The right to stay at home

Submitted by AWL on 8 April, 2014 - 5:51

I would like to respond Esther Townsend’s article “The things we do for love” (Women’s Fightback, January/February 2014).

On becoming a mother at the age of 21 I believed feminism was something that fought for me to have choice, the choice to work like my elder sister, or stay home, like my mum. But I found that SAHMs (stay-at-home mothers) are seen as out-dated and that my rights as a mother revolved solely around my right to return to the workplace; my right to stay home is poorly accounted for and the decision to do so is often viewed negatively. Esther’s article reflects this.

Esther indicates the route forward to support mothers should be to fight for free, flexible, quality childcare, and flexible working hours for parents.

There’s no doubt the system of childcare and maternity leave in this country is inadequate. Statutory maternity pay often goes nowhere near covering the loss of a wage. Childcare for under-fives can cost nearly as much as you earn, making the return to work untenable for some women.

High cost of childcare is caused in the main by the introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage, tighter regulations demanding more paperwork, staff training, and tighter OFSTED rules.

These new demands have caused child-minders to leave the profession, forcing children into expensive institutional childcare that is traditionally inflexible.

However, as we discuss childcare's inadequacies, and difficulties mothers face returning to the workplace; we forget to ask if mothers actually want to return so quickly. Are they doing what’s right for them and their child? Or is it financial strain, fear of losing an old position, or social pressures suggesting staying home is outdated when feminism has ensures we can “have it all”?

Socialists, and feminists, do well to fight for our workplace rights and as a woman I am ever grateful that this battle is fought so strongly. However, this fight for a mother's right in the workplace, has diluted the right to be at home into insignificance.

Language used to describe the existence of a SAHM at times makes me shudder. Words like “drudgery”, “burden”, and even “domestic” leave me cold. The assumption that our existence is a negative and somehow worthless waste of life is a direct contributor to any oppression a SAHM may encounter. It paints a stereotypical image that people can use against us in the worst possible ways.

On a personal level my own decision to stay home felt empowered. It was far from staying home to serve a man and bare the burden of household drudgery. I was fighting against the state’s insistence my children should spend their early years in institutionalised childcare. In a climate where I was expected to work because now I absolutely could, my decision to not conform felt anarchistic.

Having a baby takes a huge toll on women’s life, and I would argue adequate time for recovery, adjustment and bonding is vital for every woman after every birth.

If we made financial investment in mothers enabling them to stay home if they wish (let’s say up to two years to align with WHO breastfeeding guidance) it could have many benefits. A period at home could raise breastfeeding rates with benefits for both mother and child. Decreased financial pressure could lower incidents of PND. Making mothers financially independent could offer a way out of abusive relationships.

And, it could drive down costs of childcare. Under twos need a more time-consuming programme of care, creating higher overheads for providers, so less demand could lower overall costs. There is evidence to suggest that home-based care with a parent or a child-minder provides well for the many developmental and emotional needs of children under the age of two.

If we can find ways to subsidise childcare, we can find ways forward to subsidise care which the parent provides.

The fight for mother’s rights does need to change tack. Our rights to breastfeed uninhibited, decent recovery and adjustment time after birth, community, basic income, educate our own children how we see fit and not as the state dictates and our right to be viewed in a positive manner as contributors to society are as important as free, flexible childcare tailored to parental need.

The provision of adequate recovery time is the only way to fully support women in their choices through the journey of motherhood. So maybe, in the run up to 2015, the real battle is gaining recognition of the worth of the parent at home, as well as smoothing the transition back to the work place when those parents are ready.

SAHMs don’t need those who fight with us to look upon us as oppressed women in need of liberation. We need those who fight with mothers to see us as liberated women; in need of a union.


Submitted by AWL on Fri, 04/07/2014 - 10:40

Hi Sue, thanks for your letter - I wanted to reply sooner because I think you've raised some important issues, so apologies about that. I think that what you've identified as differences or disagreements aren't so much there, but are more gaps in the article coming from word limit, context, lack of clarity etc.

The article was written for an issue on the theme of "women and work", triggered by the movements of political parties around childcare and the publishing of a report showing that informal childcare arrangements add up to 90 billion hours a year. This may not have been that clear because I'm not always very clear. But because of that the focus was on childcare provision and how this related to women and work. Had I had more space or been writing a more general article about women and parenting I would have looked at the issues you raise which I agree are important ones to discuss. We were looking to have something on maternity rights in the issue, but the person who was writing it was busy having the baby so in the end we didn't get it done - my point is it wasn't a deliberate omission.

I absolutely agree that decent maternity pay and rights, and a full and comprehensive benefit system is central to ensuring women can maintain independence and have real choices about if, when and how to return to work. For sure, just as many women would like to return to work and can't because of the cost of childcare, many women also return to work before they're ready, or at all, because they can't afford not to. I think women in many ways are trapped between social pressure on both sides too - there's a pressure like to you say "have it all" and return to work and also a pressure in society to manage our "private lives" and families without support. I work in social care with looked after children and many women I work with say they feel guilty for looking after other children whilst their own are with someone else.

I also think you raise issues around how women, our choices and our bodies are viewed as almost public property during pregnancy, motherhood etc which is an extension of how women's choices are viewed generally. ie. people feeling they can have a very strong view about how women should behave during pregnancy, how they should parent, breastfeed etc. I'm doing some research around reproductive rights at the moment, and I think this is all the other side of that same coin. If you have suggestions of things to read I would really appreciate it.

Just finally - I very much did not mean to convey that caring for children is negative or worthless - we do care for children and other people "for love" and it is rewarding and wonderful in many ways. And we do it for our own reasons and choices, absolutely. My point was that capital uses this for its own ends. The Tories and right-wing use the fact that we care out of love as an excuse not to have to provide decent support, rights, benefits and choices to carers, and through this I think devalue the importance of the work being done.

Comradely, Esther.

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