If the success of our childcare policy over recent years is to be measured by the number of mothers returning to work, then let’s begin with the good news.
Data from June 2021, the most recent available from the Office for National Statistics, shows 75.6pc of mothers with dependent children in the UK were in work. This is the “highest level in the equivalent quarter over the last 20 years” and is also slightly higher than the EU wide 72pc for the same period.
But how many of these nearly 76pc of mothers actually want to be at work? How many mothers feel either financial or societal pressure to become a part of that statistic, all the while doubting if they’d made the right decision by their children? Or even by themselves?
Something which recently drove home to me the somewhat absurd aspect of our childcare system is when a much-loved caregiver at my children’s nursery decided against returning after maternity leave. Had she chosen to come back to work – or paid work, to be accurate, as looking after a baby is undeniably hard work, be it one’s own or somebody else’s – we would’ve been in a situation where one mother would be going to work to look after another mother’s baby, leaving her own little one to be looked after by someone else (another mother, in all likelihood).
It is strange that I had never really thought this to be a peculiar arrangement until now. I come from a strongly feminist household – I was brought up by the mother of another child while my own mother followed her vocation. I also come from a culture where the society’s attitude to my mother’s decision against devoting herself to full-time motherhood was far from universally positive, so her being a working woman was also an act of rebellion against those who would rather keep women – not just mothers – confined indoors.
It is thanks to that generation of women pushing at boundaries, particularly in communities such as mine, that I now have the freedom to work despite being a mother, if that is what I choose to do.
But what appears to have evaded our policymakers’ attention is that a significant number of women in our generation, given the choice, would rather not return to work after having children. And so, focusing childcare policies so heavily on making professional childcare affordable does very little for mothers who would prefer to stay at home looking after their babies, but either cannot afford to do so or feel intense societal pressure to return to employment.
Because one’s worth to one’s employer has now become the only acceptable measure of an individual’s worth to society.
In his Budget speech, Jeremy Hunt stated, “Almost half of non-working mothers said they would prefer to work if they could arrange suitable childcare”, as he announced a major boost for professional childcare providers. But absolutely nothing was offered to the other half of the so-called non-working mothers who would prefer to spend the early years of their children’s lives at home, looking after them.
It isn’t as though no solution has been put forward by advocates for a woman’s right to choose parenting over employment during a crucial period in the lives of both the mother and the baby.
Miriam Cates MP has called for tax reforms which would recognise families through “household taxation, rather than individual taxation”, bringing us in line with countries such as France and Germany. According to a Policy Exchange report, the UK remains an international outlier in this respect, where “single earner households suffer disproportionately high tax rates and couples with young children pay proportionately more in tax than their equivalents” in some European countries.
Instead of dedicating all subsidies towards professional childcare, a policy allowing mothers the freedom not to rush back to work could be to extend the effective benefit of free 15- or 30-hour childcare to those who prefer to stay at home in the form of an equivalent income supplement.
But even to explore solutions such as these, there needs to be a change in our collective mindset, where the empowerment of women is equated not only with our freedom and ability to go to work and earn a living, but also our freedom to stay home and raise a family should we choose to do so.
Until that happens, too many mothers will continue to feel left behind.
The £8,000 stay-at-home mum tax penalty