Thursday, 23 September 2010

the second shift

HOW many batteries does the average family get through? Judging by how often a toy is yanked from its box only to find it's missing four AAs, probably a fair few. But not ten a week. Which is the number of lunchboxes a two-child family consumes between Monday and Friday.
The comparison is illuminating because according to this survey of 3,000 couples, battery changing is a daddy job in most homes and lunchbox-packing a mummy job. Other stuff couples apparently think is dad's responsibility includes teaching children to ride their bikes, playing sports, disiplining children: mothers, meanwhile are washing, ironing, doing the school run. Look at that list and watch the last 40 years melt away like it never happened: there is little on either that the average Seventies dad, in all his unreconstructed glory, or Seventies housewife wouldn't have done.
This list puzzles me, because we all know families who aren't like that (plenty of them read and comment on this blog). Perhaps all the families in which daddy makes the sandwiches while mummy is out addressing the United Nations were just too busy to do the questionnaire. Perhaps fathers aren't quite comfortable admitting to doing what was traditionally women's work.
But these findings suggest that at least in some families, social change hasn't run very deep at all. Men do more of the 'hero' jobs - fix the beloved toy when it breaks, to a chorus of adulation - and women more of the 'taken for granted' ones. Men take care of the one-off or infrequent tasks - building a treehouse, anyone? - and women the chores that get done several times a day, like cooking. (Interestingly, cleaning isn't on either sex's list: are they nobly scrubbing the loo together, or delegating to the au pair?)
Both sexes end up with an equally long list of chores, which might look fair, but they're not putting in an equal number of hours. Yet seven in ten mothers apparently thought this was a fair deal: why?
One reason could be that mothers are more likely than fathers to work part-time or not work, so might think it's reasonable for them to do more of the so-called 'second shift' at home. But if so, that raises an interesting chicken and egg question. Which comes first: women's desire to spend less time in the office (leading them to do more at home) or women's getting lumbered with more at home (leaving them too knackered to work long hours)?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Whose benefit?

CHOCOLATE. Someone to do the ironing. A vat of Infacol. Just a few of the things I'd have been better spending my child benefit on than the stuff I anxiously bought my perfect firstborn (baby massage sessions to cure the colic, which he greeted with outrage; a stupidly complicated stairgate that never got built because we lost the instructions). But spend it on someone else's children? That sure divides the sheep from the goats.
This week the Liberal Democrats voted pointedly at their conference to keep child benefit universal - paid to anyone regardless of income. Their leader, on the other hand, said he and his lawyer wife Miriam don't really need it. Which suggests the Treasury is still considering whether (and how) to slash the child benefit bill for the Bugaboo-pushing classes.
One sees their point. I can't pretend I need £80 a month as much as single mothers facing swingeing welfare cuts or families clinging on with their fingernails. Why not tax it, or take it away from me?
The trouble is it's not so easy. Child benefit goes to mothers, and in Britain, couples are assessed separately for tax. So scrap it for higher rate taxpaying mothers, and the non-working Wag of a squillionaire footballer keeps it while a nursing sister whose husband is out of work could lose out.
You could find a way round that. But it might mean breaching the principle that the money always goes to mothers - repeatedly proven to be the best way of it reaching children, particularly in families where an abusive man holds the purse strings.
Or you could stop child benefit for over-16s still in education, which is largely a middle class perk (the poorest children tend to leave straight after GCSEs, so don't get child benefit any more). But for those kids from deprived backgrounds who do consider sixthform, it could be a powerful deterrent.
The Labour MP-turned-welfare-czar Frank Field's idea is interesting: scrap child benefit for older kids and pay a big lump sum in the preschool years, enough to make a serious dent in childcare costs or subsidise working mothers going part time. But it doesn't really save money upfront, so it probably won't happen.
We'll see what the Treasury does next month. But if it ducks reform, were I a coalition of children's charities I'd be tempted to exploit that liberal guilt and politely invite wealthier parents (starting, perhaps, with the Clegg-Gonzalezes?) to donate what they might have been taxed to a fund supporting poorer families through the recession. How terribly Big Society.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

the meaning of jam

Where did autumn come from, already? There is mist in the morning when I walk the dog, and the hedgerows drip with blackberries, crab apples, rosehips and sloes - one last mad flush of fruiting, before the cold sets in. I hate the descent of winter, but there is one consolation to these last fleeting days of sunshine: you can bottle it.
Making jam is the ultimate cliche of downshifting mothers. It's everyone's shorthand for what people do when they've stopped work - 'oh, she's moving to the countryside to, like, make jam or something' - and is one of those furtive fantasies many working women have about what they might do if only they had more time. Me included: the first batch I ever made was the summer after my maternity leave ended, with a glut of plums from the tree in our old London garden, stoning pounds and pounds of them at about midnight in some sort of lunatic attempt to compensate for my general lack of domestic goddessness.
I'm not sure why jam is such a metaphor for a certain kind of life. It takes time, of course, and a little patient stirring: it smacks of village fetes, and cream teas, and retro snippets of gingham for lids. It looks lovely lined up in glowing rows in the cupboard (or for extra fantasy points, in a pantry).
But not for nothing are jams, jellies and pickles known as preserves: making them is also about saving a bit of the good times for the lean months, holding on to a memory of summer. It's a reminder that once there were times of plenty and times of scarcity, not just all-year-round airfreighted fruit: and for me at least, it harks back to childhood. And not just all that Little House on the Prairie I read in my formative years, where most of the plot apparently revolved around bottling peaches.
My mother makes terrific jam (apart from the year she burnt the marmalade, distracted by President Obama's inauguration speech). And when I do the same, it feels as if I'm preserving more than fruit: a fragment of family history, a thread of continuity. I don't use a sugar thermometer because it feels uncomfortably high tech: I do the trick with ice-cold saucers and waiting until a drop of liquid jam solidifies on them, which is no doubt how my grandmother also did it.
We no longer have a plum tree here so it's blackberry jam instead, and maybe a crab apple jelly (for recipes, try foraging food blogger Norfolk Kitchen). And once the frosts have thinned the skins of the sloes, it will be time for sloe gin, which just happens to make the base of a particularly lethal champagne cocktail. Perfect to see us through the darkness to spring.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

what not to wear

Nothing says September like a new uniform, preferably one you won't grow into for about three years. And I'm not talking about the children.
I went to a girls' school with a purposely hideous uniform, designed presumably to make sure none of us would get pregnant before finishing our Alevels. If you were uber-cool (I wasn't) you shortened it and tightened it until you got sent home. If you were only ordinarily cool (I wasn't) you mutinously wore it long in school and rolled it over four inches at the waist to saunter home. Either way, one glance at someone's skirt and one at their tie (worn with fat knot, uncool: skinny side out, cool) revealed everything.
Sixth form was a long time ago. But if you think you're not still wearing a 'uniform' - and that others don't judge you on it - you're probably very wrong.
As this piece from science writer Ben Goldacre in the Guardian sets out, how women look can completely change people's perception of what they actually do: he cites a study showing female musicians were judged less proficient when they played in jeans than when they did so in a concert frock (even though the 'performance' was actually an identical tape recording, so musically there was no difference). If you don't look the part, you don't sound it.
Of course men are subject to similar judgements: would you trust a consultant in a scruffy Tshirt, or a white coat? But the big problem for women is managing careers where the 'right' uniform is really a man's: where you stand out like a sore thumb whatever you wear, because simply by being female you're not the norm. The strange obsession with what women politicians wear - from Jacqui Smith's cleavage to Theresa May's kitten heels - is partly because they can't wear what most people still think of as a politician's uniform, namely sober male tailoring: they stand out, no matter what.
My own uniform when I started covering politics was the dullest suit I could find: I was a young looking 26, constantly being mistaken for the secretary or the work experience girl, and desperately needed to look older. The big surprise was finding out years later that motherhood has an equally complicated sartorial code, where a brand of leggings or a Boden ballet pump can classify you as accurately as an old school skirt.
One of the reasons I've bought hardly any clothes for the last year is that I'm not sure what the dress code is for this particular stage of my life. Will I ever need a wardrobe full of suits again? If there's one thing more complicated than having uniform rules, it's not having any.