"Hi honey, I'm home!" - It's time to re-asses the worth of 21st-century 'breadwinners'

4 Jan 2014

Feminism had a pretty complicated 2013: “Student unions ban music videos which glorify rape culture.” “Rape conviction rates still far too low and many assaults go unreported.” “Everyday sexism commonplace in public life.” These are just some headlines you will have read over the past 12 months, many of which will seem wearingly familiar. There were even reports that men are constantly being portrayed in advertising as hapless idiots who need a woman to save the day with household tasks and shopping. However, we also saw “Women outnumber men on Honours List” and “No More Page 3 campaign gains momentum.” Feminists therefore start 2014 confused about levels of progress.

 

Feminism is about more than family life. However, one thing I would like to see in 2014 is progress towards a more mature and realistic debate on family arrangements where one parent works and the other chooses to stay at home to bring up the children. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that families with the "traditional 'breadwinner' model" are the largest type of family with children in poverty. Almost a third of families where a child is in relative poverty are in this situation, despite the fact that this family model is in decline. Yet the only messages coming from government and Opposition about this significant portion of society are stereotypical, negative and outdated.

I take issue with the phrase 'traditional breadwinning' described by the otherwise welcome Joseph Rowntree study - can't we now safely say we've moved on from 'A woman's place is in the home'? Is there really any danger that there are thousands of Godfrey Blooms in this country waiting to take over and once more confine women to a life in the kitchen? A debate over whether it's best for wealth and wellbeing for one parent to stay at home versus two parents working and forking out for childcare in 2014 should be regardless of gender, not a debate over the role of women. As childcare becomes prohibitively expensive, having one breadwinner may become the thoroughly modern, rather than 'traditional' approach. This is not the 1970s.

Over recent decades, attention has rightly been given to encouraging women to pursue their careers; but when men stay at home it is seen as quaint and something necessary, or even something the man must be doing reluctantly for the sake of the woman. Not only does this lead to guilt and the vain mission to 'have it all' being lumped on women; it is also demeaning to carers everywhere, whose work is seen as less valuable and desirable than going out to work.

Staying home and bringing up the kids is not seen as useful because it isn't seen to be providing a catalyst to economic growth in crude GDP terms. There is no measurable economic gain from a mum or a dad looking after the brood in terms of profits for employers; therefore it must be a worthless pursuit and waste of time, our most valuable commodity. Yet the same people who spread this message are also searching for a means to measure more abstract benefits to society that improve people's happiness, consequently improving the productivity of individuals, their families and communities. Therefore, when the Prime Minister talks about 'wellbeing', why doesn't he address the possible benefits of lone-breadwinner families in the 21st century?

The obvious answer is that policymakers and the government only pick and choose issues when it suits them. 'Wellbeing' is now an essential factor to be considered when making policy - until it comes to work. Politicians are petrified of either being labelled dark-age sexists on the one hand, or 'soft' on welfare and the work-shy on the other. Yet it is often those families where at least one parent is in work who are struggling the most. Devising policy on the always complex and sometimes thorny ground of incentivising families is never easy. However, at the moment, public discourse revolves around demonising those who want more family time by sacrificing their career, while still being able to provide for their children without relying on the taxpayer. Baby steps are being made in the right direction, with flexible parental leave being introduced, mimicking the Scandinavian way of doing things; but seeing families less as mere units of production, and more as well-rounded citizen factories, is still a long way off.

The 1990s seem like such a long time ago. The Tories back then used to indulge in patronising and stereotyping single parent families. Now they're back in government, when they're not attacking jobseekers or immigrants, they talk of families where one parent looks after the children as living in "luxury," or making a "lifestyle choice", in the same tone and style they use to criticise smokers and heavy drinkers - implying it is damaging. Yet the above Joseph Rowntree findings from November would suggest otherwise - that breadwinner families are not living in material luxury. Yes, one parent of either gender choosing to stay home is a lifestyle choice in the literal definition of the phrase; but George Osborne's suggestion that 'it's alright for some', yet again turning worker against worker, distracting from the real issues of affordable childcare and decent wages, is a bit rich coming from an inheritor of a vast fortune. What most media commentators and politicians cannot possibly conceive is that some people, be they male or female, choose to make material sacrifices to be there to help with their children's homework at 3:30pm. That's not for everyone, but it is as equally valid a choice as both parents choosing to prioritise careers, provided they are not choosing to live off the taxpayer.

Policies like helping towards childcare costs and flexible school hours promised by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2013 should be welcomed, but these are only looking at one side of the equation. For example, perhaps if there was a living wage, both parents wouldn’t have to work full time to prevent their children from falling into poverty. The state should have as limited a role as possible in people's family lives, but if it is to be truly liberal, then it needs to allow for and support every choice families make, provided no harm is being done - then get out of the way. At the moment, the state is only supporting parents who both choose to work, or those who need help from to get back into work. There is no third way.

In the 1940s, we created a welfare state which gave family allowance to the mother, assuming and even encouraging her role as the carer, who's normal position was in the home. In the 1970s and 80s, we realised many mothers also wanted a career, and passed the Equal Pay Act and introduced flexible working. In the 2000s, we recognised that fathers may want to stay at home too, and with developments in technology, many workers can work from their laptops at home. In the 2010s, we need to talk about mothers, fathers, and families more holistically, recognising individual choice and accepting that child-rearing and caring for elderly relatives is equally as demanding as going out to work.

In 2014 it would be useful if there was a reliable and comprehensive study into the worth of breadwinning households to the individual family as well as society at large. This study should incorporate the 'invisible' benefits to the economy of one parent staying at home while the other pursues a career, as well as the more visible ones of the two-earners alternative. It should look at productivity, happiness, and the promotion of children’s ambitions as well as parent’s. It should also of course pay more attention to affordable childcare and supporting single parents.

If we are rightly to accept the modern family as being as diverse and varied as the population at large, and the demonstrable fact that happy and successful children are brought up in all types of families, then we should also accept that the family that was seen as ideal in times gone by, in both its 'traditional' male-breadwinning and in modern forms, is equally valued. This more mature and less gender-focused discussion would be much more valuable to families, our society and economy than a marriage tax break. In the age where co-habitation, same-sex parents, step-families, single-parent families and others are all recognised as capable of being conducive to well-rounded and balanced children, we should not so readily discard this model. I argue that it would be progress for feminists if all options were on the table for parents, and choice was encouraged, for both women and men.

By Luke Jones

 

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