Go back to work, they said. Get the economy going, they said. As for what to do with the children while you do, they said... nothing.
The phrase “children should be seen but not heard” dates back to the 15th Century, but it seems the sentiment is still current. Except with the additional caveat that children can only be seen if they’re not distracting us from getting back to work. The idea that we can collectively return to productive employment while schools and nurseries are still shut, points to a large female shaped gap in this government’s thinking, reflecting the lack of diversity among the ‘squad’ of ministers making the decisions.
I’m in the privileged position of having a three year-old son who I love, and interesting valuable work that I also love. I cannot focus on both at once. Any time that I forget multi-tasking is a myth and I try to just.send.that.one.email whilst also constructing a tower out of blocks and cuddly toys, both the tower and my morale falls flat.
My son understands that I have to work. Indeed he helps me to prepare for calls by crayoning streaks of yellow across my chest to “show your clients”. Or delivering me random objects like sticks and drill-bits that he invites me to discuss with them. He is beautiful, creative, and a blocker to meaningful work.
“In straight couples it is almost always the man who earns the most and therefore permitted to focus on his career while women pick up the slack for everything else.”
And what of dad? I describe myself as “lucky” because my husband splits the childcare responsibilities with me, which shows how far we are from expecting parenting to be shared equally. We’ve seen evidence that during lockdown women are doing 50% more childcare than men where both are at home. And that’s before we add in the inequality around housework and remote caring for relatives.
The time that women take out of work for childcare is already the single biggest driver of the gender pay gap at 40%. Families overwhelmingly use income as the deciding factor for how to split childcare responsibilities. In straight couples, it is almost always the man who earns the most and therefore permitted to focus on his career while women pick up the slack for everything else. This dropping out and dropping back contributes to the pay gap problem and the cycle continues.
“This must be the point that things change. We need to take the infrastructure of childcare as seriously as we do roads, buildings and power supplies.”
For parents to be able to get back to paid work in a meaningful way, the government needs to provide a proper plan for childcare and schools. The childcare system is already vulnerable with estimates of up to 250k children’s places being lost due to potential nursery closures. We have one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world, and yet those who work in the system (overwhelmingly women) don’t receive the benefit of this.
This must be the point that things change. We need to take the infrastructure of childcare as seriously as we do roads, buildings and power supplies. We need to stop seeing children as a logistical problem to be solved in service of our work productivity, and look for solutions that put their development, education and rights at the centre. We need to value the workers in this industry properly.
“We need a government that grasps that back to work without childcare is not going to work.”
In the interim, while the sector struggles and the childcare providers and schools are shut, it is likely to be the men who go back to work while the women are left behind to carry the domestic load. The Women’s Equality Party is calling for parents to have a legal right to be furloughed part-time so that parenting can be shared, and for single parents to nominate a second adult to share furlough with – echoing our shared parental leave policy.
Along with lamenting the lack of hours to do all that lockdown reading and banana bread eating, it’s a common cry amongst parents that homeschooling is so tough, we should give teachers a raise. Or taking care of an infant all day is exhausting – childcare workers deserve a bonus. Or having more time as a family has been special – we should be together more. As lockdown memories fade, let’s not forget these things. We need a government that grasps that back to work without childcare is not going to work. We need diverse voices in the decision making rooms. And, right now, we need a few minutes of silence and solitude just for ourselves. Please?
Cheryl Clements is Women’s Equality Party’s spokesperson for equal parenting and caregiving.