In our weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?
Have you ever heard a man say 'you know, after working full time, once I’ve paid for the nursery, I only have £50 a month?' Probably not. But how many women have said that to you? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. Like Lyndsey:
'Look, I thought I’d done well at work, I earn £35k. But when I’ve paid for two nursery places, plus travel to and from the office, I’m worse off. How can that be? How can I work all month, leave my kids with strangers and kill myself to do a good job and come home and do everything for the kids and still lose money? I had no idea before I had kids that my career would be so badly hit by them. I am really angry about it. I want to work. I just want to be able to work and get something for it. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether to give up or not.'
Some stay with work, for their careers, pensions and future prospects. For others, the combination of doing what previous generations of women did, looking after the children and the home, at the same time as doing what previous generations of men did, working, plus, for many, remaining connected to work electronically from when they wake until when they sleep is too much. Defeated, they quit. Which is often misunderstood by senior men who shrug and call it a lifestyle decision: 'she wasn’t that committed, wanted to spend time with the kids' they say as they return to their 12-hour day made possible by their partners at home. Single parent households are hit even harder. Many can’t even think how they would manage to work and care at the same time.
There are a couple of things that strike me about this issue. One is the silence of it. That no one ever seems to tell you before babies that you’re likely to lose either a whole salary, as one of you steps out of work, or the best part of it, if you’re paying for early years care. Which is why so many people invest in the best home they can afford and set up their lives as if they will continue with a double salary before they have kids and then get a real shock. Reining that in is painful. The other is that the money never seems to work in the early years. Not for anyone. Even when I interview people who are well off, they feel it because they need a lot of help to cover the long hours. But most of us think it’s just us panicking that we can’t pay off debts, or pay into pensions or moving to an interest only mortgage if we can.
The shocking thing though is how little serious focus this issue gets from the main political parties. They’re always meddling with the details of childcare: vouchers, 15 free hours, 30 free hours for 38 weeks a year from three if both parents work… No one seems to be looking at the fact that women are effectively being taxed, often at 100% of their salary, from the end of maternity leave until their child turns three. Just think about that for a moment: 100% of women’s income going into childcare for more than two years. And wonder why we have such an awful pay gap (which isn’t to say there aren’t other reasons, there are, but this is a big one).
The reality is that we’ve moved from a male breadwinner model, where women stay at home and care, to a world where both parents largely need to work. To support that, we need to modernise our system of childcare, school calendars and working hours to make it possible for families to both work and care. And if we’re serious about equality that shouldn’t so weaken the financial status of women so much that they are horrified to find themselves a part of conversations that go like this:
‘One day we were talking and this mum was wondering whether her husband would “allow” her to have a new cooker, when another mum says in this slightly too practical tone, “just buy it on the Visa card and give him a blowie when the bill comes.” Everyone laughed but I knew at that moment that I had to go back to work.