Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Is stay at home motherhood a class issue?

The health visitor who did the first home visit after my son was born didn't stay long. She weighed him, whizzed through her questionnaire on autopilot, gathered up her handbag and said she was sure I'd be fine.
She was right, luckily, but I doubt she deduced that from her questions, having barely listened to the answers. I suspect she just scanned the livingroom for signs of your classic middle class mother (Habitat cushions, Earl Grey avaliable on request) and mentally moved on to more vulnerable clients.
I was reminded of this last week, chairing a Labour leadership hustings, when Diane Abbott got onto the subject of lone parent benefits. She said she always wondered why when middle class mothers stay at home fulltime that's considered a good thing - lovely for the kids, a noble sacrifice for the mother - but when poor single mothers stay at home it's suddenly bad. One mother is a pillar of society, especially for the conservative right: the other's a drain on the state and should be driven out to work with a cattleprod.
That double standard always bothered me, and particularly now the government is offering tax breaks to stay-at-home married mothers but simultaneously expecting single mothers to get jobs. Why is what's 'good' for the children of married parents strangely bad for the children of lone parents, who might arguably need them around even more if there's been a traumatic family breakup?
The answer's partly that the mother on benefits is subsidised by all of us through our taxes, while the married mother is subsidised by her husband so it's nobody's businesss but theirs. Except that isn't the whole truth.
When I worked full time, I paid a lot of tax: now, I use just as many public services but pay less tax, because I earn less. Doesn't that make me a burden on the state too, since I'm not working as hard as I arguably could?
Which leaves the question of whether this is about class. Middle class mummies get mocked for our pushiness and ponciness but we usually get the benefit of the doubt from authority figures, be it health visitors, teachers - or the media. Poorer mothers are negatively stereotyped from the start.
Yet parenting is blatantly easier when you have the money for everything from the big things (good childcare, house in the catchment of a good school) to the small (treats and activities that get you out of the house). The welfare issues are complicated, particularly at a time when public spending is under such pressure: but we're more likely to reach a fair solution if we can stop subconsciously dividing mothers into slummy or yummy according to income.


  1. Thank you, had not noticed this double standard before.

  2. Absolutely right.

    I hope you don't mind me leaving a link in your comments but I wrote a post on this exact same subject quite recently, making a lot of similar points: http://singleparenthoodbygappy.blogspot.com/2010/04/on-being-single-mother-today.html

  3. A middle-class friend of mine with an adored baby daughter obviously said the wrong thing to the health visitor and got herself on the lots of visits list.

    The stay at home mother thing is a bit more complicated than you are saying. The statistics do support the idea that keeping single mothers in touch with the world of work has better outcomes for themselves and their children. Many of the classic "single parent" problems correlate most closely with no income beyond benefits. It is hard to see how a relatively small amount of extra money makes such a difference. This could be that single parents who work have different standards to start with, but the stats suggest that that is not the whole story -- even a reluctant worker passes on lessons about how to cope with the constraints of working and how to handle those in authority, improving school behaviour as well as enhancing employability later.

  4. This is not new to this government, just more of the same. There's lots of help from Labour's child tax credits for single mothers, mothers on low incomes etc. but mothers in my family income bracket, above the threshold, are often forced out of work by the cost of childcare. (My salary was less than two kids in nursery - and I had a PhD). Why is it important to support one woman so that she can reach her career goals and not another? You can say that we didn't need help, but then when I quit work the state lost all my tax revenue so we're all worse off financially.

    So while the new government is involved in doublethink: "Why is what's 'good' for the children of married parents strangely bad for the children of lone parents" - so was the last one - by parroting on about how important it was for mothers to be able to work and have career options and yet denying it to a subset of the workforce. Basically no one believes in true choice, and that's a shame as most countries in Europe (and Canada for example) allow the entire cost of childcare to be tax deductible which allows middle earners to afford childcare, pay the rest in taxes, and therefore support those on low incomes who need help with living and childcare costs. I think the message is the same as it's always been, mothers ideally should stay in the kitchen (as long as the state doesn't have to support you).

    (I'm now self-employed and working in industry to make enough money to afford childcare but most women in my shoes wouldn't have that flexibility. Teachers, nurses etc are all in this salary bracket - no help, but not enough to cover costs).

  5. Part of the problem is deeply rooted in the assumption that childcare is the mother's responsibility; the costs of childcare are very often expressed in comparison to the mother's income. If, as in Trish's case, a mother's income is less than the cost of childcare, it makes sense to stay home. This logic, however, absolves male parents from childcare responsibility.