The mother myth

by Joanne Black / 18 February, 2006

Within two generations, a phenomenal social change has swept New Zealand. More women are in paid work than ever before. But opportunities that early feminists fought for still come at a price. From the kitchen to the Cabinet, women's choices are causing plenty of angst.

Prime Minister Helen Clark kick-started 2005 with almost Soviet-style exhortations for women, and mothers in particular, to join the paid workforce.

Yet her encouragement - or admonishment, depending on your point of view - came as women were already working more than ever. According to the latest figures from Statistics New Zealand, just over 70 percent of all women aged 20-64 are in paid work, compared with 85 percent for men.

A Treasury paper produced last year shows that one of the strongest factors determining whether or not women work is whether they have pre-school children. Women in New Zealand tend to leave the workforce when they have children but return as those children get older. Although this seems hardly surprising, it is not the common pattern in other OECD countries. Clark has often pointed out that the proportion of working women in the 25-34 age group is lower in New Zealand than in similar countries and this observation seems to drive much of the government's concern with women's work. But if women are out of the workforce because they are raising young children, and if they will eventually return to work, is this really such a pressing issue? Indeed, policies like paid parental leave actively encourage mothers to take time off work at that period in their lives.

Yet social researcher Paul Callister cautions against a presumption that the pattern of mothers returning to work month by month as their children get older, will continue: "There is evidence now that kids can be just as problematic as they get older, and women are wanting to be home when the kids are teenagers, so they know what they are doing after school.

"When childcare surveys are done, people will say the reason they haven't put their kids in childcare is because of income and the cost of transport, etc. But there must also be some strong ideology influencing them to do what they think is best for their kids."

The architect of New Zealand's paid parental leave policy, Laila Harre, who is now national secretary of the National Distribution Union, says it is hypocritical to suggest that government policies give parents genuine choices about whether to work or not.

"We dutifully say, 'This is all about giving people choice', but we don't develop our workplace or social policy to do that.

Read more: Judgement days: The worrying rise of the motherhood policeHow are NZ companies supporting mums returning to the work force?

"What we really mean is we want to reduce the cost to the state of supporting single parents, and we want to boost productivity by putting more women in the workforce.

"At the same time, we've got this whole sort of confounding thing which is philo-sophies and values saying we really don't think mothers should be working at all."

Harre says that she used to deeply resent Clark saying she could have not have achieved what she had if she had also had children, "but she is probably right, given that men are generally not prepared to be wives - they make okay mothers, yes, but not wives also".

Last year Clark cited labour shortages, and a desire to improve New Zealand's GDP per capita, as reasons why more women should be encouraged back to work.

The government has brought in a raft of policies in this area, including the introduction and extension of paid parental leave, a considerable boost in subsidies for childcare, and the Working for Families package designed to ensure families will always be better off working than on a benefit.

Yet Working for Families, the centrepiece of last two Budgets, has contradictory messages. The increase in Family Support, which makes up the bulk of the package, gives money to families based on their total income and number of children. So when a second earner in a family, likely to be a woman, considers whether or not to go back to work, she needs to take into account what the family would lose in financial assistance by moving to a higher income bracket. Effectively, this puts a relatively high tax on her earnings - this may discourage many women from re-entering the workforce.

Fulbright scholar Nick Johnson is back in Washington DC after spending six months last year in New Zealand studying Working for Families. He says, "It did strike me there was a bit of a missed opportunity in Working for Families in thinking about differential tax treatment for the second earner, and what their marginal tax rate is, ie, what the additional tax rate is if they go into the workforce.

"There was a fairly clean solution that could have been embraced. Why not do a little more for families with two working parents, than the equivalent family with one working parent? It wouldn't have been that hard."

Johnson says the problem in Working for Families will be for "the workers on the bubble - those who are scratching their head saying, 'Should I participate in the paid workforce more or not?'"

But mixed messages are not unfamiliar in government policy, and Johnson laughs when asked if US policy on such matters is more coherent. Take it as read, it is not.

"None of these matters are unique to New Zealand. Every country grapples with balancing how to support two-earner families and how to support one-earner families."

Government policies, of course, are only part of the equation that influences women's decisions on whether to enter or leave the workforce, or reduce or increase their hours as they do the sums on what is affordable. Undoubtedly, the single biggest influence on most parents will be the amount they could earn if they returned to work and, conversely, what they lose by not working, and the value of their partner's income.

Although there is an increasing incidence of women "marrying down" (so her male partner earns less than she does), overall, women's wages continue to lag behind men's. Consequently, when two working parents consider whether one of them can work fewer hours, even if they would prefer to set aside traditional roles, it is usually cheaper for the household to sacrifice some of the woman's paid earnings.

Unemployment is at its lowest level for decades and various surveys have cited the difficulty of recruiting experienced staff as a major constraint to business growth.

Against such a backdrop, there has never been a better time for parents to negotiate flexible conditions favourable to balancing their work and family lives. The Department of Labour says that findings from a 2005 survey of 1100 employers showed the most common work/life balance initiatives being practised in workplaces were allowing employees to occasionally vary their start and finish times; to use personal sick leave to care for others; to have flexible break provisions; and to have study leave. Less commonly available options were sometimes working from home, or having additional leave in exchange for reduced pay.

But for many, negotiating such conditions is not easy.

"Employers are getting better, but at a glacial pace and it's very patchy," says Wellington journalist Sarah Boyd, who in 2004 published a book, The 48-Hour Day - Working Mothers Tell It Like It Is.

"A lot of the improvements are to do with the tight labour market but, given how tight it is, you would think there would be more progress," she says.

"I find it quite disappointing that with such a high demand for skilled people, employers are still not thinking laterally about how to attract women with children back in to the workforce."

She believes a key to improved flexibility will be men asking for it.

"While it's seen as just something women want, it tends to be easier to put aside. And interestingly, with the tight job market, it's harder to get staff, so the people who are working seem to be under more pressure. I've heard examples of parents who work part-time being pressured to work longer, as if you can suddenly put aside your family responsibilities."

Equal Employment Opportunities Trust chief executive Philippa Reed says, "There's no doubt there's still room to move and for some people, employers aren't moving fast enough.

"It's about employers 'getting' that flexibility is not just a nice thing to have, it is repaid by an employee in terms of productivity."

She acknowledges there are occasions when employees who are also parents simply may not have the same flexibility as colleagues who are not parents.

"Staying on late at work, for example, is fine, as long as you don't have a deadline at the other end and you are actually required to be at a crèche to pick up a child by a certain time. Then it gets tricky."

Still, Reed believes most people want to be in paid work. "Every survey we have done on any issue, most people will say they would rather be in paid employment and feeling they are making a productive contribution to society. That was one of the key messages that came out of the parents' survey, right behind the need to pay the mortgage and to help family finances."

But wanting to do paid work does not necessarily mean both parents want to work fulltime. Many parents who can afford it and have the flexibility, want to work fewer days a week, or shorter hours.

The Greens currently have a bill before Parliament providing for flexible working hours. A similar provision has existed in the UK for two years and, in that time, 14 percent of employees have asked for a change in their working arrangements, with a quarter of those seeking change wanting to work part-time.

Given the speed of social change within two generations - comparing today's parents of young children with their grandparents' generation - it is hardly surprising that social policy, which has multiple, and sometimes conflicting, roles, struggles to be coherent.

Parents want choice, but their view of what choice means may differ from an economist's or a politician's.

One problem for public policy makers is that government policy tries to treat women as a homogenous group, when they are not, says Callister. "In the end, you don't know why people are making choices. Inevitably, Harvard women marry Harvard men. They have choices.

"The people really in the shit are the manual labourers. They need the double income because the wages of men in low-skilled occupations have gone down. So you have Pacific Island populations where men are working night jobs and women working day jobs and older children are looking after younger ones and their big issue is about job security and pay rates."

"All our social policy is designed around the choice of whether to work or stay home being available only to people who have partners who can support them financially, so it's not a choice," says Harre.

But haven't the wealthy always had more attractive options?

"Yes, but we should be frank about it," she says. "We pay lip service to people making a choice."

"When you become a parent," says Johnson, "you have to make sacrifices and, to me, choice means that the sacrifices are reasonably clear and can be approached in a reasonably systematic way, and you can move back and forth.

"When I was in New Zealand, I heard that the childcare situation was very challenging, so that for a lot of parents who wanted to work, and were willing to pay a certain amount for childcare, the infrastructure just wasn't there. Finding childcare providers they could trust and fit into their work schedule wasn't there and that's when parents feel really penned in."

The availability of childcare, or lack of it, is a constraining factor on the ability of parents to take up paid work and, even with available paid care, many parents are regularly dependent on family members to look after children.

The Department of Labour says that early results of a 2005 survey showed that 22.4 percent of families with a child under the age of four said a lack of childcare had affected adults' ability to work.

Not only the availability of places but also the cost can make childcare prohibitive, says Boyd, who chairs the management committee of her youngest daughter's childcare centre.

"Fees to parents have never gone down and they are not going to when we are concentrating on improving care.

"[The cost of] childcare is simply prohibitive for a lot of people. When I had two children in childcare, I was pretty much working to keep them there, with a bit of spare change. The emphasis has been right on improving quality, but at some point we also have to look at the cost."

As for what's best for the children, it's hard to find definitive research, though the debate for and against daycare centres is vociferous and passionate. The only consistent finding is that in order for early childhood education to be beneficial, it must be of high quality. "Quality" usually refers to a low child/adult ratio, a safe, stable yet stimulating environment and quality teacher/child interactions.

There are no easy policy solutions to help people balance their work and family responsibilities, though there are expensive solutions, like those adopted in Nordic countries that accept the trade-off of extremely high taxation, by New Zealand standards, in return for generous parental leave and childcare provisions.

The OECD noted in 2004 that if individual women were forced to choose between having a family or a career, then levels of both employment and fertility would be lowered.

"The most important contemporary challenge," says the OECD, "is to find ways in which women can satisfy both their desires, to have children and to have careers."

Desperate Moms

If there is any comfort in knowing that other countries struggle with the same dilemmas, both the US and UK can provide it.

For all New Zealand parents rue the inherent conflicts between work and childcare, they are mostly better off than their counterparts in the US, which has what author and university professor Susan Douglas describes as "the stingiest policies for mothers and children of any industrialised country".

"We have no paid maternity leave, just six weeks off. We have inadequate flexi-time and daycare," she says. "It is harder to be a mother here than in any other industrialised country."

In a Newsweek cover story last year entitled The Myth of the Perfect Mother, Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, wrote that women of her generation grew up believing they had unlimited choices. "Yet, as mothers, many women face choices on the order of: You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate childcare. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time daycare, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8.30 at night."

Warner and Douglas are part of a vocal US feminist movement calling for more family-friendly policies from the federal government, including radical improvements in the provision of daycare, and tax policies that will assist working parents.

But much of the current debate about mothering in the US is aimed not at public policy makers but focuses instead on the myth of the perfect mother.

"What the childcare guru D W Winnicott once called 'the ordinary devoted mother' is no longer good enough," said Anna Quindlan in the same Newsweek edition.

"Instead there is an über-mom who bounces from soccer field to school fair to play date until she falls into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, her life somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon."

Douglas and Meredith Michaels wrote the book The Mommy Myth: The Idealiz-at-ion of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, a book that, aided by Desperate Housewives, has helped fuel a growing realisation that being a perfect mother is not only an unattainable goal, but is also destructive.

It is not a strictly American phenomenon. Radio New Zealand broadcaster Linda Clark, who has twin sons aged four, told the Listener recently that she was quitting journalism for good. "I think women who look like they're managing to do it all don't help other women terribly much," she said. "For a start, we're not managing often and, also, it simply increases the expectation that the impossible is possible. And believe me, it's not."

Douglas says motherhood remains the unfinished business of the women's movement and that mothers need to unite against the ridiculous expectations on them.

In Britain, the Blair government last year announced plans to put more onus on local councils to provide childcare and, in a separate measure next year, to extend paid maternity leave from six to nine months, and to 12 months by the end of Labour's third term in office. The leave is paid at 90 percent of a woman's average earnings for the first six weeks after giving birth, then £102.80 a week. Unions say the rate is too low, contributing to a survey of 78 percent of women working in retail saying they were back at work on average six weeks before their maternity leave ran out, because they could not afford to stay home.

Britain's Equal Opportunities Commission chair Jenny Watson says that the pay gap between men and women is at 17 percent for those working fulltime.

She says too few women "still enjoy only a thin veneer of equality, which falls apart the minute they have children or start to care for older relatives.

"Both men and women are demanding that things should be different, that good quality part-time and flexible work should be more widely available, and that couples should have more choice and flexibility as to who takes time off work to look after the baby."

Case Study #1 Helen Moore

With an honours degree from Oxford University, majoring in Chinese, a Masters from Cambridge in international relations, and another degree in statistical applications in business and government, Helen Moore would seem to be exactly who Prime Minister Helen Clark had in mind when she talked about encouraging mothers back to work.

But for now Moore is doing just one hour of paid work a week, teaching Spanish to pre-schoolers. The rest of the time she is heavily involved in her local Playcentre and caring for her daughter Thea, four, and, after school, her elder children aged eight and 10. Moore calculates she has 7.5 hours a week without any children.

She did not intend to completely opt out of the workforce. When she had children, she went to work part-time, "with a fantastic nanny" after Rosa was born, then went back to work part-time with a different nanny when Isaac was eight months old.

"But when the next-door neighbours told us about our nanny screaming at the kids and threatening to throw things at the baby, I took a career break. I didn't really trust anyone else to look after the kids after that."

Also, the job-share arrangement she had at the Department of Social Security in London, where the family then lived, worked well after Rosa was born but was less satisfactory the next time. And with two children, the economics were no longer so attractive.

"By the time I'd paid tax, then paid the nanny and her tax, I wasn't left with very much. Had I loved the job, it might have compensated, but I didn't, so paying the nanny all that money to yell at the kids didn't make much sense."

When the family moved to Wellington about two years ago, Moore was open-minded about working. "But because I've never worked in Wellington, and because I wanted to work very flexibly and part-time, you need to have contacts to find those types of jobs."

She will look seriously for work after Thea turns five in April. Even then, she hopes to be able to be at home after school most days. "I just think that after-school care makes it a really long day for a child. No matter how good the care is, it's not about children's needs, it's about parents' needs."

Saying she is a fulltime mother definitely limits social conversation, she has noticed. "If I'm at a dinner party, even my one hour a week teaching Spanish tends to assume an importance that is out of proportion to the time it takes.

"It's not that I feel that defines me, but I feel, perhaps wrongly, that no one would be interested about what I do for the rest of the time.

"There's also an expectation that educated women will be working and that if you're not, you're failing or doing something wrong."

Moore says she sometimes thinks about "the thousands of pounds my parents contributed to my education", only for her to end up at home fulltime.

"I've never really talked to them about it, so I don't know if that's been a disappointment to them or not.

"Given that I've made this decision to give up work and look after the kids, the one thing I feel fantastic about is having a really good academic record. No one can take that away from me. If I didn't have a degree, it would be much harder to go back and get a serious job. It may help indicate that when I look for work it will be for a job that is challenging and fulfilling, not something to fill in idle hours."

She says that a return to work will not only help family finances, which are being strained by her time out of the workforce, but, because her husband works fulltime, it will also change the roles that have become gender-stereotyped at home.

"We have quite clearly defined roles at the moment. If we were to both work part-time I think that would be ideal. It would give us both a better balance between paid work and our home life - because at the moment there's certainly an imbalance."

Case Study #2 Michael Jacobs-Grant

Provision of dawn-to-dusk childcare was cited by Prime Minister Helen Clark a year ago as one of the services New Zealand needed to develop to attract migrants or returning Kiwis who were working parents. But for Michael Jacobs-Grant's family, it was the desire to escape a pressured lifestyle that made New Zealand alluring.

Michael Jacobs-Grant resigned from his job as a technician on the Human Genome Project in the UK to care fulltime for his young daughter. Now looking after two children fulltime at home in Wellington, he says his brain is "atrophying at an alarming rate", but that when he does return to work, the children's needs will still have priority.

Jacobs-Grant is English. He says he and his wife Karen, a Kiwi, talked a lot when they lived in the UK about coming to New Zealand to raise the children, mainly for lifestyle reasons. In the UK, he used to get up at 4.30am, leave home by 5.00am and start work at 6.00am, in order to pick his daughter Hannah up from childcare before 4.00pm.

"It was good childcare, but it was the sort of place where professional couples would drop their children off in their pyjamas with a bag of designer clothes and expect them to be in their pyjamas when they were picked up, and would complain if their clothes were dirty."

"We got to a point where Karen would get home any time between 6.00pm and 7.00pm, by which time I was starting to flag and I felt guilty because I would feel like handing Hannah straight over to her so I could sit down and relax, but really, Karen had just finished a busy day at work.

"It was one of those situations where because Karen had a good salary, and for our quality of life and sanity, I gave up work."

They moved to Wellington last year and Jacobs-Grant intends to be the children's main carer until Hannah, four and a half, and Richard, nearly two, start school, "and then it will be a question of finding something to make a bit of money".

"While my work experience is cutting-edge in terms of research, it will be completely out of date, or will be standard practice, possibly, by the time I return to work. Things change very quickly in that area."

Jacobs-Grant says being home is socially isolating and he is "saved" by knowing another Englishman who is also the main carer of children.

Although he believes it is good for boys to have a man around, the primary reason for him being home rather than his wife, was economic. She earned more.

"For us, the economics are simple, because if I stop work, I still have a small private income. It's the sensible option for us."

So if the government subsidised childcare more heavily, would Jacobs-Grant return to work?

"I suspect we would sit down and consider it seriously. But governments are trying to do their best for the economy; parents are trying to do the best for their children."

Case Study #3 Megan Cook

The single statistic that most amazes single mother Megan Cook about her son Ray, who is nearly two, is that he is 53rd on the waiting-list at the daycare centre nearest to their Wellington home.

Immediately before having her son, Cook worked in Sydney for the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts. She returned home eight months pregnant and without a partner, and lived on her savings and paid maternity leave for several months until her money ran out and she went on the DPB.

With a Masters degree, Cook is confident that she could get a fulltime job, but she does not yet want that. "Every-thing I read and everything I am told suggests it is much better for Ray that I am at home at this stage in his life.

"There are some things he is not going to get because he is the child of a single parent, but one of the things he will get is consistently loving care-giving while he's a young child."

Although ideally she would not work until Ray was three, Cook decided a few months ago that she could no longer keep borrowing money from family members to make ends meet, so began looking for part-time work.

"That meant I also started seriously looking for childcare. There is a really good childcare centre within walking distance of home and he is number 53 on the waiting-list there."

Ray is now on waiting-lists at four different centres and, while waiting for a place to become available, Cook took on a 40-hour contract she could do at home on a computer borrowed from a friend.

"I started doing work when he had his midday sleep because after he's gone to bed in the evening I'm too tired at that point to work properly.

"As a result, I have missed the first deadline to finish the job, which isn't a great start to working for an organisation."

Another problem for Cook is that because her current work has been spread out, "it is conceivable that by the time I have paid my ordinary tax, my student loan and the cost of getting to Hawke's Bay where my cousin has offered to look after Ray while I finish my work, I will have less money than I would have had if I had stayed on the benefit.

"When you're on a benefit and you earn money, they calculate the abatement on the basis of your gross earnings, not what you get in the hand. I don't think it has been thought through that there must be increasing numbers of people on benefits with student loans, which means that we're paying extra tax and therefore we get less money in the hand."

Finding childcare that is flexible is a problem, given the nature of short-term contract work. "There is a whole lot of contract work out there that is bits and pieces here and there, and that makes it difficult, because if I find Ray a place in a centre, the work may stop.

"In terms of women on a benefit, their income never really picks up because every time they get work, the benefit is abated and they are no further ahead."

Cook says she looks forward to going off the DPB.

"As a beneficiary, there is a low-level anxiety about money that simply never goes away."

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