Last month George Osborne announced that he wants to see 500,000 more women in the workplace by the beginning of 2016. Of course, what Osborne is really getting at is that the government are trying yet another way to reach women and snaffle their votes from under them. In practice, it’s not just our votes he’s snaffling but also our right to choose. And it’s not just George.
Whenever there’s a reference to getting more women in to the workplace, I inwardly flinch. The majority of the women that society is hoping to crowbar into these non-existent jobs of Osborne’s are mothers. Mothers who are looking after, caring for and raising young children. They are doing the hardest job of their lives for zero recognition or financial reward, and society is doing its best to convince them that what they are doing is not work at all; before scooping up the poor children who are cared for at home and throwing them into nurseries like some kind of modern day Child Catcher.
I am concerned about the women who would love to return to paid work but who cannot find a part time job using their skills and experiences earned prior to having children, because these so-called-jobs don’t exist. I am worried for the women who are embracing and enjoying their time at home with their children, those who excel at teaching their child about the world and who are trying to ignore the fact that this time bringing up their baby is a temporary position, whilst also being beaten constantly with the message that until they are back to earning a salary that they are skivers.
“When are you going back to work?” an ex-colleague asked me the other day.
The answer I wanted to give is a detailed, eye-opening account of the once-in-a-lifetime ‘project’ I am currently involved in. The opportunity of actively being involved in creating, developing and nurturing a human life; the countless achievements I have been directly and sometimes solely responsible for in this little human being’s growth as a person.
The shortest and most truthful answer I can give to anyone who asks me “When are you going back to work?” is this:
I do work.
I am caring for my toddler full time, doing the job of a child care assistant or nanny but without the salary, the toilet break or the lunch hour. Although I’m always cautious to ensure I don’t refer to myself as a full time parent (because I’m no more a full time parent than my husband who works in an office for 35 hours each week) I don’t often feel the same cautious courtesy is given to me by either strangers or friends.
I’m often asked about the seemingly hotly anticipated date of my return to ‘work’, despite my getting up at 5am and not ‘clocking off’ until after my son goes to bed – and then I’m on call waiting for the Calpol Cry that every parent anticipates. Every nappy change, each meal, the millionth reading of The Gruffalo, the ‘Fingertip Tour’ through the house, the Fruit Bowl Friday game and all the other child-rearing tasks either enforced by nature or invented by me that are the job of nursery staff, are also the job of the parent that cares for their child full time. If I was going out to a financially remunerated job each day, I’d be paying around £800 per month for a childcare professional to be doing the job I do of caring for my boy.
Whenever I tell someone that my work is looking after my son, I can see the boredom set in almost immediately. I don’t blame them. Whilst there are so many rewarding moments in my day, there are also plenty of boring ones too. I’m not tripping over myself to recount every last nappy or even his first word. Well, maybe a little bit but not to the point I would bore people to tears and I’m certainly not about to whip out photo after photo of my boy.
What I find most frustrating is that whilst raising my son is currently the main feature of my life, I also have a number of extras going on, yet they are rarely recognised as such. I work as a freelancer on contracts that don’t interfere with my day job. I blog, I volunteer my time and skills for causes that are close to my heart.
I have lots of ambitious project ideas that were never allowed the light of day when I was in paid employment. When my son turned eighteen months, I assigned myself with one ‘it-probably-won’t-come-to-anything-but-lets-see’ project per calendar month. Twice a week I pursue, research, postpone or fuel my dreams. I can’t foresee another time in my life pre-retirement that I will have this opportunity to enjoy a transition so fully. It is bloody exciting, and I’m enjoying reaping the benefits of this.
On the occasions I have tried to tell people who knew me pre-motherhood about this surprising new side to looking after my child full time, I’m almost knocked off my feet with the sigh of relief that follows. It becomes clear that they have struggled to reconcile how a once-upon-a-time workaholic CEO can now be satisfied with ‘staying at home’ (I promise, I AM allowed to come and go as I please, albeit with a small boy attached to my trouser leg)
“Oh, so you ARE working. That sounds great,” is the standard response which is always delivered in an unnecessarily reassuring tone. But today, for the first time, I was asked a question about my freelance work that stopped me in my tracks: “You do get paid?”
And there we have it.
In a society that values money more than anything else, I have realised that it’s not because I’m looking after my son full time that astounds people. It’s because I’m willing to do it without getting paid. If I didn’t get paid for my contract work – if everything I did was voluntary – it wouldn’t be seen as such as positive thing in my life.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if Mr Osborne recognised the achievements of full-time carers of small children – whether they are parents, or grandparents, or a supportive friend – by supporting them financially. By acknowledging that many of the 500,000 women he intends to throw back into the ‘workplace’ do have amazing jobs already, and that by giving them a small token of financial support would boost both his employment figures and the morale of parents across the country whose workplace just so happens to be the place they also lay their head. Perhaps he could start with the 60,000 women who lose their jobs each year simply because they have had a baby but can’t afford tribunal costs because of the penalties imposed by Osborne’s chums? The workplace doesn’t look so fantastic for those mothers.
I started my career at Morrisons cafe where I was made to remove the grease and dirt from the skirting boards with a wallpaper scraper for £2.06 per hour. When my child was born, I ran a national arts organisation with little resource and a high workload. And I can tell you without any spin, bullshit or unnecessary hyperbole, caring for my child is the most rewarding and the most difficult job I have had the privilege to do. I know my workplace, and for as long as I can, I’m sticking with it.