Opinion: The hidden costs of pushing parents to conform

I heard odd things yesterday.  Talk of getting women back into the workplace by subsidising childcare for all parents – and this after means testing child benefit.

Then someone proposed that all child carers should have good GCSE Maths & English whilst increasing ratios! How did the human race survive before academic qualifications? Here we have another narrowing of work opportunities for people who are not so hot at academic stuff.

To add to my indignation, I heard someone say on the radio that only working parents provide a positive role model  for children and that “non-working” parents don’t contribute to the economy.

I tried not to take this personally.  Apparently, nothing I do counts towards the key indicator of national success until I go shopping or pay a bill, neither of which tally with my personal success indicators.

I’d love to read proposals on helping parents avoid being financially pressured into returning to work, together with an assessment of the key role unpaid parents (UPs) play in their families, their communities and society.

Here’s my take,  based on 15 years’ experience, working full-time, part-time and at home, of the value UPs bring.  I’m not saying that every family should have a UP. I do, however, want to see us put as much effort into making full-time parenting financially feasible and as socially acceptable as we put into back-to-work policies, so that parents can make a genuine choice. There’s more to national success than GDP  and more to people’s quality of life than their finances.

Most of all, it’s not government’s place to rate one parenting model above another.

UPs, along with retired people and local trades people create the cohesive web of our communities. Has anyone worked out the reduced policing, health, social services and other costs associated with a strong community?

Our local pre-school facility was built and is run by volunteers. Immense effort goes into keeping the costs as low as possible and the hours as long as possible for working parents. The majority of actively involved parents were UPs.

There is a freedom in being a UP.  It can be hard, when , exhausted from having to deal with everything on an emotional level, you look around the chaotic house and think “All I have to show for a full day’s work is that my children are still alive – and frankly even that was touch and go today!”  However, although you won’t be as financially well off, there can also be a greater freedom to follow your own interests. It is a space which working people often find only in retirement.

A small selection of things which happened here because of UPs exploring their interests: a sustainability project, free music theory lessons, and a ward swing to the Lib Dems in 2010’s local government election.

I’ve learnt more about human nature,  how things work and networking in the past 8 years as a UP than in all my working life. My children get to see that they and the things I care about are as important as earning money for the sake of it.

I don’t think it’s right for government to give higher value to working parents. There is no right answer, just what works for your family and a liberal approach is to encourage and celebrate different approaches.

* Karen Wilkinson is Chair of Thornbury & Yate LibDems and co-founder of the non-aligned campaign “Parents Want A Say”

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14 Comments

  • A genuine choice is good but as soon as you want the government to start subsidising those views then it’s only natural that they’ll take an interest in deciding which income is best.

  • Raising the next generation is one of the most important jobs one can do. I have in the past worked full-time, part-time and (now) on a seasonal basis. I have to say I have noticed a big difference in our family life since I gave up regular work and my children are more relaxed . Of course we struggle financially but when both of us worked full-time, the stress and pressure on us just to survive everyday life with two children was unbearable and the extra income did not compensate for this at all. However I do feel that stay-at-home parents are undervalued in our society.

  • Richard Harris 1st Feb '13 - 6:04am

    Karen, probably the most sensible article I have ever read on this website. Government needs to think less about nursery places and more about enabling parents to stay at home and spend the early years with their children.

  • Thank you Richard!
    Phyllis, completely agree re stressed/relaxed children.
    Children experience time differently to adults. One of my jobs is to mediate between a highly pressured working parent’s idea of how many things can be done in a minute and a child’s idea of how many hours it can take to put their shoes on.
    I also reckon it takes at least two weeks of the summer holidays before my children relax from the pressures of school (whether academic, deadlines or social) sufficiently to really like each other again – and for me to feel I have my children back. It’s both the best and the worst feeling in the world – it will last a few weeks before they have to get back on the treadmill,
    Thomas: my point is government fails to understand the wide range of advantages to society, in financial as well as human terms, in looking at this matter. The research on this that I have found so far seems very narrow, partly I think as a result of the equalities debate. However this is not about stay at home mums but stay at home parents, understanding the totality of the impact they have and in levelling the playing field for both options.
    Frankly if I were Queen of the Universe, I’d insist everyone has 6 months paid leave at least every 5 years in order to allow them time to re-gain perspective. I’ve seen the difference it makes – expect to pay for it through reduced NHS/employer costs related to mental & physical health issues. Downside would be a hit to the alcohol & anti-depressant industries/tax revenues.

  • Perhaps it would help if Government and employers realised that women and men lead different-shaped lives rather than forcing women to behave like men at the point when they want or need to behave like women. If either parent spends say, five years as a UP out of their total life span of 70-80 years, is that really to much to ask?

  • Michael Parsons 2nd Feb '13 - 2:22pm

    It is the failure to impute the valiue of unpaid personal services in the GDP that causes this foolish lack of esteem; it downgrades the contributions of pensioners to the output of services and worse still devalues women’s work unless they get a part-time job scrubbing the local bank’s steps, when sudeenly this contribution is counted,and the vast expanse of valuable work they do unpaid continues to be ignored. Here is a simple reform target: include human effort that yields services in our GDP output measure and forget about “happiness coefficients” and similar distractions.

  • daft h'a'porth 2nd Feb '13 - 2:36pm

    @Tilly
    @Michael Parsons
    Can we please stop with the gender-role-forcing language, cheers? ” forcing women to behave like men at the point when they want or need to behave like women”, “women’s work”, etc? As for “a part-time job scrubbing the local bank’s steps”, I know what you mean – you mean that whatever paid role is picked up is not likely to be of as great a value to the community as the unpaid role, but unintentionally imply that said woman, on returning to the workforce, is only going to be doing menial work (in this case, a workplace variant of housework)… Individuals lead different-shaped lives because they are individuals. It really isn’t about supporting individuals in their need to behave like a gender archetype. Indeed, I doubt that UPs do conform particularly closely to a single archetype.

    Women’s work these days, and indeed men’s work, is whatever the individual in question happens to do. The entire point, surely, is that the choice of employment or career or role within the family or community should depend neither on the content of the individual’s trousers, nor on the measured contribution to national revenue.

    Karen has avoided this gender-role pitfall and written a very well-balanced article that does not push for any particular gender role to be imposed, saying in fact that “There is no right answer, just what works for your family and a liberal approach is to encourage and celebrate different approaches.” Respect, and Karen, if you ever stand for election for Queen of the Universe, my vote is yours…

  • I agree that the role of parents is undervalued in society.

    I think the main sign of this is that they are unpaid for their caring role. Ie, they are considered literally “worthless”.

    This is fine is you are independently wealthy, perhaps have a huge trust fund or wealthy spouse, however if you work in order to earn a living, its just impossible.

    Many working people are very talented, with years of skills, knowledge and experience, and they may want to continue without being penalised for having children by having to do it essentially unpaid.

  • daft h'a'porth 2nd Feb '13 - 11:13pm

    @James
    Carers get a pretty rough deal generally. I’d call it the politics of contempt if I seriously thought that it was even that deep; having spent a certain amount of time kicking around the sector it seems more like the policy of simply not giving a monkey’s about any subject that is not a) marketable, b) profitable or c) likely to lead to valuable networking opportunities. This does not require contempt – self-centredness does the job just fine.

  • Simply put we can’t survive on one salary. We both need to work just to pay the bills. Being UP would be lovely but it’s just not an option unless one of our salaries doubles!

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Feb '13 - 4:00pm

    “I don’t think it’s right for government to give higher value to working parents. There is no right answer, just what works for your family and a liberal approach is to encourage and celebrate different approaches.” Why would any LIBERAL not agree with that?

    Of course Carl is right that in many families both partners must work to pay the bills. One reason is our ridiculously high house prices. So many aspects of life would be better if housing existed to provide homes rather than an investment opportunity.

  • Again, thank you all for reading and commenting.
    In terms of how to tackle the issue of making full-time parenting affordable to all, I’d be very interested to know if anyone is aware of any research or policy on this? Most of what I’ve found is around maternity/paternity leave and childcare costs. Perhaps a meaningful married couples allowance would finally push my partner and I into marriage after 28 years! The mortgage issue is a big one I think – is it possible/practical/liberal? to limit the maximum multiples on joint mortgages to avoid DINKYs (remember them?) getting themselves in a difficult situation in the first place? Besides, I wonder about the effect on the housing market of two professional earners with high 5 and 6 figure incomes.
    On the micro scale, UPs aren’t eligible for concessionary rates as pensioners and those on benefits – the difficulty of proving it I suppose – making all those little things like taking children out for the day – or going to Conference – that bit more difficult. And on the macro scale – yes, let’s point and shout at Emperor GDP’s lack of clothing and relegate the loathsome pretender to its rightful place as a amoral spreadsheet!

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