by Claire Paye
30 Sept 2016
It is clear I have my work cut out for me. The Conference fringe events ‘Improving life chances’ (organised by Bright Blue with Child Poverty Action Group) and ‘Working women: is gender equality beyond reach’ (also organised by Bright Blue) have been scheduled to run simultaneously, with no recognition of the link between the two. As a spokesperson for Mothers at Home Matter, I will be returning to the Conference this year to argue that the life chances of children, especially children in poverty, are vastly improved if they receive consistent, loving care from a sensitive mother (or father in some cases, but 90% of parents at home are mothers) who is attuned to their needs. I will also argue that equality is a false god. Great as it would be for mothers at home full time to receive the same lifetime earnings as company directors, and some would argue that should be the case, gender equality for working women will always be beyond reach so long as it is measured only in cash terms.
As a mother I am much more interested in my children’s life chances than in financial gender equality. Of course I will be paid less over my lifetime, because I have not been paid for the work I have been doing in the home over the past ten years. So I don’t want the Government to force a false agenda of gender equality on me or any other mothers, when that equality means taking mothers away from the loving care of their children.
What I would appreciate is equality of value. What I contribute in terms of raising well-attached, resilient children who are able to self-regulate, respond appropriately to others, achieve a good level of academic competence and, most importantly these days, will be less at risk of developing mental health issues due to the secure relationships they have enjoyed and the time I can offer them to offset the pernicious effect of screens – all of this is surely worth recognising. It’s not the amount I can earn over my lifetime that interests me. It is the amount I can contribute.
Another event asks ‘why aren’t women working?’ What a question. Leaving aside the point that being a mother at home full time can be extremely hard work, the answer, in many cases, is that we actually want to look after our children and don’t want to put them into childcare just so that we can do a part time, low paid job just in order not to be penalised in the tax system. Single income families pay about £3000 more p.a. in tax at least than dual income families.
The most important argument as to why non-working women (aka mothers) should be supported in their care role is that babies and children, particularly those in poverty, need to experience their mother’s love throughout the day (and night) to develop well. The Government should support mothers, particularly single mothers, in their care of their children, and help them in the home, through a combination of financial support and training in parenting, rather than take the children out of the home environment and place them in childcare for many hours a week. Research in the USA has found that for children in poverty, sensitive caregiving in the first three years predicted an individual’s social competence and academic achievement, not only during childhood and adolescence but into adulthood. A 2015 study found that the gap in literacy and maths on entering school between richer and poorer students has reduced due to richer home environments, where parents have responded to Government campaigns to have more books in the home and talk to their children more. There was no significant evidence that public preschool attendance had made any difference.
What should concern us in the equality debate is the equality of opportunity for children. Families need to be able to choose what is best for their children and for the parents. Some children will be fine in daycare and their mothers will manage well the time pressures of working and caring for their children whilst maintaining a healthy mental state. Other families would rather the mother or father cared for their children most or all of the time. The Government doesn’t need to impose a false gender equality agenda on us. They need to level the playing field so single income families do not immediately pay at least £3000 more in tax than dual earners, or perhaps introduce a carer’s allowance to recognise the equal value of those caring for others (young or old) and those working for a salary. Children’s life chances depend largely on the care they receive, not on their mother’s lifetime earnings.