This piece is inspired in part by a debate I was involved in on Facebook, particularly the contributions by the ever-awesome MatFems and AMW stalwarts, HT and HN.
As the election looms ever-nearer here in the UK, the major parties are spitting out their “hardworking families” rhetoric with the all the fervour and sense of a snake handler speaking in tongues. And as they promote their bullshit, so we see a corresponding surge in people spouting the usual ignorant, offensive lies about mothering, work, SAHMs, so-called scrounging, and the rest.
When we at AMW, and other groups like Mothers At Home Matter, say that mothering and caring should be recognised, valued and renumerated as a job, we are told that *people* should look after their own families and not expect help from the state, that being a SAHM is a luxury for the rich that means other families have to suffer (I tackled a woman for saying this very thing on Twitter recently), ie that if unpaid mothers and carers get any validation or renumeration that it means others will lose out, that we are scroungers for not earning a wage (slightly baffled at how we manage to be both penniless scroungers and super-rich at the same time, but logic clearly doesn’t play much part in trotting out unanalysed clichés), and that we are bad mothers for not accepting being seen as skivvies happy to work for free because we love our children.
So let’s break down these ideas, shall we?
No other group except those who care are told that their labour should be free because it’s done out of love. Surgeons love saving lives – should they work for free? Authors love writing – should they write for free, and books be free? Should restaurants serve free food if the chefs love cooking? Should love for a role mean it should be unpaid?! That’s a slightly odd way of looking at employment!
People then argue that yes, but… looking after one’s children and running one’s home is different, that they aren’t jobs that should be paid: try telling that to childminders, nursery workers, cleaners, housekeepers, etc.!
You’ll notice that I wrote the word people sarcastically – this is because when they say people, they mean women (this is not to ignore the excellent parenting done by stay at home dads, but the majority of SAHPs and carers are women, and that’s who AMW focuses on). Women should work for free. Women should give and never receive. Women should just be the servants, the arse-wipers, the silent, invisible, ignored toilers of the world.
There in a powerful stereotype taken as a given that SAHMs are only rich women who can afford to not do *real work*. My responses? A) Whilst I am opposed to the huge and ever-widening gap between rich and poor, there is no less validity to the mothering done by the richest women in society than the poorest. This is a straw(wo)man argument, designed to derail any serious discussion on the validity of being a SAHM. B) The majority of households with a SAHM have to make serious financial and personal sacrifices to make it a feasible proposition. Most families in this situation are living well below the level that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (www.jrf.org.uk) on poverty, using the minimum income calculator, recommend for families of their size, location and other factors. My family, for example, live on a whole £10K less than it recommends is the lowest amount possible for life not to be a struggle for us.
Furthermore, far from swanning about in luxury, we are doubly penalised by a system that actively rewards parents for not looking after their own children for a majority of the time. Subsidised childcare (which I support, but it is still a benefit for wage-earning parents). Greater tax breaks for couples where both partners earn a wage, even if they earn far, far more than a family living on one parental wage. Child benefit retention limit for families where both parents earn a cumulative final wage far higher than the limit for families with a single wage earner. Working family tax credits. When idiots talk about “benefits scroungers”, they don’t know, or refuse to accept the truth: that the majority of all benefits paid in the UK are to WORKING people who earn a wage or to OAPs. This chart shows how much extra tax is paid by a single-earner family compared to a dual-earner family on the same income:
As AMW member, HT, so succinctly puts it, “I think there is a genuine misunderstanding of how economic growth is calculated, how an individual’s unpaid care contributes to the wider economy and the role of EU gender equalities targets. People do really think they are contributing more to the economy by working outside the home when in fact most women of course will be in low paid and/or part-time work that doesn’t contribute significantly to the tax base but in fact draws from it – tax credits to top up the low wages etc., etc.”
This is not SAHMs lazing about and getting something for nothing, is it?! Our labour is doubly exploited and penalised by being not only unpaid, but by benefits being given to other families who are often far better off than ours. And even if the benefits are being given to families who are no better or worse off than ours, it is still unfair that our work as SAHMs is not as recognised and valued as any of their employment which pays.
Now, the thing is, we at AMW do not begrudge anyone getting these things, far from it. What we are angry about it the inequality of who is deigned eligible and who is doing that deigning. It is a disgrace that people are not paid fairly and adequately, thus necessitating tax credits, etc.. But it’s also a disgrace that we get nothing at all for our work as mothers.
There is plenty of begrudging, however, from people outraged at the idea of mothers and carers getting even the most pathetic pittance in recognition of what they do. They believe that if we receive anything, it must mean that they will lose out. This selfishness is one of the truths at the heart of all the airy-fairy chatter about how women should labour free out of love (the other is plain old misogyny). This selfishness is at the heart of all inequality, at the heart of patriarchy and capitalism. People do not want to give up their privilege, their entitlement, but more besides that, they do not want to make the paradigm shift to accepting that others are not lesser than them or not less deserving than them. To be successful, or at least not suffer too badly, in a hierarchy, one must think hierarchically. One must designate Others and Lesser Beings, and believe their place at the bottom of the pecking order as either innate or their own fault (and with that, the implication that they could escape or change this if they tried, but they can’t because they are naturally inferior, or too inadequate to try, not because of a system completely stacked against them, not because of them being oppressed, etc.). It is not an unwillingness to give up material wealth, or even forgo the mere possibility of potential gain, however small, even if it is presented as such – it is an unwillingness to accept that others are equal, have worth and value. Patriarchy is sociopathy and this filters down to all attitudes about people not the same as us in society and worldwide.
Another reason why some women want to perpetuate these unfair and untrue about SAHMs is that they are heavily invested in upholding the status quo. We all are, of course, as we are trained to do so from birth, but we must analyse self, society and state if we are ever to make change. Women are not treated fairly or equally in employment nor society. Mothers get a very specific type of bad deal in terms of employment (please note that I am not investing in the idea of a hierarchy of suffering). We do not get what we want and ask for, instead, we get told what we are allowed to have in order to fit us, non-challengingly, into patriarchy and capitalism to keep the same people benefitting and profiting (hint: men) as ever before, and they keep telling that this is what we want, and this is what is good for us, and this is the employment equality we asked for, until we give in and accept it. Except – AMW, and so many other women, DON’T accept it. Will never accept it.
Study after study show that mothers want to spend more time with their children, or be SAHMs, but so many factors make this either actually impossible, or feel impossible. The stigma of the myths, preconceptions and stereotypes that I have listed here are often a bigger factor in women not making this decision than being able to rejiggling family finances to make it possible. Furthermore, staying at home with children, or spending more time at home, is made incredibly difficult, often even virtually impossible for single mothers, and this is yet another inequality that we must tackle and not overlook.
Instead of tackling the unfairness and lack of true choice for all mothers, regardless of work or wage, we are left with what patriarchy trains us to do – blame other women, attack other women, expect other women to be emotionally responsible for us by not having different opinions or lifestyles, etc. The infighting works only to *prove* the stereotype that women are hysterical and hate each other, and to keep us from uniting to tackle the real problems and create the change we want and need. Do not engage in this. Be a sisterhood.
We need a radical overhaul of work in this country for everyone, but especially for mothers. Not just the type of work, hours, and wages we might get, but in terms of how work is classified, valued and respected. Women’s work has always been exploited, and we have always been guilt-tripped into feeling it’s not nice to ask for anything. Forget that. It’s never got us anywhere and it never will. As AMW member HN simply said, you don’t need to opt in!