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Lucy Daniels has seen a lot of changes since she set up the Working Mothers’ Association in the 1980s, but she is still frustrated that the pace of change for working mums has been so slow.
In the 1980s when Lucy Daniels had her first child flexible working was just a gleam in the eye of working parents. Most mothers did not work unless they had to or were very career-focused. Childcare and maternity leave were in their infancy.
Lucy was self-employed running an electronics marketing business and had to keep the business going so she brought her daughter into the office after just two weeks and she slept in a filing cabinet drawer and was taken to work fairs and exhibitions. “I was determined that having a baby wouldn’t change my life,” says the woman who went on to found what is now called Working Families. “I would have been at the exhibitions and fairs even if it was with the baby on my head, but I learned that, practically speaking, it was not so easy. I got more and more exhausted and eventually I saw sense.”
The only childcare option for most women in those days was a relative or a childminder, if you were lucky enough to find one. Women earning over a certain amount could afford a nanny. Lucy decided to change her life and make it less demanding. She got a part-time childminder and changed her job so she was working closer to home and didn’t have any international travel. She also did a course in running a cooperative business. Many of those doing the course were women who happened to be looking for childcare. Lucy was also involved with the National Childbirth Trust.
From this coming together of ideas and issues the Working Mothers’ Association evolved as a self-help group for working mums. At the time, professional women who worked either did so for pin money or were expected to work full time with minimum, if any, flexibility. There were groups campaigning on childcare issues, for instance, vociferous campaigns for workplace nurseries.
The Association set out to write the first guild to choosing childcare which suited your work. “There were a lot of people banging on about different types of childcare and it was quite confusing for mothers,” says Lucy. “We took it from the perspective of the new mother who just needs to get back to work and wants to find out what suits her best. We wanted to be a voice for working mums who were often too busy to campaign for themselves.”
Although there was little information or advice around at the time and no Internet, what was better than now, says Daniels, is that childcare was cheaper, especially nannies, if you had a job that required you to be quite flexible. “Parents now are quite boxed in by childcare. Sometimes they have to be more rigid than the job requires out of financial necessity because nurseries are cheaper,” she says.
The biggest thing that has changed since the 80s, however, is the cost of mortgages, she says. “They drive people to have to keep working when they have a family,” says Daniels. To save money, she says, many parents get their own parents to look after the kids, but because families are now so widespread, many, particularly in the south east, are far from family and friends. On top of that there is more divorce and separation.
The result of all these financial changes is that couples are choosing to have smaller families. On the up side, there is more information around, more local help centres and it is easier to find, for instance, nanny shares or different ways of managing childcare. It is more the norm to talk about childcare in the workplace, although perhaps less so than it should be, and standards of care are higher, even if at a price.
“What has not changed,” says Daniels, “is the fact that women’s values change once they have children. It does not matter how helpful an employer or legislation is, women still face the dilemma of whether or not they should work.”
She says the biggest compliment she was ever paid was when her then 14-year-old daughter told her she wanted to be like her when she grew up. When she asked why, her daughter replied that she had a very interesting job and was a good mum. “Job done, I thought,” said Daniels. She has two daughters, now aged 27 and 24. Both are working and Daniels’ campaigning seems to have left its mark on them. Her youngest daughter negotiated a four-day week when she did work experience on leaving College. “It was second nature to her to look at different ways of working,” said Daniels. She used that day to job hunt. “For the younger generation different ways of working are second nature,” she adds. Her older daughter took a cut in salary to move from the private sector to work for a government department. “She saw time as being as important as money and she knew that she may want to have children. She was thinking ahead in her working life,” says her mum. She cites research showing younger people are likely to value time more than money and that work life balance will be important to them whether or not they have children.
Despite the changes in attitudes to working life since the 80s, though, Daniels says her biggest surprise is that things have changed so slowly. “I did not think it would take this long,” she says, particularly with regard to those looking after disabled or elderly relatives and to fathers, many of whom still cling on to the breadwinner role. She says she finds resentment from carers, for instance, from “the guy feeling bitter when he couldn’t get time off to be with his mother when she was dying” who was working in a company with a generous maternity package.
Daniels says men are caught between “increasingly lippy partners” and wanting to ensure, in the current climate, that their job is safe. She acknowledges that things are changing and says more role models are needed to encourage dads to take on more family responsibilities, for instance, top managers need to take their full paternity leave. “We have got to base camp with the campaign,” she says finally. “We have raised the issue and it is now okay to talk about it, but there is a long way to go. My dream is that there is a universal four-day working week so both parents can do their hours so they only need to pay for three days of childcare. I would like to see an economic model for this country which was based on that.”