Working Mothers and the Government's Two Faces

If we needed further evidence that strikes ain't what they used to be, it comes with Prime Minister David Cameron's bleeding heart over the childcare crisis facing working mothers during this Wednesday's public sector walkout.

If we needed further evidence that strikes ain't what they used to be, it comes with Prime Minister David Cameron's bleeding heart over the childcare crisis facing working mothers during this Wednesday's public sector walkout.

If you believed what you read in the papers, you'd think that the purpose of a strike was not to immobilise services through refusing to work in them, but a rather more convoluted conspiracy to stop that powerhouse of productivity - mothers with young children - from keeping UK plc on target. And if you believed David Cameron, you'd think that the problem could be solved by turning workplaces into crèches for the day, and encouraging employees to take their little darlings into work.

As a working mother of young children whose primary school will, indeed, be closed for the so-called 'General Strike', I'm of course aware of the inconvenience of teachers striking over pensions. But I'm gobsmacked by the extent to which debates about the rights and wrongs of a strike - or indeed, the rights and wrongs of pension reforms - become so quickly eclipsed by unedifying whingeing over the inconvenience of an enforced day off work. Especially when the whingeing comes, not from the people whom it will actually affect, but from a government whose concern about working mothers is selective, at best.

Take childcare. In Britain, where childcare for pre-school children is only subsidised to the extent that the state wants to pursue its strategy of 'early intervention', working families pay hundreds of pounds a month for a nursery place or childminder, and no small amount for after-school care when the kids start primary school, and parents still find themselves racing into work late and leaving early because of the restrictive childcare hours. Cameron's government has shown no intention of improving this situation.

As a working mother of young children, another issue close to my heart is abortion - and here again, the Con-Lib Dem coalition has not shown itself to be all that in tune with the needs and pressures faced by modern women. About 200,000 women in Britain will have abortions each year; this is a procedure that has been legal for over 40 years, and today is almost completely funded by the NHS. Yet for some bizarre reason, this liberal law is now interpreted by politicians in such a way that it is making abortions early in pregnancy increasingly inconvenient for women - those who work, those with young children, and especially, by default, working mothers.

The method most commonly used for abortions at less than nine weeks of pregnancy is the 'abortion pill', which requires two drugs to be taken approximately 48 hours apart, and induces an experience that has been described as similar to early miscarriage. In many countries, including Sweden and the USA, women take the first pill in a clinic, and the second at home - enabling them to time the pain and bleeding around when it is more convenient for them (when their children are in bed, when their partner is at home, at the weekend, and so on). This doesn't make the abortion easy or pleasant, but it makes it less punitive than having to take a day off work and travel to a clinic, which in turn requires organising emergency childcare cover and making excuses to your boss and colleagues.

Yet in Britain, successive Health Secretaries have insisted on interpreting the abortion law such that women have to make at least two, and often three, trips to a hospital or abortion clinic: for the consultation, to swallow the first pill, and returning two days later to administer the second pill (which they do themselves, by the way - no medical intervention is required). They then have to travel home, which puts them at risk of suffering cramping and bleeding on the bus or tube, or in the car. It's pretty miserable, and massively inconvenient. Yet for these women, nobody in Westminster worries about childcare problems, or thinks about how they can organise their lives to avoid needing a day off work.

I don't for one moment believe that this government hates women, or would rather they stayed at home with the kids. The discussions around the public sector strike have at least brought to mainstream attention just how normal it is for mothers of young children to have jobs and careers, and the contribution that this makes to the British economy.

But I do think that politicians - today, as ever - are highly selective about when they choose to care about the real-life issues affecting working mothers, and which issues they choose to care about. And for women, the closure of schools for a day because of the public sector strike is frankly no more inconvenient than snow days, medical appointments, childminding crises, or any of the other routine pressures than make up working motherhood.


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