Are our children better off here or abroad?

Hannah Campbell's South African boyfriend thinks his mother neglected him, leaving him with childminders/tutors to go to work – but if they’d lived in the UK, the different school systems would have made for a very different experience.

My South African boyfriend, Ryan, has always been a bit begrudging about his mother’s attitude towards work and money. His family were quite well off as his father had owned a successful auto-electronics business, when Ryan’s mother decided to start work as an estate agent, having stayed at home up to that point to look after the children. This was when Ryan was six or seven years old, his younger brother four or five. This doesn’t sound that unusual, does it? A lot of mums go to work when their children start school, right?

Well, only after Ryan mentioned this ‘issue’ a few times over a few years did I twig that he was in after school care from lunch time through to 6pm. The primary school day there starts at 7.30am, and normally finishes between 1 and 2pm. I guess being dropped off at school at 7am and not seeing your mum again until 6pm when she’s finished work can seem like a long day, especially when you are seven and are scared of your childminder, described as a huge, blonde haired, loud and strict Afrikaans lady, who regularly had about 10 children at her home and didn’t think much of ‘fun’. She was more like a military tutor.

My initial reaction was ‘why would they start and finish so early. How are parents supposed to go to work?!’ and he replied, ‘Exactly! She shouldn’t have!’ Now, I don’t want to get into any debate about stay at home mums versus career mums. I have huge admiration for both parties. I am more interested in looking at the different cultures around the world regarding working parents and the different childcare systems or schooling norms to see how they compare.

England

Does it influence us in England that schools are more aligned with the ‘working day’, starting conveniently at 8.40am in time for people to get to work for 9am? And although the school day finishes at 3.30pm, there are often after school clubs which can be utilised for childcare until the end of the working day. Where parents leave for work early, schools cater for this need by offering breakfast clubs. Because we are given some support both in the form of childcare provisions and in the main from our employers with regard to entering the workplace or returning to work as a parent, does that subtly influence our decisions on whether working is something which we will do? Because we can, do we think we should?

Is it the priority of the culture of this country to create opportunities for all to participate and enable those of us who want a career to pursue one? Or in fact, do we have to work because we can’t afford not to, because the country now expects adults to earn, with the soon to come childcare tax rebate system only helping families where both parents are working?

I’m certain that it’s great to live in a country where it’s ok to work as a parent and it’s ok to stay at home. That’s an excellent ideology, and an honourable aim.

But does it work?

Do some parents get stuck in a situation they don’t want, within a system which is supposed to give them the choice with regard to raising their children or earning money, but which may force them into a choice they didn’t want to make? A mother who can’t work because childcare costs are about the same as her earnings doesn’t really have a choice. Or a mother who’s the main earner in her household may not really have the choice to take full maternity leave. On the other hand, a mum who really wants a career, but is only at entry level when she has her child, may never have the opportunity to further her career if she is required financially to work under 16 hours to access certain childcare benefits or be penalised and worse off financially by having her benefits reduced. Is that a choice?

I also think there’s a ‘lost middle’ of adults. I have friends and family where the mum doesn’t work because the dad earns enough so she doesn’t have to and chooses not to – good for them! And I also have friends who don’t have the option to work as they are single parents needing to take care of their children full time as their potential wage would nowhere near cover their childcare, let alone their outgoings. The system seems to work for these families. I don’t think the decision is as easy for families where the mother’s wage is just decent enough to leave next to nothing after covering childcare costs. I suppose they can choose to work in the hope that by working for that salary for a few years, their career is more likely to progress and finances will improve in years to come. Or they can look after their children themselves for free and take time out of their career to invest in their offspring.

I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to have children and to still be able to work. I like it that it’s my choice, rather than being told that mothers must not work or being so poor that everyone in the family who’s old enough is packed off to earn minimal income to club together, including the mother and young children. I like it that if I am not suited to staying at home, I can choose to work, but that my sister, who’s a natural mother, can choose to dedicate her time to her son.

But by being so encouraging of mothers in work, have we gone too far? If our benefits system and the minimum wage are based on there being two adults earning, has the government actually taken the choice away from those of us who aren’t wealthy enough to do whatever we feel like most? I wonder whether we have as a nation caused a situation where it’s now expected, or is a financial necessity, for both parents to work, sometimes against our wishes.

Other nations

It is quite difficult to quantify the attitudes in a particular culture regarding something which can be as divisive as whether women ‘want’ to work. Even it we could ask all the women in each country personally, there would be discrepancies about whether they ‘wanted’ to work, wanted to have the freedom to choose financially or wanted to have the freedom to choose culturally. Even then, there would likely be a huge difference between the answers.

A recent report, which although it shows answers from businesses (rather than women directly) about ‘perceived issues for women returning to work’, is interesting in that it notes that in countries which could be commonly thought of as ‘not being as supportive of mothers working’ there seem to be higher levels of requirements from their employers regarding their return to work.

In six of the seven charts used in the report, the UK is below the ‘global average’ on prioritising changes to the working schedule in order to help women return to work after having children. If we are below the global average and aren’t making allowances for mothers who are returning to work, are we really as supportive as we think we are? Women are prepared to return to work despite having to travel and be away from home, when we have to commute long distances daily, when we have to travel unsociable hours for business meetings without being given the choice to have a tele-conference instead and be home in time to eat with our kids.

Our businesses don’t think there would be any particular benefit from hiring mothers, whilst 65% of Indian businesses and 67% of Mexican businesses believe their workplace would improve by hiring more mothers. The only aspect where the UK has taken note of mothers returning to work is with the offer of flexible working – which if we’re honest, is applicable to jobs in a number of sectors anyway whether you’re a parent or not, and isn’t applicable even to parents in a lot of other sectors.

Perhaps we should take note of some of the initiatives, school hours and cultures of working women around the world, and also make it so that people are really free to choose and that salaries are good enough and cost of living not so high that it’s possible for one adult to earn a salary whilst there are young children in the home.

*Hannah Campbell writes for http://www.excelr8learning.co.uk/primary-school-tutors/among other clients on a number of topics, from employment, education and tutoring, and parenting, to travel and fitness. In her spare time she loves nothing more than learning a new language, or travelling with her family and friends and seeing new places.

 




Comments [1]

  • Caroline Pryce says:

    Interesting article. I feel that in the UK mortgages and rents are based on two adults earning (not the case in my parents' day) and I don't feel as though I really had a choice in returning to work. I don't know anyone in my peer group who stays at home with their children, although I'm sure some would like to. Although I like working, I feel a bit sad the choice has gone for many within a generation.


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