Motherhood: the forgotten debate

Mothers have been airbrushed from policy discussions in favour of parents, but they face a very particular set of problems, says Sally Gimson of the Family and Parenting Institute.

Motherhood heralds profound changes in women’s lives, changes that they are less prepared for now perhaps than at any other time in history.
And yet we are increasingly reluctant to debate the subject of motherhood. It seems old fashioned in a time when men and women are equal and the talk is of parenting.
We have over the last few years rather airbrushed mothers from the policy discussion. We have talked about parents and about fathers, but not about mothers. Talking about parents of course was a way of equalising the relationships: saying that mothers and fathers are both parents and so equally responsible for children.
It is interesting that in the outline of the new Equality Bill, which was published recently, women’s pay was addressed without the mention that it is often not so much femaleness that confers disadvantage but motherhood.
Women nowadays underestimate motherhood. We assume – unlike our mothers- that we are equal with men. We beat them in exams. We get as good jobs as them after university or college. Our partners treat us as equals and talk to us as equals. Right up to the point when we have a baby. And then it changes. We are hobbled – and probably hobbled for life. It is not surprising that the shock is profound.
And yet women find themselves nowadays almost without support after birth. Health visitors are being withdrawn because children birth is “natural” for most mothers. Their partners get two weeks off maximum to look after them (if they take it) and then they are alone. Only the very needy or those whose behaviour the state hopes the change get help like teenage mothers.
The expectation is that mothers will just get on with it, pull themselves together and go back to work and make complicated (or prohibitively expensive) childcare arrangements.
The state has tried to help women grapple with some of these problems. It is easy to berate the state and forget what has changed. That the penalties of motherhood seem so unfair is largely because expectations have been raised.
But work has been the predominant driver in the last ten years – the state has implemented policies which help mothers go back to work, if anything to stop lone parents (or rather mothers) living in poverty, as well as to support couples.
Mothers have more maternity rights, for longer. There is paid maternity leave (and some businesses top up the governments £117 a week). There is more childcare around – though fulltime nursery care is still very very expensive. Parental leave has been introduced and the possibility of sharing leave with fathers – though more could be done to make this better paid. Billions of pounds have been paid to families in tax credits and child benefits. Flexible working, which has mainly benefited women, is now a parent’s right to ask for if they have a child under six and it will be extended to parents with children under 16.
This is not about women “having it all” – but rather about fairness. It is not that men do not want to do these things – most surveys that we have done tell us that men want to spend more time with their family and can’t afford to. And that men work more long hours when they have children and don’t want to.
We need to be looking at policies which directly address fathers’ relationships with their children and partners -rather than just see fathers as the main breadwinners who are there to provide financial support. One possible solution is the “daddy month” in Scandinavia or the even more stringent paternity leave in Iceland. This leave is specifically reserved for fathers which means men may be equally likely to take time off to look after their children and so are as potentially equally disadvantaged in the workplace.
And so this is why as part of our recommendations we want five things – a “daddy month” which is reserved for fathers’ leave and is well paid, more health visitors to support women through the profound changes of motherhood (and which help men to support women through these changes), flexible working – which is a right for both parents – not just the right to request it as at present (something that parents have told us the value much above more childcare) and maternity pay which is above the current £117 and pegged to the minimum wage. Finally changes to part-time pay particularly in caring work so that it is paid at a much higher rate than it is at present.
It is fundamental to address these questions, because ultimately these are ones of equality. Women are equal to men. Mothers are equal to fathers. The physical incapacity of motherhood, while profound and in need of attention, is only temporary. Mothers should share power with fathers in a more equal way – in the home and in public life.

Sally Gimson, Director of Communications, Family and Parenting Institute.

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