cross-posted from Head in Books

orig. pub. 15.4.15

As Tolstoy never wrote, every working family works in its own way. I’m not sure he would have had cause to make the observation in nineteenth century Russia, but it strikes me that it’s one worth making, here in a 2015 Britain gripped by General Election…well, if not fever, then certainly a bit of a nasty bug. Parents’ perceived priorities are high on the agenda.

It’s just that creating policies for “(hard)-working families” makes about as much sense, really, as creating them for people called Tom.

How on earth is a “working family” to be defined? I’m not even going to address whether unpaid work in the home counts; this is specifically about paid employment of one kind or another. People – and for the purposes of this post, I’m really thinking about women – have educations, lives and jobs and then – oops! – they reproduce, as people (women) have been prone to do since long before Anna Karenina got herself in such a muddle.

And after reproducing, there they are, suddenly, with the pieces that made up their lives hitherto needing to be rearranged into a pattern which best suits them. And those patterns are infinite.

For every parent who works in order to pay the bills, there’s one whose job provides a welcome but not indispensable addition to the family budget.

For every two-income household, there’s someone on their own stretched to breaking between the demands of employer and home.

For every parent racked with guilt about leaving their child when they have no choice, there’s another who could never be the parent or the person they are without the chance to do the job they love.

For every one parent motivated by ambition and passion for their career, there’s one who simply likes the adult time.

For every parent who believes on principle that a child’s place is in the home, there’s one who knows that their child thrives in nursery, or with its grandparents, or in the care of a childminder.

Parents choose, or they compromise. We aren’t motivated by any single factor, and from my own experience, ideology very rarely seems to come into it. We make it up as we go along, and – do you know what? – I think that left to our own devices we get it right.

I’ve tried, for a long time, to steer clear of anything about the tired old Mummy Wars, that tainted, painful, unwinnable argument over Who Is Doing It Right with a side order of bludgeoning for the ones Doing It Wrong. It’s hard to avoid, though, because we are all so sensitised from media coverage which seems determined to polarise, and, increasingly, clumsy political rhetoric which  leaves those in one situation feeling victimised or unfairly judged.

It seems too much to ask that we move the discussion on from whether one type of behaviour should be selected as preferable and rewarded, and more to how we can recognise that parents’ circumstances are as unique and as shifting as sand on a beach. I don’t want to talk about whether free childcare penalises those who don’t or can’t work for whatever reason, I want to talk about how we ensure it doesn’t compel parents to work longer hours than they want to and rely on leaving their children in settings they wouldn’t choose. I don’t want to argue about who is more deserving of state support, I want to ask politicians to grant parents pragmatic and flexible ways to manage their own situations.

It’s probably too much to ask. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own jigsaw and trying to resist the temptation to compare it with everyone else’s.

Head in Books: I write about politics, predominantly on issues which affect parenting, children and education.


(Cross-posted from Feimineach)

Originally published: Feb 15/2015

I was asked on a comment elsewhere today: “I wonder what Elizabeth Cady Stanton would think of it all?” Good question, I thought.

Though the question related to another issue, it could easily be asked also about Labour’s Harriet Harman’s new initiative to engage women voters: A PINK CAMPAIGN BUS. Harman claims:

The message she wanted to get across to women was: “Use your vote, use your voice because politics is too important to be left to only men voting.”

She’s right that women must use their voice by voting for what’s important to them but she’s misguided if she thinks that touring in a pink bus will help make a difference. Worse, she’s amplifying a culture that infantilises women and girls.

Harriet: pink or magenta, it’s still patronising and sexistPink is for girls; blue is for boys

Harman told Sky News that, “It’s not about a colour; it’s about something, it’s about our democracy. It’s a small bus but big issues” (emphasis added). Harman came in for such criticism on her launch that it’s not surprising that she tried to backtrack but, regardless, the reaction to the campaign is very much about colour.

Objectively, pink does not differ greatly from any other colour but it has become the manifestation of the female gender, and femininity, and it is that that gives it significance. Everything for little girls is pink – clothes, shoes, toys, books, games, plates, pens, and I defy you to find a card for a new-born girl that isn’t pink. If something is for women, specifically, it’s going to be pink (1) (2). Let’s not forget that gender-specific clothing is a relatively recent phenomenon (1) (2), and that research evidence indicates that LITTLE GIRLS ARE NO MORE DRAWN TO THE COLOUR PINK THAN LITTLE BOYS(AND THAT WOMEN DON’T PREFER PINK TO OTHER COLOURS), yet these are cultural norms with which we persist.

The impact of these norms throughout the life-course should not be underestimated. Our most basic understandings of gender, and femininity and masculinity, are signified, in part, in colour. We read another’s gender, and make assumptions about the other, through colour. Pink is not just a colour for little girls but a cultural signifier of femininity which is, crucially (and wrongly, I addition, but that’s another discussion), perceived as weakness, vulnerability, emotionality, and inadequacy. Everything for little boys is blue and little boys don’t wear pink – pink is girly and girly is weak and boys are strong.

Women have often told me, for example, that they carefully choose the colour of their outfits before they attend important meetings or events so that they’ll be taken seriously. They choose dark, substantial “manly” colours such as grey, and eschew light, frivolous “girly” colours such as pink. Women know that femininity is a disadvantage because femininity is too often synonymous with weakness and frivolity. And pink is its representation.

Patronising and sexist

Harman’s pink bus perpetuates these damaging cultural norms. So what would Elizabeth Cady Stanton think of it all? She’d probably agree that initiative is patronising and sexist and, instead of engaging women voters, Harman has infantilised them. And, by extension, she has also diminished the importance of women’s issues – if women are frivolous then so too must be the issues related to them. Harman’s political campaign may have scored an “own goal” (ironically) but that is less disquieting to me than her alienating of women voters and her belittling of women’s concerns.

(Written for VIEW FROM THE NORTH, reposted here with permission from the author. The author’s me, of course, so that was handy.)
Image: courtesy of the BBC.


Feimineach quick-hitting the hell out of everything. occasional thinky blogging. [@grainnemcmahon]