Talk given by Tom Hodgkinson to Full Time Mothers, 11 November 2008
Learning to Idle
Tom Hodgkinson introduced himself as the son of an ardent feminist mother. His own politics are closer to those of an anarchist, because of governments’ insatiable need to interfere. The system of consumption and capitalism eats into ever more of our lives. Tasks which were always outside the monetary system of exchange are being sucked in, and now even the care of children is being priced.
Hodgkinson thought it was time to talk, to get lots of people talking. The subject should not be hardworking families, which he dismissed as a horrifying idea, exemplified by the term ‘preschool’. Why was it no longer playschool? How soon would it be before ordinary school becomes ‘pre-work’?
The distorted work ethic Hodgkinson traced back to Enlightenment philosophy, carried through the Industrial Revolution, feminism and work-obsessed governments. He commented that the Reformation had brought in a new work ethic. Under Queen Elizabeth I the first houses of correction or Workhouses were introduced. Later criminals were got rid of abroad, to work. Adults have been encouraged by the dominant culture to think of themselves first and foremost as workers, working for the most part either for the State or for some large corporation. This work ethic was in striking contrast to that of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries when people were encouraged to think of themselves not as individuals who worked but as Christian brothers and sisters living in a shared community.
With the new work ethic there came in the sixteenth century a massive increase in the size of the State. This has been promoted by persons as diverse as Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher. We drop off our children from the age of six months on the State. Childrearing has become rigorously professionalised, taking away our natural instinct. Hodgkinson, father of three children aged three, six and eight, commented that the situation was not so different from that proposed by Plato in the Republic: this included Guardians, both male and female, who would run the state while their children were put into state run nurseries.
Something similar happens at the BBC: there are nurseries for the children of staff. The bright women can get on with their job of distracting the population from their woes while the kids sit unloved in a White City basement. One friend of his had a child in the basement for two years. He had some care from his grandparents, but otherwise no holidays for two years. Eventually, Oliver James got through to his mother and she has rearranged her life to work partly from home and also employ a nanny.
What was feminism about? It was a reaction against the Victorian idea that women should be stuck in the home as a trophy of the pater familias. “I am so rich my wife need not work.” Women rejected being treated as a status symbol, and wanted to be free of childcare and to join the men, working alongside them. No such protest was needed in the eighteenth century when many more women were busy at home at their husbandry.
Hodgkinson said that his mother had been one of those who wanted to get into the corporation. Men had never particularly enjoyed slaving for the corporation but now the corporation was delighted because it had twice as many people to choose from and the women were falling over themselves to be exploited, thinking it a sort of freedom. Gordon Brown is also delighted. He gets money from working women and money from childcare workers. And women are doing all the work.
This is not just a phenomenon since the sixties and seventies. It dates back at least to 1900, when Jerome K Jerome jokes that the women are doing all the work and soon the men will be able to become truly idle. GK Chesterton in the twenties makes this point about newly emancipated females:
“I meet women who say they won’t be dictated to. Then they go and get a job as a stenographer.”
Feminism has also encouraged men to get more involved in housework and childcare. In this it has been very successful. We now have the charming if slightly rediculous sight of men hovering around pushchairs in the role of assistant nappy changer. It doesn’t always suit.
What we have created is two unfulfilled parents, both working too hard and spending too little time just being at home with the family. Hodgkinson protested at the word “childcare” because it makes something natural, being with children and playing with them, into a burdensome task. Language can create an attitude. He commented that there is no time. We are stressed out. We argue at home. We don’t sleep enough. Both partners think they are doing 60% of the work but only 80% gets done.
He suggested that the economic collapse has come about because the invasion of money into everyday human interactions has reached its limits. Companies can’t keep growing forever. Capitalism needs constantly to commodify new areas of life in order to keep expanding. Things that previously were free now cost money. Bottled water, for example. Food – eating in restaurants has massively increased. And, of course, childcare.
So in searching for liberty through work and outsourcing childcare we are following somebody else’s idea. We are behaving as stooges of the state and of large scale capitalism. The search for emancipation leads to a new form of slavery.
There is an ideology behind what the government is doing. “All ideologies are totalitarian.” There is a uniform concept. The effects are seen in depression. There has been a huge boom in the sale of Prozac, which of course suits business. Newspapers accentuate the negative. Parents complain of tiredness. Women can’t decide whether to stay at home or to work. We create problems and then look to money, work and chemical means to solve them, when we would do better in changing our very approach to things.
And that includes our approach to family. The nuclear family is not the inevitable one. It is in contrast to the big families of India and Mexico. It causes loneliness. We need more people and larger families.
Hodgkinson’s own experience
His mother was known as the “woman who hates babies”. She was determined to work. Like Muriel Spark she wrote at night when the children were asleep. She went on to have a successful Fleet Street career, she made money as did his father, and he and his brother were sent to private schools.
It was not a bad upbringing. At first, when they were very small, she was at home, and their father did night shifts. He was a hands on dad, and they received a lot of parent time.
Also, as they grew, there was no question of over-mothering. This is another danger – the stay-at-home mum who can end up becoming resentful, and prevent the children from becoming self-sufficient. In this sense, motherhood is not a full-time role. It goes alongside other activities, such as husbandry and small scale enterprise. Women as men need intellectual stimulation, they need to be creative, and they need merriment, and to find fun in small everyday things. Husbandry can give great pleasure as can small scale enterprise. The loneliness of the swing-pushing mother in a drizzly London park is a depressing sight.
For the first two years of his eldest’s son’s life, Hodgkinson and his wife tried to run things more or less as before. He went into his office every day and came home at seven. Victoria tried to keep her work going as well. They had a succession of babysitters, whom Arthur would physically try and push out of the door on their arrival.
It didn’t work. Victoria would ring up in tears. He was sitting in the office, having pub lunches and sometimes in the evening marking time once he had finished what he had to do, while she was suffering at home. When he arrived back, she would see in him some welcome relief – up the stairs he was sent, through a load of mess and into the bathroom, without even having taken his jacket off. It was no good.
Their second child was born. One morning, Hodgkinson woke up and told Victoria that he wanted to move out of London to write a book. They rented a cottage and moved out. This meant he was working from home, about four hours a day, which gave enormous flexibility. It also meant that he was around a lot with the kids. And the level of shouting rose.
They employed a nanny. The cost seemed to approximate to full time childcare for two children. Victoria was still doing some work. And so they lived for three years. They borrowed money by mortgaging the house.
Claire was very good, very nice, and remains a family friend. The problem was that she was too good. A too-good nanny can tend to make you feel a bad parent. They would dread weekends and long for Mondays when she would arrive, her cheerfulness in strict contrast to their weekend of shouting and tiredness. Victoria started to lack confidence in herself as a mother because Claire seemed to be so much better at it.
Then they had a year without any help, which was hard work but satisfying and probably better for them as a family. This was followed by nine months with a German au pair girl, which Hodgkinson enjoyed – she did much of his former work and gave them all more flexibility. It was also nice for their daughter to have a girl friend and supporter. She left a year ago and now the Hodgkinson family does everything for themselves, with some weekly help with the cleaning. Factoring in some sleep time is key.
They don’t really do things by themselves, since without a nanny or childcare you naturally start doing swaps with other local families. When they had a nanny, people assumed that they were fine so didn’t really need help. Now they are all in it together, and a wonderful network has opened up, beyond commodity. There is a sense that people are doing things for themselves, which, Hodgkinson pointed out, is the real meaning of anarchy ….
His first thought is that both parents should spend as little time working as possible during the first two or three years of each child’s life. So with three children, you would be cutting back on work for possibly six years. Six years is not actually a huge amount in a lifetime. There is plenty of time for long work hours before and after the baby years. Life does not end with babies – but it should slow down a little. Slowing down is anyway good: as an idler, Hodgkinson believes that we all tend to work too hard.
Both parents should try to reorganise their work. Some couples are able each to cut back to part-time work for a few years, so that the full effect of a career break doesn’t fall only on the mother. There is plenty of part-time work about. Others start up a business from home for one or both parents.
Operating a thrifty household also helps. The Hodgkinson family have chickens, vegetables, pigs. Small scale husbandry is completely compatible with children. You can sow seeds with them. A two-year-old can feed the hens and collect the eggs. It is enormous fun and saves money. In the Second World War, people were encouraged to keep rabbits as well as to grow vegetables. Growing things releases you from the tyranny of the supermarkets and the quality is far higher. It is not just for country-dwellers: husbandry skills can be learned anywhere. Making and mending need to come back into fashion. We have forgotten the pleasures of every day creativity in the home. Bake bread, make compost, make jams. These are liberating acts, and if you can encourage your children to learn the arts of self-sufficiency, then so much the better.
There are three elements to a life well lived, for women and men. These are: philosophy, husbandry and merriment. There are not enough of any in everyday life. They have been shoved aside by the competitive ethic, and we need to bring them back.
Philosophy: reading books, talking to interesting people, going on long walks, and sleeping.
Husbandry: the household arts lost to industrial production. Cooking, baking, gardening, brewing beer, keeping animals, etc.
Merriment: lots of people. Like in Mexico. We need more alcohol, more parties, more gatherings. The old Church calendar, before 1500, included lots of festivals. Old pre-Reformation merry England was one long party, something else attacked by the Tudors. The nuclear family is too small – we need more people to be more merry.
At a deeper level, it is not your actions and what you do which count, but what you are. Don’t blame others. There are no national solutions. Each of us needs to have the confidence to create the lives that suit us. There are many paths to this. We need to try to resist ideologies in family life as well as elsewhere, which is why Hodgkinson rejects the idea of waiting for political solutions.
Putting Children First – Public Policy, Personal Choice
At our AGM in London, Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, gave us a heartening address suggesting that the case for Full Time Mothering, already supported by scientific evidence, is at last being heard by politicians.
Our Chairman, Anna Lines, introduced Jill Kirby as a lawyer, a mother, and a former Chairman of Full Time Mothers until she moved to the Centre for Policy Studies. Kirby enlarged on this by saying that her work for FTM had been a useful bridge back into paid work: she had joined the CPS Family Policy Committee from the perspective of mothers at home. In those days it had been a battle but the climate has now distinctly improved. A year ago, she became Director of the Centre, in charge of think tanks across a whole range of issues, but in all of them there recurrred the theme of keeping government in its place. She commented that we have seen a lot of erosion of our freedoms not only in family policy but across the spectrum, and having begun fighting intrusive government from the family perspective she now finds herself fighting it on all sides.
The previous week, the Cabinet Office had released a discussion paper on social mobility and inequality. Towards the end of this document, she had noticed a remarkable admission of the importance of attachment in young children:
- “Nurturing and stable relationships with caring adults are essential to healthy human development from birth. Early, secure attachments contribute to the growth of a broad range of competencies, including a love of learning, self-esteem, self-efficacy, positive social skills, successful relationships at later ages, and a sophisticated understanding of emotions, commitment, morality, and other aspects of human relationships.
- Sensitive and responsive parent-child relationships are also associated with stronger cognitive skills in young children and enhanced social competence and work skills later in school.”
The discussion paper was by no means consistent in its approach to infants’ needs – the Day Care Trust and the case for increased daycare provision cropped up too. However, even the Day Care Trust is beginning to accept the importance of ‘attachment theory’ and to recognise that parental care is the best form of care in the first year of life (see the FTM website for a cross-section of the research on this.)
Kirby continued to say that the impersonal care provided by day nurseries tends to have a particularly adverse effect. Jay Belsky reports that more than just ten hours a week of non-maternal care in the first year of life can adversely affect mother-infant security, as can having more than one caregiver in that first year. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education Project found that under-twos who spend long hours in daycare were more likely to be anti-social when they start school. The damage tends to be most evident among the infants of mothers who work full-time (unlike in the rest of Europe, the majority of UK working mothers are part-timers). The current stress on the need for flexible working arrangements recognises this, but in turn pressure is being put on employers. There is a danger that women of child-bearing age will suffer prejudice because of their rights.
Many women avoid formal childcare provision and turn instead to grandparents. Studies on the role of grandparents in British family life show that they tend to want to help on a part- rather than a full-time basis. Supplementing maternal care gives them a good connection with their grandchildren without over-taxing them or damaging the mother-child bond.
All these findings do not suggest that the use of daycare, even for young children, is harmful provided it is limited to short periods. But they do make it clear that collective care for young children on anything approaching a full-time basis can have adverse consequences. The conclusion for policy-makers should surely be that institutional care is not in the interests of very young children, and that the best way to provide for their interests is to ensure that either a parent or close family member is available in the first three years of life.
Yet, as we know, government policy, continues to run in the opposite direction. Government spending on early years and childcare was over £5 billion in 2007-08, four times greater than in 1997-98. Three and a half million pounds daily are claimed to be spent on childcare tax credit, which is not available to mothers or for informal care. Despite all this spending and the Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets, the percentage of families actually using formal childcare is falling away. The government has reached its limits: women are working part-time and using informal care wherever possible.
The Daycare Trust has produced research which fits with this, showing that there has been very little increase in full-time maternal employment. What there is comes not out of desire but out of financial necessity. A 2005 survey of 1,500 women with an average age of 29 found that only 1 in 10 wanted to work full-time once they had children. Women today are not reacting as did the women of the 1980s. A full 70% said that they did not want to work as hard as their mothers’ generation. In 2006 Prima magazine included a survey of working mothers which showed that only 6% wanted to work full-time; 50% wanted to work part-time, and a quarter wanted to stay at home and be a ‘housewife and mother’.
So why is government putting so many resources into daycare when it is clear that women don’t want it?
The clue lies in the Cabinet Office paper cited above. In 2004 Gordon Browne – then at the Treasury – took over responsibility for the childcare agenda. His Ten Year Strategy introduced a new policy objective: to reduce inequality. Kirby insisted that he is out of kilter. His aims are not those of families nor are they for the good of the children, and nor are they even attainable. Uniform outcomes just do not happen where children are concerned. Even the Cabinet Office paper admits this.
However, the nationalisation of childhood moves relentlessly on. The government is pressing for more and more uniformity in the early years. The 2006 Childcare Act, which imposed new duties on local authorities, has created ‘a new frontier for the welfare state’. The Act set up the ‘toddler curriculum’ as part of the Early Years Strategy, giving all babies and young children cared for outside the home six ‘learning areas’ into which their days should be divided. The Outcomes Framework would be measured by OFSTED inspection. On top of this, we have Children’s Centres – the new version of Sure Start – extended daycare and other family services in one setting, and the plan to make every school an extended school. Kirby claimed that educationalising every childhood experience is extinguishing natural instinct. What we mothers know and do through love is much more valuable than this earnest approach to learning.
Tim Loughton, the Shadow Minister for Children, has tried to fight this encroachment on children’s lives. There are others in the Conservative Party whose approach is closer to that of Labour. There is an extraordinary muddle of thought going on, whereby one is no longer thought to be an earth mother for mentioning the importance of attachment, and yet women are being encouraged to look after anybody’s children other than their own.
So where do we go from here? It must be necessary to start with the needs of the child. This means being honest about care ratios, settings, the cost of providing substitute care and being realistic about its affordability.
The next subject must be the parents. There are big arguments on how best to support families. There is reluctance to part with public money to people (families) who are not accountable and have not been ‘proved worthy to receive it’, hence the rediculous notion of giving money to grandparents, provided that they go on a childminding course.
Pressing for family taxation, which makes allowance for each child and dependent relative, is in Kirby’s view the best target. It avoids the notion of a public handout and takes proper account of the fact that we are families, and children and dependent elderly relatives are part of the family unit. Benefits and taxation should be assessed together.
Kirby commented that the Every Child Matters programme does not discriminate between good and bad mothers. All these initiatives should targeted on the few who are unable to cope, rather than be spread across the board. This does involve making value judgments. It also involves trusting parents, and accepting that, in the vast majority of cases, family care and care chosen by families will be in the best interests of the child. As it is, government is seeking to regulate all our children’s lives.
The Children’s Database has been postponed many times, but is now meant to become operational in 2009. It could be used by government as a tool e.g. to insist that children begin school at a certain age. We are all becoming part of the machinery of the state. This universality is very depressing, suppressing as it does the scope for diversity in society. It shows the government going in the opposite direction to that in which society is moving. There is much more potential now for mothers to be in contact with each other, and the internet in particular has opened up new possibilities for the exchange of ideas between likeminded souls.
Young women are faced with a barrage of information about career opportunities. They are also now increasingly aware of the demands of mothering and the difficulties of combining work and home life. There is a danger that some are postponing motherhood or deciding not to have children at all so as to escape the conflict. Full Time Mothers is a term which still encapsulates a very real meaning for many and we can do a lot to give a new generation of girls the confidence to become mothers themselves.
In answer to questions, Kirby replied that she had mixed feelings about front-loading child benefit, an idea floated by Frank Field and raised in outline beforehand by David Willetts. She commented that politicians love to find quick fix funding which is comparatively easy to produce. In practice, a huge amount of wasted money is already swilling in the system which could be much better used if redirected to parents through lower taxation. If the £5 billion currently being spent annually on childcare was distributed among all parents, it would make a big difference.
She thought Jack Straw’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities would not run far, and she was in general wary of the rights agenda. She was more inclined to focus upon the Cabinet Office paper that she had cited.
The decline of legal marriage did not have good implications for children. We know that if children’s parents are married before or even at the moment of birth they are more likely to remain together and to provide a stable base. Kirby said that she had campaigned for the support of marriage and that David Cameron is also showing an interest, perhaps in a less controversial way than Major’s government because he talks from the standpoint of children.
She thought that, should they be win the next election, the Conservatives would show an incoming government’s wariness of dismantling Labour’s initiatives. They would probably water down the Early Years Curriculum but not be as radical as Kirby would like. Michael Gove, the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has said that he would close the Children’s Database. Maria Miller, one of his assistants, is generally supportive of giving mothers choice, but from a working mother’s perspective. Steve Hilton, close adviser of David Cameron, is also generally sympathetic. Kirby believe that the Party is showing some of the right instincts but needs to be encouraged to become bolder