­i­day and you pay for it, is that equal­ity? I think it is,” Linda says.

How much we seek to de­fend a mother’s place in the home could be de­fined for us in an up­com­ing ref­er­en­dum on the re­moval of Ar­ti­cle 41.2 of Ire­land’s Con­sti­tu­tion. The ar­ti­cle pro­vides for a woman’s right to “her life within the home… with­out which the com­mon good can­not be achieved”.

Cer­tainly, the clause does not rep­re­sent the ideal of modern life, where par­ent­ing is seen as some­thing that can be shared equally amongst part­ners. It does not pro­mote cur­rent views on gen­der be­cause it places only women in the home (while deny­ing this right to men). Cru­cially, how­ever, it does place a value on car­ers in so­ci­ety, at a time when car­ers are not val­ued or re­warded prop­erly for their mo­men­tous un­der­tak­ings. So the re­moval of this con­sti­tu­tional value on the un­paid work done in the home could only serve to fur­ther un­der­line this lack of re­gard.

Whether we re­move Ar­ti­cle 41.2 from the Con­sti­tu­tion or not, it won’t stem the tide of moth­ers flow­ing out of the work­force.

Of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics from 2015 show that 86pc of child­less women work, but this drops to 57 pc of those with chil­dren aged three or un­der. As the chil­dren reach age six and over, only 58pc of those moth­ers are in em­ploy­ment.

Re­search by Amarach Re­search ear­lier this month found that al­most two out of three moth­ers with young chil­dren in Ire­land would pre­fer to stay at home to raise their chil­dren, if fi­nances al­lowed. The study came on the back of calls for new child­care sub­si­dies for work­ing par­ents to be ex­tended to par­ents who minded their chil­dren in the home.

Of the 800 women sur­veyed, 63pc said they would pre­fer to be a stay-at-home mum, if they were given the op­tion and could af­ford it. So for many women the ques­tion is not why a woman would give up a ful­fill­ing ca­reer to stay at home with her chil­dren, but how would she do it.

Dr Claire O’Ha­gan, whose 2015 book, Com­plex In­equal­ity and Work­ing Moth­ers, brought the lose-lose co­nun­drum faced by work­ing moth­ers to the fore, says that to­day’s work­ing moth­ers find it par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate their roles be­cause they are “chart­ing a new course”.

“These women would all have grown up with a mam at home. So they are the first gen­er­a­tion to have this dilemma of ca­reer and home. They have no pa­ram­e­ters for mak­ing their choices and no sup­port once they make them.

“The mar­riage bar [dis­al­low­ing mar­ried women from work­ing in the civil ser­vice and some other jobs] was only lifted in 1973, and to­day, so­ci­ety still pro­motes the idea of mother care. In Bri­tain they would have ex­pe­ri­ence of ‘latchkey chil­dren’ for decades. This is par­tic­u­larly an Ir­ish thing.”

O’Ha­gan says that the pull be­tween ca­reer and home is also ex­clu­sively a mid­dle class is­sue. “Poor or work­ing class women have al­ways worked, out of ne­ces­sity.” Sin­gle par­ents who of­ten have no choice but to stay at home, due to pro­hib­i­tive child­care costs, also find them­selves cut out of the de­bate.

Orla O’Con­nor, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Women’s Coun­cil, says that when it comes to pay­ing child­care costs, it of­ten doesn’t make fi­nan­cial sense for women to con­tinue in em­ploy­ment, “so then it’s not as sim­ple as say­ing ‘the mother wants this’ — to stay at home.

“Women will con­tinue to be the most ob­vi­ous child­care so­lu­tion, O’Con­nor says, un­til there is a more equal spread of women in em­ploy­ment, with higher earn­ing power. Be­cause up un­til now, women have been made very un­equal in so­ci­ety.”

O’Ha­gan says the real is­sue in the lack of progress in the area is the lack of sol­i­dar­ity amongst women, and de­bates that pit the work­ing woman against the woman in the home. Far from re­treat­ing into the home, women, she says, should be de­mand­ing en masse a so­ci­ety that en­ables par­ents to work.

“The obe­sity cri­sis, the rise of anx­i­ety amongst kids… blam­ing the mother for not be­ing at home, land­ing all of so­ci­ety’s ills at the feet of moth­ers is a back­lash against grow­ing equal­ity for women. Fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence is the best thing that hap­pened to women, and they should be able to main­tain it through the child-rear­ing years,” she says.

O’Ha­gan be­lieves there should be sup­ports for peo­ple who have chil­dren be­cause they are a so­ci­etal ben­e­fit for a short-term so­ci­etal cost. But if you don’t have chil­dren, why should you care about the dilemma moth­ers are in, or want to fa­cil­i­tate their work-life bal­ance is­sues to the detri­ment of your own? “Ram­pant in­di­vid­u­al­ism is a fea­ture of modern so­ci­ety,” O’Ha­gan says. “Chil­dren are a pub­lic good. They are the work­ers who will pay for the older gen­er­a­tion’s pen­sions, and peo­ple should be sup­ported to have them.”

The be­gin­nings of such sup­ports in Ire­land can be seen in ini­tia­tives such as the af­ford­able child­care sub­sidy scheme [see opin­ion, Page 5] cham­pi­oned by min­is­ter Kather­ine Zap­pone. It is a small but sig­nif­i­cant step in mak­ing it more af­ford­able for both par­ents in a fam­ily to be in the work­force. It doesn’t ques­tion if this set-up is ac­tu­ally an in­trin­sic good.

In terms of man­ag­ing the care of chil­dren, psy­chol­o­gist David Cole­man be­lieves so­ci­ety should aspire to hav­ing one par­ent at home. When it comes to child­care, he says group care in a fa­cil­ity “might be your last op­tion”, be­cause “there is some­thing about that en­vi­ron­ment that puts ex­tra pres­sures on chil­dren”.

De­spite this, he says that the group child­care

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