I follow Joely Brearley’s excellent organisation Pregnant then Screwed and have read the accounts of the March of the Mummies, a protest at the cost of childcare, inflexibility of work and lack of government help on childcare attended by thousands on Saturday, with great interest.
It made me reflect on how much – or little – has changed since I returned to work after the birth of my son in December 1987 and then my daughter in September 1989. Back then there were also activist campaigns by women to improve maternity leave and pay. The focus then was on the provision of workplace nurseries, which had some tax benefits for employers and demands for tax relief on the employment of nannies. Workplace nurseries proved not to be a long term solution and local nurseries, childminders and nannies became the most favoured choice of childcare (although the most common form of childcare in this country is still grandparents).
Occasionally I wrote about the situation as above in the Sunday Correspondent in 1990. I was certainly in the minority of women I had met whilst pregnant returning to work, mainly because part- time work for most professionals was not on offer, and many of my contemporaries were graduates, professionals e.g. lawyers, accountants, marketers but didn’t want to work full time straight away.
But once out of the workplace it was hard to get back when the kids were old enough to start school. I used to add up the extraordinary number of skills standing at the school gate which could have been channeled into the workplace.
Being at home has sadly never counted in employers’ eyes as being work yet in my experience trotting off on the bus in my designer trouser suit with a briefcase to do what I enjoyed was a doddle compared to dealing with two children under two all day. Plus what they never mention in the ‘looking after the children’ is that a huge amount of this is actually housework in some form or another and usually benefits the husband/partner as well. Women who have managed a home and kids full time return to the workplace with a unique set of skills which are useful in all kinds of jobs… common sense, calm in the face of turmoil, negotiation skills, far-sightedness, multi tasking, etc. I wish these were given more recognition
So part-time work for professionals hardly existed, flexibility wasn’t understood, working at home was frowned upon and childcare was just as expensive relative to pay as it is now. Nor was there much social expectation that you would work if your husband had a good job. Part-time working was mostly confined to low paid jobs and designed with mothers in mind – shift work to fit school hours etc. to suit the needs of the employers e.g. retailers. Flexible working regulations were not made a statutory right until the Employment Rights Act 1996 and even after that the culture in many professions made a request career suicide. I was incredibly lucky to be a journalist and also to be working on a newspaper where the editor liked and supported women and mothers– and he allowed me to work on the paper on a freelance basis three or four days a week.
My own approach to returning to work was this. I knew that taking my salary alone and allowing for childcare costs meant I worked for very, very little. In fact the nanny I employed at certain times took home more than me after I had paid her. But I knew that I didn’t want to be a full time mum at home and wanted to be in the workplace, and secondly I thought it was important to keep my human capital value up (I was still quite young) and that years away would decrease it.
My view which I encourage all working mothers to have, specially those worried about the lack of extra income they will bring home, is that the cost of childcare should not be measured as a percentage of the mother’s salary alone, but of both parents. It is child of two people… I don’t think this is taken into consideration enough and unless it does it will skew a mother’s decision. There is of course also the wider social impact that available affordable childcare benefits the economy and society generally. We need well- adjusted children and we need women/mothers in our workforce. We saw this point being made on banners in the protest on Saturday.
There have been enormous changes in employment in the past thirty years. As well as an increase in mothers in the workforce there has been a huge shift in attitudes and expectations. A March of the Mummies wouldn’t have happened in 1990. Changes in society that benefit women have been fought for and won by women… they are never handed over freely. So we must keep making our demands for a world of work which suits our lives too. Those of us old enough to see some backlash to women’s progress know that we must not take our wins for granted.
The script is probably too small to read but I ended the article above with this… “ The Government’s reluctance to make permanent large scale changes by providing tax relief or creating nurseries leads to the suspicion that the move to get women back to work is just a temporary solution to an economic problem. What some campaigners are asking is, once the demographic gap is filled, will women be sent back home again?” These words may sound ridiculous now but we believed that as it had happened before it could happen again.