do working mothers really matter?

It might seem a provocative title, but it is something that I have wondered about on and off throughout my adult life.

As a new mother in the 80s, keen to pursue my career in medicine as well as attempting to be a good enough mother (oh how I wish that I knew about Winnicott at that stage of my life), I was grateful for the opportunity to do (what was then) my senior registrar training part time. I was lucky enough to be in Oxford, a region that had pioneered part time training for senior trainees, and thus had a good reputation for such training. I was able to avoid weekends on call by working one night each week on call, and by effectively working four weekdays. Of course my salary was only half that of the full time trainees, and I was expected to attend all academic meetings. However, I had a full day and every precious weekend with my children, and the security of knowing that by handing over 90% of my salary (salary plus living expenses) to a qualified live-in nanny I was providing my children with a ‘good enough’ surrogate mother, and ensuring that my professional life would hopefully never be compromised by childcare problems.

Everything seemed to work reasonably well. My husband and I both ended up with consultant posts within 20 miles of one another, our children grew to secondary school age and kept in touch with their last nanny who had long since moved out, but had helped out with after school duties whilst herself doing a psychology degree and then higher degree. I continued to have a slightly less than full time contract in order to have my one day a week dedicated to domestic responsibilities. Our children seem to have all grown into normal sane adults with equally sane partners, so hopefully our arrangements gave them a good enough mother.

One of my children now has a child of her own. My daughter is a primary school teacher, her husband is a carpenter. There is no way that they could afford the luxury of a trained nanny, and although my daughter is fortunate in having a headteacher who is amenable to letting her return to work part time (three days a week), to put my granddaughter in a nursery for those three days would consume all my daughter’s salary. In order for her to return to teaching (a demoralised profession that is struggling to recruit) and earn anything she is dependent on me and her mother-in-law each providing a day a week of childcare. Luckily we both live less than 40 mins drive from her and of course are happy to care for our granddaughter, but it is still going to be quite a mission to arrange! My daughter-in-law is now pregnant and lives 90 minutes drive away, so she is going to face significant childcare problems when she returns to work.

I am more than aware that we are all lucky; we are professional women and I, at least, had the ability to pay for proper childcare even though it meant that for five years I effectively worked for free. I knew that eventually I would have a reasonable salary, and I also knew that if I wanted to continue my career in medicine there was no alternative to the path that I took – even by finishing my training part time I was taking a big risk that I would not be taken seriously. For my daughter there is no prospect of a significantly larger salary if she wishes to remain a classroom teacher – a stressful and often thankless job, but one that she finds rewarding.

Single mothers, and couples on very low incomes face much bigger struggles than I did, or than my daughter does. Many have to work at night, or on zero hours or flexible contracts in order to earn enough to pay rent (rarely mortgages). They may have to depend on less than ideal childcare, and of course are the same women who are unlikely to have sympathetic employers if a child is sick. Of course for the many families dependent on in-work benefits life is about to get even harder, as the government pursues its austerity agenda with particular zeal amongst the poorer sections of society.

Naively, as a young woman I imagined that the sacrifices and compromises made by working mothers would eventually come to an end. Now I find myself doing something that I had never intended to do, which is be a surrogate mother to my granddaughter rather than a grandmother. For a day a week this isn’t really a problem, but I want my grandchildren to grow up having that special relationship with me that comes from a grandparent being able to be a step removed from the nitty gritty of child rearing. I had a very special relationship with my grandmother that made her a person to turn to when relationships with my own parents (as a teenager) were less than harmonious. If grandparents spend much of the week being parents  then they cannot fully be grandparents. Moreover surely one wants a mother substitute to be a similar age to the mother, active, energetic, and in tune with the issues of that generation.

As women delay childbirth there are more women who find themselves looking after young families and also caring for elderly parents. I have  been spared this particular problem because both my parents died prematurely in their early sixties. However the silent army of unpaid carers is acknowledged by many third sector agencies, and even by the government. Unfortunately this recognition has not translated into funding for alternative care.

Finally I have recently discovered  what feels like the biggest betrayal of all. I accept that I am fortunate to have an occupational pension from the NHS. Public sector workers are repeatedly told that one of the huge perks of their jobs is the generous occupational pension, and this is true. How long it will continue, and quite whether it makes up for the widening  differentials in terms and conditions for many employees are separate questions.

My husband cannot understand why I am angry about pensions; he considers the situation to be perfectly fair and equitable, and thinks that my views are ridiculous. He is a thoughtful and  fair man, so perhaps he is right. An occupational pension in the NHS is based on number of years worked. Pension rights are accrued during maternity leave. Years worked are not calculated on years of service but on hours of service, so that women (who make up the majority of NHS employees, and are also the most likely employees to work part time hours) will frequently find that they have worked fewer hours over the course of (say) 40 years than their male counterparts. My husband and I both achieved consultant status. I have never augmented my salary through private practice, being ideologically opposed to it. I worked for many years with vastly reduced pay in order to provide good childcare to our children. My ‘part time’ hours rarely consisted of fewer than 40 hours a week. Yet I will find myself in receipt of an NHS pension that is approximately 60% of my husband’s.

I accept that I am naive. I just hadn’t expected this. My husband asks me how I can expect to be receive the same pension as he does when I haven’t worked the same hours. Firstly, it is generally accepted that part time doctors work, pro rata, more than they are paid for. Secondly, I haven’t been swanning around having my nails painted, taking saunas, or having massages. I have been bringing up a family and running a home, the same as millions of other women. Parenting is being taken seriously by the government. They want new parents to attend classes. No doubt attendance at such classes will be a condition of receiving child benefit. Teenage behaviour is permanently under scrutiny. We have a mental health crisis in our country, but especially amongst our young people. Parenting is important – nobody disputes that.

Parenting is important – but actually  our society doesn’t act as though it believes that it matters. Working mothers are systematically penalised from the day that they return to work until the day that they die. Parenting matters, but, like caring for the elderly, can be done by unpaid women, by family members, or by generally low paid and often unqualified workers – most of whom are women.

We have gender equality enshrined in UK law. Despite this we know that up to a quarter of women either lose their jobs or return to demoted positions after having a baby. Professional childcare costs more than the vast majority of women can dream of, yet with ad hoc arrangements women lay themselves open to accusations of unreliability at best, and being sacked at worst.

Women all over the country, in all sorts of jobs, at all levels of education struggle to do their best for their children and their employers. They are rewarded with less disposable income than men in the same jobs, and when they finally retire they find that their occupational pensions are substantially less than their male colleagues – even if they have never taken any break in service.

I don’t think it is ridiculous to complain about this. I don’t think that I am worth less than my husband. I do think that the government should value the women in our society and recognise that many do several jobs, not all of which they are paid for. It is time for provision of high quality means tested childcare, high quality means tested care for the chronic sick and elderly, and government contributions to occupational pensions. Increasing numbers of highly educated young women are choosing not to have children. This is a potential crisis for the next generation – the government cannot afford to do nothing.


3 thoughts on “do working mothers really matter?

  1. I should add that I am not complaining about the amount of my NHS pension – one solution would be to reduce the size of men’s pensions by say 10% as part of a way to realise equality.

  2. Some really excellent and thought provoking points here. Not naive to assume that in an enlightened society, women shouldn’t expect to be punished for wanting to raise families and have careers and retire as men always have – if they want to. Will it always be the ideal and not the norm? I hope your granddaughter and my daughter will feel empowered by the choices they get to make and not guilty or diminished. I’ve yet to meet a mother – working or not – who wasn’t just doing their best. And hurrah for all of them!

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