The other day I signed a petition asking for a fair deal for stay at home parents. Without question, the recent changes and proposed changes are all in some way encouraging particularly mothers to work. Well, in theory they do, because there are so many ifs and buts, nevermind the lack of jobs that things look quite different in practice.
I'm very much in favour of women having the choice to stay at home if this is what they believe is best for their child, or to work if that is what they believe is best for their child. But let's be clear - it's often not exactly a choice.
With living costs being extortionately high, it's really only a choice to stay at home if your partner has a higher than average income. And even that may well not be enough. And if your ideal situation is somewhere in between, it's often not possible to get reduced hours to have a better work - parenting balance, and if you're looking for a job, part time jobs are rare as diamonds.
There are a few things that rather bother me in this context, the first being the wording of the above petition. It suggests that as a family that uses childcare because both parents work, we are getting benefits from the tax system and therefore cost the state money. This is factually wrong. The truth is that because we both work, we pay tax, and the only benefit we can get is a tax free allowance, so we still pay tax. The economic benefit of working parents is definitely in the black. And as for low income families - they may even miss out on any tax free allowance if their income is so low that they don't pay tax. This, incidentally, is a very serious flaw in the system which has a devastating impact on the lowest earning, working, families.
What is correct though is that there is a good point for having transferable tax free allowances. What I mean by this is that if a couple without children both work, they each have a tax free allowance. Once they have a family and one parent decides to stay at home, the tax free allowance of the none working parent is lost. In other countries, this works differently - if there is only one earner in a family, this person will receive an additional tax free allowance per dependant. So say dad works, his own tax free allowance is 10,000, he'll get another 5,000 for his wife and 2,500 for each child. Higher incomes are taxed more progressively to make up for this (for instance, in the UK, higher rate tax is only applied to income over the threshold amount, while in other countries it's applied to all the income). A system like this does make staying at home affordable also for people on lower incomes.
At the same time I do believe that the taxation and benefit system has to ensure that work pays. This has not yet been achieved, although some of the changes within Universal Credits will make this the case for more people than before (and I hasten to add that other parts of the changes to the benefit system will have a horrendous effect on many family and are really nothing short of shameful). Childcare is so expensive that without support, only high earners can actually afford it.
What is however totally unhelpful in this particular debate (which is about fairness and insuring that staying at home to raise children is valued, respected, supported and a financially viable option for parents) is to propose that either staying at home or being a working mum/dad is the RIGHT choice. When we should actually be supporting each other in our choices, this turn of the argument leads to alienation and bad feelings.
Sure enough there are studies that demonstrates that children are better off at home up to the age of 3 and that long nursery hours in particular can have a detrimental impact on a child's emotional development.
But there are also studies that demonstrate that maternal level of education is the biggest indicator of a child's cognitive and emotional development, and that children who have 2 working parents also do better than children whose parent don't work.It is thought that this is due to the link with higher maternal education and also the financial ability to provide stimulating experiences for children.
Children from low income families, on the other hand, tend to fare really rather bad in the education system and measurements of cognitive and emotional development, and of course quite a few low income families will have one or both parents out of work - so in spite of parents staying at home, children lag behind their peers. The reason for children not doing so well in low income families are complex and there isn't space here to look into it in detail, but let's say it's a combination of many factors which parents themselves have very little influence on.
There is also the question of the quality of childcare - and Liz Truss' proposal to have more under 5s per member of staff, who are trained to be compliant and purposeful (the toddlers, not the staff!) will certainly not make for better childcare.
My own mother was a stay at home mum, and I don't think this made me emotionally more stable - in fact I struggled severely with shyness and low self esteem in childhood, so much so that I loathed going to school throughout my primary years (and I didn't exactly love it in secondary but at least I had some friends by then). I can't help but wonder if I could have benefited from more nursery hours than the 3 hours per day that I got from 4 years of age.
So there is no black and white, no ideal situation. Because we can't exactly all be highly educated mums who then abdicate their blossoming careers in favour of being Stay at Home Mums. Some of us aren't highly educated. Some of us can't find a job. Some of us can't find the part time job we want. Some of us are better parents if they're not full time parents. Most working parents will go through incredible lengths to ensure that the time they do spend with their children is the best it can be. Above all we've all looked at the evidence and made our choices. I know how important it is to reconnect with my children when I get back, we practice most of what falls under attachment parenting (though I don't follow it as a philosophy, it's just what happened to be our preferred style), we spend quality time together and I listen to my children all the time. I work on improving my parenting and can draw from all the knowledge that comes with delivering a parenting programme. I have amazing childcare providers, so amazing that both my children look forward to it and miss it in the holidays.
And while I believe that Cubling started childcare too early (which was outwith my control and I do not feel in any way guilty about it), there is no doubt in my mind that I've given both my children the best possible start in life I can, all considered.
So, I do not believe that I'm a worse parent for working 4 days a week. I also don't buy into the argument that having a fair deal for Stay At Home Mums is encouraging people to be/stay on benefits (because really, who wants to be on those meagre benefits? Exactly, nobody). We all make or are having to make different and difficult choices but all of us are trying to be the best parent to our children whom we love more than ourselves. And those choices should be respected, valued and viable.