Vanessa Olorenshaw: The Politics of Mothering

Posted in: Your Views: What Parents Say

This is an extract from a Pamphlet soon to be published online.




by Vanessa Olorenshaw

As a mother of two young children at home, enjoying and seeing real value in what I and others are doing by caring for their families, yet feeling insulted and neglected by political, economic and social policy in Election Year 2015, I decided to write and distribute this Pamphlet (and I call it a Pamphlet in the spirit of political activism of using my voice – my right to write) to draw attention to something unacceptable which is happening to mothers who wish to care for their families in the United Kingdom today.

Do forgive the pun, but how about a bit of housekeeping?

This Pamphlet seeks to say something which seems not to be permitted in the 21st Century. Hold on to your hats, folks: Some mothers do not wish to return to paid employment at the expense of caring for and supporting their families; and mothers who are at home are doing valuable work which, although not directly reducible to a £ sign, is the stuff of human lives. In short, they deserve respect and recognition for the work they do. Furthermore, those mothers, and there are many, who yearn to be at home rather than in employment, should also be supported to do so.

It is a call to action to those who see value in maternal, or at the very least parental, loving, responsive and responsible care of children over paid-for institutionalised care or non-parental care, whether in the form of nursery, wrap-around programmes or other setups. It seeks to encourage them to engage in political debate in this Election Year and to push their constituency Parliamentary candidates on the issues of care by a parent, by, for example, writing letters; printing and sending the introduction to this Pamphlet or any other literature which speaks to you; speaking directly to MPs and candidates in person; and engaging in demonstrations and online campaigns. You DO have a voice.

It does not purport to represent a ‘Mother’s Manifesto’ for the very reason that there is huge variety in women and mothers’ circumstances, priorities and hopes. It seeks to announce loud and clear that many mothers wish to stay at home with their children just as many wish, legitimately, to engage in work outside the home. So, something this Pamphlet is not: it is neither a criticism of mothers who work outside the home nor an attempt to engage in any type of ‘Mommy War’. Far from it. It simply seeks to level a playing field in airtime and expression of opinion which has, for too long, relegated mothers at home (or those who would rather be at home than in paid employment) with their families onto the sidelines or, let’s face it, into the Sin Bin.

It demands true democratic engagement of the many politicians and policymakers who seek to justify: (i) increasing separation (often compelled through financial hardship and penalty) of parents and children, and at earlier and earlier ages, despite the family’s wishes; (ii) restrictions on available support to those who seek to prioritise family care often at considerable financial hardship; and (iii) a blinkered economic lens and ideological encouragement of all mothers to engage in paid employment without any consideration of the desire of many to remain home with their family and the benefits to individuals and society at large of those mothers doing so. It reminds them that they have a democratic duty to listen to what many mothers want and invites them to stop the ceaseless discrimination against mothers at home and to start valuing family care.

In the section ‘Maternal Politics’, I discuss the impossible situation faced by many mothers today and how we are being forced into a defensive position. The political climate is such that no mainstream party is currently prepared to depart from the increasing promotion of, and investment in, ‘Early Years’ agendas and wrap-around care for school children, the availability of services and support for children cared for by a parent is dwindling, and the issue of the needs of children of all ages (including those pesky adolescents) for adequate time and attention within the family is entirely neglected. The idea that children have needs for family time and care is indeed becoming as taboo as the notion that a mother might, just might, want to stay home with her family. This is something which has to change, and Election Year is surely the time for mainstream parties to listen.

I raise the issue of the double bind in which mothers find themselves, in ‘A Mother’s Place is in the Wrong’: simply put, mothers who work hard at home are criticised and suffer financially, and mothers in employment but who wish to be raising their children at home instead experience a double shift and intolerable pressure not to ‘have it all’ but to ‘do it all’. Yet, mainstream politicians seem to consider parental care to be a lifestyle choice: a privilege for the wealthy or a frolic for the ‘feckless’, and they refuse to countenance the prospect of adequately supporting families to provide care themselves.

In ‘Election Year 2015 and a Hidden Consensus Politics’, I make the case that we live in an age of consensus politics in one area: prioritising and subsidising more paid-for childcare. No mainstream political party seeks to recognise or place value on the prospect of a parent at home, doing the work of child care and supporting the family. This is manifestly undemocratic, yet it is happening without comment in public discourse.

So, to the money: In ‘Discrimination Against ‘Caring Families in Tax Policy and Universal Credit’, I discuss the very clear policy discrimination which is inflicted against struggling, loving and caring families and raise the issue of why public money is being poured into subsidising paid-for childcare where studies suggest that it would be economically more cost-efficient for, say, the mother to be paid directly, should she decide parental care is right for her family. I address the significant and often devastating extra tax liability for a family where children are cared for by one parent and the other earns a very modest wage, compared with a dual earner family earning the same total family income – a family who will also cost money to the state in subsidised paid-for childcare. I discuss the Universal Credit system which will force low income families to forego loving parental care by one parent, including lone parent families. There is a manifest unfairness in the State treating a family as a unit where payments are made (minimising State exposure), yet treating it as a household of mere individuals where tax is removed (maximising tax income). This policy of differential treatment depending on the State’s interest demonstrates a contempt for families with children and an eagerness to, simply, exploit those families.

In ‘A Shirked State Responsibility’, I discuss the double standard: A mother is liable to prosecution and civil sanction should she fail to care for her child; yet the State, politicians, and commentators feel at liberty to suggest that a mother at home, dutifully caring for her family, performs no valuable role, is not worthy of recognition and is a burden. Every child needs mothering – the question, always, is who is going to do it. At the risk of simplifying one key issue: having children is not a private, personal matter. If women stopped having babies we would pretty soon die out and no one would be there to wipe George Osborne’s bottom in the nursing home. Reproduction and the care of necessarily dependent children are, quite simply, necessary for society. However, we are witnessing social and economic policy which does not live up to the State’s responsibility to mothers; rather, it treats them as invisible and worthless.

Which leads me to ‘A Mothers’ Endowment’ and an exploration of the origin of Family Allowances – with specific attention to the rationale behind the efforts of the women’s movement to achieve State payment, out of its responsibility to women raising a family, specifically to mothers themselves. I criticise the Coalition Government in performing a retrograde step (which will open the floodgates to greater culls of mother’s entitlement to support – unless action is taken) in curtailing Child Benefit payments; and criticise the unjustified discrimination in employing a ‘family unit’ taxation approach for the sole purpose of removing a mother’s payment, but retains an ‘individual’ approach for the purposes of removing tax from the family purse.

In seeking to emphasise the wide variations in family set up, women’s views, and mothers’ wishes, I include ‘Respect and Difference’ to remind policymakers that one size does not fit all. Yet, in a heavily biased form of equality, a mother is rendered free to do anything, except, increasingly, to mother her children full time and support her family at home.

This brings us nicely to ‘Mothers Who Wish to Mother and, Yes, They Do Exist’. Interestingly, the gender-neutral language used by Government, politicians and commentators, as well as Government policy papers, renders ‘mother’ obsolete. She does not exist. The word ‘mother’ is rarely used, except in discussing a mother’s right – practically bordering on duty – to work outside the home, or in holding her accountable for some purported failure. This matters. It tells mothers:

‘You are nothing unless you are engaged in paid employment. Your status as a mother is nothing. Your right to mother does not exist’.

These are tactics that have always been used to oppress groups of vulnerable people: first deny they exist; if that fails, demonise them.

And what greater example of denial/demonising can there be than media and political discourse which ignores the very existence of mother on the one hand, and seeks to inflate an alleged benefit of institutionalised childcare on the other, subtly cashing in on the all-pervading sense of, always, blaming the mother. In political debate today, there seems no room to claim that there are ‘Benefits of Maternal Care’. ‘The Desire to Perform It [is] Taboo’.

So where does this leave mothers? Somewhere between ‘Disenfranchisement and Disempowerment’. The valuable work we do is ignored and devalued and our voices are not heard or heeded, given the fact that we are effectively consigned to the cupboard, at home, with no respected public presence or influence. When no political party speaks to us or for us, we are rendered effectively disenfranchised. When we feel unable to make our voices heard, we are disempowered. The consensus political blockade risks, in 2015, rendering us without a true vote.

And the reason our voices are not heard? ‘The Mainstream Agenda’ has no place for anyone who dares claim that they wish to forego participation in the workforce, during an important time in the family life cycle, and who demands the right to support, recognition, value and equality of treatment in doing so. Full employment is where it is at in the truest liberal and capitalist tradition, with no place for any recognition of the value or need for parental care of children or rights of mothers to care for their families if they wish to do so.

This leads me to conclude with ‘A Call to Action’. Mothers who wish to mother: make your voices heard. Give your support to groups such a Mothers at Home Matter or Global Women’s Strike, or create your own and work together. Engage in this year’s political process.

Everyone else? Listen up. Mummy’s got something to say.

Copyright Vanessa Olorenshaw 2015

Vanessa is a mother of two children. A lawyer for a few years before a enjoying a career as a law reporter for a legal publishing company, she decided to stay at home when her son, now 4, was born as they, quite simply, could not bear to be separated from each other. Finding a beauty and richness in mothering, different from anything she had experienced professionally, she decided to commit herself to her family while her children were dependent. Considering herself a feminist, and supportive of the rights of women, she felt a greater political need for activism when she considered what might befall her daughter, 2, should she ever became a mother herself. Vanessa lives with her family in Kent.

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