Parents into Work

It takes a lot, these days, to get me exercised about something. What with seismic family changes, a constantly shifting and challenging roster of tasks to get through every single day, and my health being on an unpredictable wicket lately, I have to prioritise.

Yet today, I wonder about the government’s – every government, I gather; Labour are on this bandwagon too – insistence that we have to invest big to “get more women into work”. What the politicians mean is taxable employment, from which a share of revenue can be collected.

In general I approve of higher tax rates. In societies with higher tax rates, I observe that civic provision – such as healthcare, pensions, parental leave – tends to be better and citizens tend to be more co-operative and appreciative of state efforts on their behalf. Which comes in handy when the state is faced with pandemics or nation-wide problems and then has to ask citizens to co-operate with its state-wide strategies.

But this insistence that people, and particularly women, should “get into work” is misleading and just a tad unfair. Most people work most of the time in a variety of jobs and roles, some paid, some unpaid; and the amount of goodwill that goes along with being a paid or an unpaid anything is not only considerable but also, ultimately, unquantifiable; a reality of life which irks bean counters no end.

My aim here is not to make a martyr of unpaid workers, but to point out that most of us do work most of the time, and the last thing we need is increasingly explicit guidance that tries to steer us into “paid employment”. While we currently face industrial action across many paid sectors which are central to our economy and wellbeing, working hours contributed in unpaid roles save the exchequer and business billions of pounds each year. The last thing we need is a bunch of – very – privileged persons telling us that getting into paid work is good for our health and that we have marketable skills.

We know this already, and continue to do what needs to be done every day. What we need, actually, is someone to listen. To help out with the boring stuff and to agree that yes, we are doing okay, we are doing more than okay. That it’s enough already and we are not expected to send our babes into the care of another hard-pressed parent who has set themselves up as a child-minder, while s/he sends their kids to me, so that I can do the same. Reminds me of a Griselda cartoon – I paraphrase – “I’ll give you mine, she can take yours and I’ll take hers…”

When was it decided that a parent staying at home to look after their children was somehow letting the side down? Just because s/he is not in “paid employment” does not mean that what s/he does every day has no value. It’s not always childcare s/he needs, while s/he works out if the costs of working make going back to work worth anything at all. What s/he needs is simple recognition that being a parent – and a spouse, a contributor to a hundred and one different agendas – is valuable and appreciated.

I thought that the Covid pandemic had finally laid bare the value of unpaid work. Now that things are seemingly returning to “normal” it would be a pity to lose sight of that, and to return to the old, tired arguments about stay-at-home parents “returning to work”.

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