When our second baby was just eight weeks old, I would leave the house at 9 a.m., go to the office a fifteen-minute drive away, work for an hour and a half, drive home, feed the baby, drive back to the office and work till 2 p.m., watching the clock. Coming home I drove like a demon, cut in front of other cars and cursed the traffic. I had to know my daughter was alive.
That year I was haunted by a vague sense of dread that I would pay for this removal of myself. I don’t think I thought of giving up work. Instead, to make it up to her I slept with the baby at night, feeding her on demand for the first year of her life. What was I thinking?
Anne Manne urges us to recognise the collective social madness that in its rush to promote paid work for women fails to acknowledge, honour and enjoy the bonds of mother and baby. That the recognition causes pain, mostly to mothers, is borne out by the furious responses when Manne aired these ideas several years ago. But Manne is merely recovering the original project of feminism: to give women access to the full spectrum of what it means to be human. In doing so, she has pointed out the tendency of any progressive social movement to stray from its original ideals and even to endorse forms of coercion.
Manne is the unflinching Cassandra of feminism and child-care debates. Prophetic in pointing to sorry truths about what the new capitalism is doing to the family, she is girded by an enviable moral conviction. This is particularly striking in an era of intellectual relativism, when the right to make personal choices is accorded automatic respect, even when the choices made can be bad for others.
The choices under capitalism, as Manne points out so bracingly, tend towards the getting of more. Whether it is more career advancement, more gadgets, more average housing square metres or more purchasing power to get the health and education security that seems to be slipping away, all we seem to want to do – and urge on mothers – is work, work, work. What this means for babies and children is less time with their parents, with the worst consequences for development if the child is deprived of maternal attention in the first two years of life.
The texture of the argument is rich and diverse. Manne takes us to the school gate and the pronouncements of the OECD, to the mass media, the child psychologist and the long-day-care centre. The writing is peppered with emphasis added, exasperated exclamation marks, terms such as “experts” and “social inclusion” held at critical distance by being set in quotation marks. One senses that Manne is ready for battle, for the letters challenging her reporting and interpretation of the findings. But the battle is simply an invitation to parents to think differently about how much work they do, and for governments to offer them better choices.
Manne is on high moral ground in putting the case. Her 2005 book, Motherhood, opens with an account of the decision she made to raise her two daughters at home. This is a feminist voice we barely recognise, one that speaks of joy, pleasure and pride in mothering, not of the “problem with no name,” not of “speaking bitterness.” But it’s not just feminism that might be unsettled by this pleasure principle. Could the State, too, come at funding mothers for such joyous work? This is the policy nub of the essay: if women choose to stay home to raise their children, they should receive a cash benefit, a home-care allowance equivalent to the cost of a child-care place.
It’s a timely suggestion. At an Australian community-sector conference in April there was talk about how the government should fund, support and measure social inclusion (and in view of the evident sincerity and goodwill brought to the exercise, let’s not always call it “social inclusion”). Not surprisingly, paid employment emerged as the desirable objective and dominant indicator. Still, the first speaker in the welfare-to-work stream wondered if work was overrated, and a more forceful case was put by advocates for unpaid care workers. They raised the spectre of all these carers being compelled to join the labour force, to be replaced at vastly greater expense to the State by low-paid care workers. “Whether it’s a baby or a frail aged person who needs their bottom wiped,” as someone there put it, “you know it had better be done by someone doing it for love.”
Fair enough, but if we agree that the government has to be accountable for the money it spends, we might ask what performance or success measures would support the proposal for a home-care allowance? Women merely leaving the workforce? An increase in hours spent caring for children? Manne’s evidence indicates that possible measures include children with lower stress levels or, in the longer term, better educated and better adjusted children. But the factors involved in these kinds of outcomes are complex, and, as Manne has pointed out herself, competing interests can distort the ways that forms of social good are measured. It seems the government would have to forego its generally reasonable need for an “outcome measure” in this particular case, since the positive benefit of a home-care allowance is the very choice itself.
Though the essay notes the alarming rate of fertility decline, other analysts have pointed out that this might be linked to the domestic division of labour at home as much as to the market conditions of new capitalism. In Italy (and other European countries), for example, a drop in fertility is significantly correlated with the division of labour at home, so that the more housework women are expected to undertake, the less they are likely to add to it by having more children. We might contemplate Project Homemaker for young men to promote women’s interest in breeding, as well as greater financial and social recognition for mums.
I’d like to have seen what Manne had to say about dysfunctional mothering, and to consider the point at which poor mothering overtakes poor child-care in damaging children. On this difficult point, we might wonder whether a condition of getting the home-care allowance should be “good-enough” mothering, how this could be determined, and what the implications would be for mothers deemed not good enough.
The essay does not explore the evidence about what low-paid women want. Though like Manne I’ve seen “Get to Work” advocates among professional elites confusing their own job satisfaction and career advancement with what is good for low-income mothers, experience in labour-market programs in Australia and the UK shows that a significant minority of lone parents are extremely keen to work and will volunteer for programs to get a job. Interviewing some of these women, and sceptical myself about the satisfaction to be gained from minimum-wage service jobs, I have been struck by their reports of job satisfaction, pride in working, skills gained and focus on the goal of having a career. For these women, “getting out of the house” is valued and quite a few of them believe it makes them better mothers. It is also surprising, and enlightening, to learn that some workers identify positively with their place of employment and its corporate goals, showing off with some pride the workplaces to which they have gained access. These experiences worked against my own expectations.
Yet the satisfaction with work felt by some lone mothers should not be converted into a requirement for all of them to go into paid work. Parents themselves are best placed to determine what work they want and can manage, to assess how to calculate the journeys from home to school or child-care, to the workplace – which only might be flexible – and to do that with reference to the needs of their own particular children. Recognising these critical differences for each individual case, as Manne tells us, is the only basis on which lone parents might genuinely be supported to work in ways that will be good for them.
A few minor points. Though the Prime Minister and his wife are pleasing symbols of the modern couple, who demonstrate various patterns of stay-at-home and work life, I’d love to know how far 24/7 Kevin acknowledges the need for his staff and public servants to spend time with their families. I’d also like to know what Manne thinks of work-based child-care, though I suspect that she would see it as a case of Employer 1, Baby Nil in claims on the mother’s time.
The essay’s title, Love & Money, teasingly invokes a related question about choices women make about suitable fathers for their future children. Many women shrewdly consider a man’s capacity to support her and the children they might have when sizing him up. Whether it is pride or prejudice, the dream of a rich husband endures. My own daughter has announced her intention to find such a one for herself, and perhaps this is a response to having had a working mother.
May Lam’s Ph.D. was about the romance of feminism. In recent years she has worked on welfare-to-work policy for the not-for-profit sector in Australia, and for the government and private sector in the UK.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY