Saturday, February 17, 2007

What the UNICEF report dragged in

The UNICEF report has generated a plefora of both sane and insane 'childhood in UK'-related articles.

This is one of the insane ones...

There are some parts I agree with. I agree that:
Labour [has] pursued policies that encouraged more parents of young children to enter the workplace
Further, I agree with the implicit suggestion made in the article that the government has encouraged children to be placed in state-sponsored childcare. Working Tax Credits pay for 80% of the cost of childcare up to £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for more than one child. However, crucially, this is only for state approved childcare. This provides an incentive for the adoption of state licensed childcare over more informal or family-based arrangements.

However, I disagree with the remainder of the article. The crucial problem is that it assumes that 'women' (where women has no preceding caveat such as 'many' or 'a majority of' or even 'some') have a naturally caring nature which means that 'women' should:

hav[e] careers as men do — but not at the expense of their role as mothers.[Whereas] men [should] becom[e] much more involved in caring for their small children and invest... less in their careers

As a liberal who views society from the perspective of maximising individual choice, the policy implications of this sort of group think horrifies me.

It is my experience that many, although certainly not all, women who I have met who are married and in full-time 'jobs'* and not careers often wish they could go part-time or give up work entirely. If they have the option of affordable childcare, they often prefer part-time working so that they can keep in touch with colleagues and have the opportunity to spend time in an 'adult' role. This is entirely rational - if you don't feel that your work is giving you personal fulfilment and/or contributing to some higher purpose then raising your own children is going to be a more satisfying alternative.

Given this, it's obvious why female Labour politicians find this attitude somewhat incomprehensible. They feel that they are contributing to a higher purpose and are positively or negatively (depending on your political position) touching the lives of people outside of their immediate family. Compared to this, childcare really does look "hard, thankless and intellectually dull" and "a threat to your mental health". And the attitude of people like Oliver James does look an assault on women, a way of forcing them to undertake a job that compared to their role in parliament is anything but "the most exacting of roles".

As a liberal, I don't think what we:
desperately need... is a government whose main goal is to correct the balance of the household economy that has been wrecked by the market and its workaholic ways. We need to erect a large and impenetrable barrier against them outside every home with small children.
I think what we desperately need is a government who appreciates that women are a heterogeneous group who have a diverse range of personalities, life experiences and aspirations. I'm currently sharing an office with a lady who works part-time and spends the remainder of the time caring for three children under 12. I can't think of anything more soul-destroying than spending the rest of my life dividing my time between a 'day job' and taking 3 under-12s to the zoo. I can imagine she can't think of anything worse than envisaging a life apart from her children or child-free pursuing a 'career' in the field in which I want to work. Horses for courses. People are different, women are different.

Seen this way, the whole group childcare thing is a red herring. Pre-1950s, very few women looked after children full-time. Being a house wife was about struggling with labour intensive devices and not childcare. The idea that children need continuous care, nurturing and attention is a relatively recent idea. The most important thing is adult choice. Both Oliver James and the government need to get this simple concept. Rant over.

* by a job I mean something that is done purely for the money and which does not have a formal or informal trajectory to a more responsible or management role

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