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Working Mothers

Australia’s aging population is putting some strains on both our society and our economy. Many of our older workers are leaving the workforce resulting in a diminished tax base and a higher demand for health and welfare services. One of the strategies that both sides of politics is employing is to offer more inducements to have mothers re-enter the workforce. Many professional services firms add their own incentives because it is hard to get experienced, qualified professional people, and their fee-earning potential is reduced when talented women go off to have babies and tend to their children.

So women are lured back into the workforce as soon as they can possibly wrench themselves away from their children. Many of them are caught in an impossible dilemma. They know that whilst they are out of the workforce others are taking over their clients and invading their professional networks. Their professional profiles wane and of course this is part of the intellectual capital that they possess that make them so valuable. They perceive that if they don’t hurry back into the workforce their professional ambitions will be soon thwarted. Yet their natural instincts as mothers are urging them to stay and care for their children. I have worked with many such women and I feel for them with their loyalties torn between family and profession.

In order to return to work there will be inevitable childcare costs. In Australia most institutionalised childcare is subsidised by the state. And I suppose that economists could rationalise that the opportunity costs of lost production from such women would far outweigh the costs of subsidising their childcare. But even with state subsidisation, childcare is still reasonably costly and affordable only to the middle-class and the wealthy. The option of returning to work and providing childcare for your children is not an option for the lower paid. They have to get by using grandparents, other family and friends to care for their children whilst they are at work. This is a prime example of what political commentators have come to call in recent years “middle-class welfare”.

Tony Abbott has suggested that child-care subsidies should be made more flexible and it would be worth investigating whether they should be extended to cover the employment of nannies engaged to come into the home and care for children and perform various domestic duties. I suppose that many mothers would be happier leaving their children at home and being cared for by a trusted carer. But there is a conundrum here. How is it that a government might give support to a mother who hires a nanny but wouldn’t assist if she chose to do those things herself?

The inclination is to get women back into the paid workforce. This suggests that the duties of mothering are not really work unless someone else performs them! It demeans the work of the natural mother caring for her children.

Yes I know I am an old reactionary troglodyte, but I can remember, in my early years, coming home from school to a concerned mother who was interested in how my day went and probably had a cool drink and a snack ready. There was great comfort in knowing she would be there. Or in my early primary years, knowing that I had a mother that would walk to school and then walk with me to the dentist or doctor if I had toothache or needed medical attention. And of course in between times she would cook, clean and sew. And then in her little free time she would tend her flower garden which always seemed to have something blooming and fragrant.

Our nomenclature reveals the injustice. When we talk about “working mothers” we are invariably referring to mothers in paid employment as though the domestic duties of a stay-at-home mother have no significance. Indeed such women are referred to by the productivity commission as “underutilised”!

Now don’t get me wrong -I am not advocating that all mothers should stay at home and tend their children. There are many reasons why women justifiably want to go back to work after having children. They should have the right to pursue their vocational ambitions just as men do. However those that stay at home and tend their children should not be discriminated against by the state. If we expect state subsidies to have others care for our children, there should be equivalent concessions for those who opt to do it themselves.

It is a sign of our social dysfunction that we value the contributions of women who contribute to the “real” economy over those who providing nurture and guidance for our children in the “unpaid economy”.

It would be a far fairer system if we paid a family allowance to families with children that could be used however the family unit determined. If it was used to subsidise childcare that would be fair enough. But the current arrangement discriminates against single-income families in favour of middle-class professionals. As we saw above, lower paid women re-entering the workforce depend on grandparents and others to provide the care that the more wealthy are able to afford childcare institutions to provide. Why should women who rely on their children’s grandparents to care for them be treated differently from someone who chooses to hire a nanny? And indeed, more importantly, why should someone who is moderately wealthy be paid to subsidise their children’s childcare whereas a women who chooses to forgo a career in favour of bringing up a family, receives no support.

It is helpful to the productivity of our economy to have women come and go from paid employment as their circumstances allow. But our society is all the poorer when we value their contribution to the economy as employees over their contribution to society as mothers.

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  1. 7 Comment(s)

  2.   By Sue Filer on May 6, 2012 | Reply

    When I see the term ‘working mother’ I think of a woman with 2 jobs – a mother + worker (paid employment). I do not consider ‘stay-at-home mothers’ to be insignificant or discriminated against. The government subsidies for childcare are there for those who pay for childcare. If a mother chooses to stay at home and care for her children she is not incurring costs so why should she be entitled to govt subsidies? A working mother still has the same ‘tasks’ to do as a non-working mother (run a household, cook, clean,etc) but because she is also working some of the time she must pay someone to care for her children during that time. I see more lower income families/mothers accessing paid childcare because they get more govt subsidies and it is the middle class/double income families that must try to find alternative care (friends, family, etc) arrangements because they get little or less govt assistance. These days it takes both incomes to buy a house and raise a family. Why should a mother who chooses to stay home and can afford to stay home and be there for her children be paid or receive govt assistance when a working mother has to work her butt off(mother + paid work) and pay for someone else to care for her children but receive no or little support or assistance to do so. It all depends on how you look at it. Ted, I see your point but society promotes a user pays system – if you pay for something then that cost can be subsidised. If you don’t pay for something how do you quantify and justify a subsidy. We already have family assistance payments which are income tested – meaning the lower income families receive more than middle class or higher income families. And, when you think about it, the tax that the working mothers and middle / higher class are paying is going towards the family assistance and subsidies the lower/single income (family tax benefit part B) families receive already. Maybe the Govt should be encouraging employers to provide more flexible / part-time work for working mothers to better balance their life.

  3.   By Helen on May 6, 2012 | Reply

    thanks for a fabulous article, I agree with your sentiments

  4.   By Jack on May 7, 2012 | Reply

    I think Grandparents are unpaid Nannies and should in fact be paid, in kind if you like, but that pay (or expense if it includes meals and or accomodation for Grandma) should be tax deductible if the working Mums pay…

  5.   By Jen on May 7, 2012 | Reply

    Great idea Ted. I also have the same happy memories of my mother staying home and looking after me.

  6.   By Greg Brown on May 7, 2012 | Reply

    There is another reason why mothers return to the workforce Ted, it is fashionable. If a mother decides to leave the paid workforce and care for her children and home then she will be on her own and it is pretty lonely in many suburban neighborhoods these days. I know this from experience, when my wife was almost ready to work for nothing just for some social contact. The days of my childhood were full of kids playing and mums being there keeping an eye on things. It was good for kids and good for mums but it is not there any more. Unless there is a universal shift, just paying mothers as carers will not create new family centered neighborhoods. In many cases women work because they want to and not just because they have to. It is also just as important for children to have social contact and they will get very little in their own neighborhood today. Day care facilities, home based or commercial premises provide a much richer social environment.

    There is another aspect to this as well. Technology has made it much easier to care for a home and children. It is less than 60 years since appliances like fridges, electric stoves, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and clothes driers have reduced the time and effort to maintain a household enormously. It still keeps you busy working full time and maintaining a home but it is easily possible today where as once this was not the case. The job of maintaining a home is not as squarely dumped on the mother these days either. In most familys dad will also take a turn at cooking etc. There are plenty of aids to child care as well. In a well designed environment one adult can probably care for 6 or more children (I am sure there are regulations), a live at home carer probably cares for 1 or perhaps 2 in most instances. In a world that has efficiency as it’s God we do not encourage inefficiency unless there is an election win in it.

    I still very much miss the rich cultural environment of the neighborhood of my childhood but I have come to accept that it is not coming back. Children and their mothers are still having a full and good life despite this though.

  7.   By Claire on May 8, 2012 | Reply

    Well put, Ted, and the same applies whether it is the mother or the father who stays at home with children.

  8.   By Geoff Higgins on May 8, 2012 | Reply

    Wow, I believe this is one of the ‘big topics’ Ted, as the decisions we make shape our society for generations.

    I am intrigued by the view that raising children is an unproductive drain on society.

    I have a strong belief in choice, and the need to support people’s choices.

    I am just not so sure about government involvement in these choices – and the social engineering that goes on when government gets involved.

    Solutions seem elusive this morning, but I’m simply going to suggest that less rules gives more potential for both choice and creativity.

    …Geoff

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