What does ‘Equality’ in Parenting and Caregiving actually mean?

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The term  ‘Equal Parenting and Caregiving’ , so often talked about in the press,  means very different things to different people.

From speaking to women up and down the country our view is that equal arrangements can’t be calculated merely on number of hours of caregiving carried out by men and women or through comparison of lifetime earnings and employment status.    

It’s important to consider the whole of the life cycle rather than measuring equality based on just one particular stage.  Our personal arrangements change over time, often in unexpected ways and people also have individual preferences that reflect their own talents,  aspirations, outlook on life, health, financial circumstances, background, types of jobs available  –   and also in response to family size,  help available from extended family members and other challenges faced.     

Crucially ‘Equality’  needs to come from the starting point that paid work and unpaid care work is inherently of equal value and status.   The only thing that’s not equal is the way caregivers are treated appallingly in policymaking.

MAHM campaigns for women to have a fair and just policy solutions when providing care for others.  But the truth is that the current policy climate marginalises mothers when they are care-giving and fails to value the work of looking after children, elderly relatives and other family members, often putting women at risk of poverty or isolation.    Fathers also face similar problems  but at least male caregivers are celebrated, alongside women in employment  – and most particularly if women are earning a good salary or when fathers are primary caregivers. In other words it’s modern for men to care but considered old fashioned or even ‘letting the side down’ if the mother is a ‘workless ‘ primary caregiver. She might even be accused of ‘hogging’ or ‘gate-keeping’ the role.  It’s  a no-win situation.

It is surely unacceptable in 2015 for time spent mothering to be carry such a hefty penalty financially, socially, career- wise  (it’s impossible to secure a job later after a ‘career break’)  and also in terms of personal freedoms,  not only freedom to work but freedom to care.

It seems hard for some commentators to accept that looking after the family is an important part of the family life cycle for many women and men.  Indeed many of us prize it more than any other role and feel no less ‘equal’  provided our work is recognised –   but bizzarly the work remains invisible and taken for granted.   Yet without the contribution of millions of people who are involved in unpaid work, including work in the home and community,  the economy would flounder.  

It’s now urgent  for care to attract equal status alongside other roles,   rather than the solution being to move care into the world of paid transactions.   Real progress would be ‘Equal Status for Caregivers’.

Today the Women’s Equality Party are hosting a workshop on ‘Equal Parenting and Caregiving’ but MAHM does not believe that Equality can be achieved through ‘shared or equal parenting’  alone – whatever that may mean.  It might work for some,  but they will probably be in a minority.  It can never be an over-simplified calculation of numbers of hours spent doing a particular task in any particular year.  Rather, a whole life cycle approach is needed to look at how people respond to the demands of paid and invisible unpaid work *over a lifetime*,  not just at a snapshot in time, which is too narrow a vision of people’s  lives.  

The human condition is such that we will all need to give or receive care at some point in our lives especially with an ageing population and it’s time for the equality agenda to fully embrace the importance of ‘Caregiving’ .   We need to go further –   we need to imbue it with value and act to elevate and enhance the status of caregivers –  and this includes both unpaid family care and paid caregivers who are often on low rates of pay.  

As a campaigning organisation MAHM is concerned that  the term ‘Equal Parenting’  suggests men and women must always share a similar amount of hours in paid work and in domestic roles.  Of course this masks other inequalities,  for example the very different pay rates in different professions/sectors.   In fact the gap between well paid and low paid has widened considerably. So even when a mother or father work 25 hours each,  this does not mean they have similar or equal pay levels in their respective employment roles.  And it’s not necessarily about education either,  since highly skilled and qualified /highly trained individuals often work in low paid work,  and the opposite can also be true.  Moving ‘care’  into paid work (low paid work)  that ‘counts’  for the Treasury does not mean all women will be better off and many women report being coerced out of caring for their own children in order to look after other people in paid roles, persuaded that non family work is somehow more valuable, or that others can take care of their children better.  Indeed the tax and welfare system now restricts people’s choices to devote time to family care.  The system penalises single earner couples in taxation,  is now targeting family tax credits (another name for income top ups for households on low pay) as well as removing child benefit which has been a vital source of security for women in particular, whether single or in a couple.   

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age a person can risk losing ‘equality’ status simply due to caregiving responsibilities and duties (roles which save the state billions and on which the economy and society depends, saving millions in Health spending and alternative care provision and so on …). 

Personal preferences and dispositions – and having the freedom to follow strengths and personal aspirations –   are important in a free society.    After all even a ‘shared/equal parenting’  situation can hide /mask other inequalities within a relationship,  including lack of mutual respect or abusive relationships.  It’s not all about money.    Over-prioritising shared parenting also suggests that there is somehow automatic loss of ‘equality’  if one parent is at home most of the time whilst the other is in paid work.    Yet this is clearly untrue as many couples and single parents ( or mothers and fathers parenting apart ) want the freedom – and fair policy solutions –  to make their own judgement about work and care,  without being dictated to about how they might achieve their equality within their own personal space.   

Equality is about the personal as well as the political and about the family unit,  whatever the shape and size. 

These are some of the issues we wish to bring to the debate at a time when the discourse is often  dominated by a financial model of equality based on earnings, power, engagement in the public domain,  even when for many people the private domain is equally important for personal growth, loving relationships, a sense of belonging, aspiration, realisation of ambition, agency, autonomy and sense of purpose.  We all want to do what feels right  at each particular stage of the rich and varied family life cycle – and most especially we want to do the right thing by our loved ones.     The ‘right thing’  will vary from family to family and it’s not for others to determine the agenda.

I hope that we can expand the discourse to recognise that far from being ‘unequal’  mothers and fathers can be fully ‘equal’  when caregiving – because they are respected/valued/given a voice/are fully heard and their contribution fully recognised economically/socially/intellectually/holistically.   

This would be freedom.  This would be respecting all people equally.   This would be recognising that ‘work’ is not restricted to what happens outside the home and that there are many ways of contributing positively.  

This would be about a respectful debate about women, men and children’s lives, in a wider sphere,   rather than being only employment focused.   

Marie Peacock

6th September 2015

The Women’s Equality Party is hosting an event in Birmingham today entitled ‘Equal Parenting and Caregiving’ – we look forward to engaging with the party over the coming months

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