Tuesday, 4 May 2010

why this hasn't been a Mumsnet election

A few days ago, a woman about my age came up to me on the street while I was out with my son. She apologised for bothering us but said she was desperately looking for some part-time childcare for her daughter, who's recently started school.
She worked at a local hospital, which often meant late evening shifts: but she couldn't find a local nursery or childminder open much past 6pm, while afterschool clubs aren't open that late either (and even if they were that's a terribly long day in school for a four-year-old.) I guess a nanny was too expensive on an NHS salary, and there were no grandparents nearby.
If she couldn't find someone, she would no longer be able to do her job: and she was getting desperate, which was why she was stopping complete strangers like me, hoping that the local mummy grapevine could somehow magically produce a solution.
And as we chatted I thought: during almost four weeks of this so-called 'Mumsnet election', with politicians supposedly targeting middle class mothers in marginal seats, I have heard nobody even come close to offering practical help with problems like this.
We live in a 24/7 economy, with supermarkets open round the clock and millions of people in the public sector working night and weekend shifts, yet childcare is still too often organised around an 8am-6pm working day. How do you hire and hold onto parents in those circumstances?
But nobody wants to talk about complicated things like that. What we get is photo opportunities amid the fingerpaints to promote tax breaks for married mothers or toddler tax credits (worth £3 a week and just under £4 a week respectively: hardly enough to compensate for having to give up one's job) and gushing talk from the leaders' wives about what great dads their husbands are.
As a bunch of eminent (and clearly cross) women make clear in this letter to the Times today, too many of the really big questions for women haven't even been touched. If this was the Mumsnet election, god help us when politics reverts to normal.


  1. You're absolutely right.
    There are some major unanswered problems for working women -for example what happens when your child is sick and can't go to nursery? It's always the woman who ends up taking the day off. The Mumsnet stuff is just spin - no real substance to it at all.
    Mind you, living in America makes me realise that we are better off in some respects in the UK...most mothers I know have either given up work entirely or employ a nanny, as there seems to be no part-time work available and maternity leave is about 6 weeks long.

  2. I have posted on my blog about the difficulties for mothers either already in the workplace or attempting to enter into it.

    The government is gradually phasing out income support for single mothers (the age at which your youngest child has to be in order for you to qualify is becoming lower and lower) with an idea to replacing it entirely with job-seekers allowance, which is not nearly as much money and so will force single women with dependent children into the workplace. Where on earth does the government think we are all going to find jobs that will pay enough to support our families and that will fit around school hours? We won't. We are all going to end up in the same position as the woman you met the other day.

    If the government wants women off benefits and working, then it is going to have to make some sort of provision for flexible and affordable child-care. It can't have it both ways.

  3. I gave up fulltime work and went freelance because I was tired of tearing myself in half to do both job and motherhood properly. It's worked out pretty well - though I probably earn less than I would if I'd stayed on the treadmill - not much in the way of a pension either. But it's really only possible for a small number of people in a limited number of jobs. As you say, the complexity of modern families and of shifting working patterns mean that standard approaches to childcare are hopelessly inadequate. Presumably that's why the Tories want us all married and staying at home - it makes social policy SO much easier.

  4. I'm convinced mumsnet is five women in fulham with several aliases each.

  5. The real solution is to recognize that childcare is a job. The rise of single parents, mothers, is not neccessarily the fault of the women. You can't turn the clock back. Why is the government prepared to train single mothers (practically the only training available) to look after other women's children but won't fund them to bring up their own?
    This 24 hour childcare will not be good for the children and who can provide it other than poorer rather desperate women. Who knows what is happening to their own children while they are providing child care to better off mothers?
    It's a mess. it's patriarchal capitalism. It needs to change.
    Giving money to already married couples is not the solution.24 hour child care is not the solution either.
    I am disgusted that New Labour (whose first act was to eliminate lond parent benefit) has lowered the age at which single parents must 'go out to work' to when their child is 8 years old. Bringing up children IS work, you tossers! (not you gabby them, grr)

  6. No-one wants to talk about childcare, either the availability or the real cost, and I speak as a Chair of Govs at a children's centre. We have had our fair share of enquiries from desperate parents who assume because the DCSF has funded a massive national advertising campaign, that we can offer 'flexible' childcare ie after 6pm. We can't. We work with the childminding network co-ordinator to find that sort of care when we can but of course we only manage 0-5s. Extended hours at school is another matter. Most people I know try au pairs...but it's a piecemeal approach and as for Mumsnet...the only impact I recall them having on any political news was the chocolate biscuit question...I despair. As the letter said, unless we have fair parliamentary representation of women, there will be no representation of women's issues.

  7. Thanks Gaby - completely agree.
    Its particularly galling that Tory plans to allow nurseries to charge for hitherto free places for 3 and 4 year olds is not a major election issue. This is a universal entitlement and its abandonment is a huge retrogressive step (see Polly T last week http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/26/nursery-provision-conservatives-tactical-voting). Even when Gove went on Mumsnet on Friday he wasn't pushed on it (instead was happily indulged with questions about free schools - zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz).
    Why so? Its got to partly be down to the government's failure to make a reality of the policy in this instance. Many parents don’t know about free 3 & 4 year old places, let alone have an expectation their child should receive it. Another point is that the media and commentariat have not done enough to put it on the map - bar Polly T there's been silence, including from Mumsnet editorial. But I also agree with the comments above: lack of presence from female politicians in the campaign has been a major issue.

  8. I really don't like Mumsnet - I look periodically but there is something about it that makes my skin crawl. Speaking of making my skin crawl, David Cameron mentioning the "great British companies" during the debates and the campaign and always a special mention for Mothercare - ugh.

  9. In an increasingly industrialized society, the possibility exists that day care centers will also have to cater to mums working on the night shift (second shift, third shift, graveyard shift, or what have you). This is a common problem throughout the world. I do wish that your locality can come up with a real solution. Who knows, the rest of the world might emulate it. Good luck. If you would want to see how it's done in the United States, you can check out http://ownadaycare.com.

  10. Mumsnet Election...hmm no politician gets a grilling behinnd a computer screen and the users of Mumsnet are not representative:

  11. I totally agree - for my part, I have logged off Mumsnet because they don't represent me and have not taken this incredible opportunity to push the issues affecting women in this election, I mean honestly could they not have tried harder?

    We need proper flexible childcare that is affordable so parents can choose to work not be blocked from working because childcare isn't available when they need it

  12. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  13. We need to do more to support the women politicians we do have and to combat the shower of gender-inspired criticism that is directed at people like Harriet Harman by the press and, sadly, by her colleagues.

  14. This is one of the reasons why I'm thinking of not having kids! As a freelancer who, when she's working, works 24/7 and often abroad what are the real childcare options? Although I think the problem starts earlier with lack of proper paternity leave setting up gender biased patterns of childcare. if most men were involved from the start might everyone take more notice? i can feel a rant coming on...

  15. The attitude of the male commenters to that letter (bunch of whinging feminists, equailty exists but women aren't good enough to make the most of it, blame the other lazy women who aren't rising up in arms behind the sisterhood, you wanted to get out the kitchen and 'have a say'? Now deal with it on your own lady) says it all. The issue of how to better manage family life and support many women's needs for help with childcare isn't going to be effectively addressed until men get on the bandwagon too, in my opinion. But it all seems so horrendously medieval, the prevailing attitudes. Depressing enough to make me think I should just get a couple more cats, and forget children altogether...

  16. Insy good point about Harriet Harman, what do people find so offensive about her? Is it the fact that she's a strong, assertive woman committed to equality? I want more women like Harriet not less.

  17. some really interesting points here....theundergroundrestaurant, dont think anyone suggesting 24hr childcare, as in children being looked after round the clock, just staggered childcare so that if (for example) you are a nurse or a police officer or stack shelves in Sainsburys and your shift isn't 9-5 but say 12-8pm (or it is a 'standard' day but you are part time and your shifts change, so might be working weds-fri one week and mon-weds another) you have a need that isnt met.
    the Harriet thing is interesting too. men are often reduced to spitting tacks at the mere mention of her name and women often dont back her up but have to say, in long experience at westminster while i didn't agree with everything she's ever said i never saw a politician so driven by what women wanted (and actually, what parents wanted). she has the absolute courage of her convictions and that is quite rare in politics.

  18. *comes in late*

    Interesting. I started reading this post and thought it was going to turn into a suggestion about reciprocal childcare arrangements between private individuals. There are obviously all sorts of problems to overcome with this idea, not least the legal requirements. But it's got to be worth looking into, surely? Am I entirely talking out of my fundament here?

    Of course, if society were to shift away from the 9-5 norm properly, then sufficient demand would develop for evening childcare to make it worth childminders' while to offer it, which would be better still.

  19. hi fabulousblueporcupine - yes reciprocal childcare is v interesting but ther are difficulties (you might remember reading about the two women police officers who agreed to look after each others' kids, until OFSTED stepped in and demanded they both register as childminders). think the OFSTED advice in that case is being reviewed tho....

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