Saving the family?
It is beginning to hit home. Children need families. If possible, two-parent families, and if possible the same two parents that they had at birth. The Children’s Society has issued its report ‘The Good Childhood’. In it they criticise our ‘selfish and individualistic culture’, and point out that British children suffer more than anywhere else in the world from family breakdown.
It’s not the first time concerned organisations or even government bodies have remarked on the problematic state of a nation which is addicted to quick fixes rather than long-term commitment on the relationship front. And it is certainly not the first time data has been gathered which demonstrates the disastrous conditions under which the increasing majority of children are growing up in the UK – international bodies such as UNICEF have already put us at the bottom of the list as a country where childhood and happiness actually coincide. And of course the Church has been warning the world about this for decades, most powerfully through the writing and preaching of Pope John Paul II, who made the family so central in his great concern for the dignity of human life.
However, it takes time to slow down a speeding train. Only after at least two, if not three generations have begun to experience the effects of social breakdown through the disintegration of marriage, only after the results have become widely and startlingly clear, does public opinion begin to take note. And then of course fingers are pointed. One of the uncomfortable issues picked up by the ‘Good Childhood’ report is the link between women working outside the home, and the soaring divorce rate. This takes us into a minefield, and it is easy to make things worse by being over-simplistic about it. The fact of the matter is that most women have no choice but to go out to work, even while their children are fairly young. The reasons for this are many and complex, though one of them is quite simple. The more two-income households there are, especially two-income-no-kids households, in a country where land is at a premium, the higher house prices get. This prices out single-income families, making it impossible for them to obtain the basic necessity of a stable family life: a decent home. This is one social iniquity that recession may actually assuage, though it comes too late for those of us who already paid in blood for our homes.
There are of course other reasons why women go out to work. Highly educated, intelligent, or simply very capable women get real satisfaction out of doing a job that the rest of the world puts value on. And the truth of the matter is that the modern world does not put much value on the work that mothers do. It notices when we fail to juggle the role of bread (or at least butter) winner and super-mum. But it doesn’t particularly care about our struggles in the sphere on which it puts no value because it has no quantifiable economic result. Even the best-intentioned mum could be forgiven for feeling that she is damned whether she does or doesn’t ‘work’. And the base-line assumptions about what actually constitutes ‘work’ are of course inimical to her sense of self-worth. As the anthropologist (and stay-at-home mother) Anna Melchior powerfully argues in her book Mothering (St Pauls), bringing up children has been relegated by the developed world in general, and by our hyper-industrialised nation in particular, to the bottom of the social scrap-heap.
Waxing moralistic, whether it’s about about working mothers, absent fathers, single parents, or delinquent kids, isn’t actually going to solve the problem. We are in enough panic and grief as it is. No woman wants to go back into the kitchen just for the sake of ticking the Martha Stewart box. No man wants to live with a resentful woman in multi-tasking meltdown. No parent wants to be landed with the sole care of children, when their authority and care is being undermined every step of the way by a culture which only seems to value children as budding consumers. Attributing blame and making sweeping generalisations is definitely not helpful.
A Daily Telegraph editorial on The Good Childhood report suggested the first thing that needs to be tackled is our taxation system. In other words, politicians could do a very straightforward and powerful thing to ease the pressure on families, and to give women a genuine choice if they need to take time out from the ‘work place’ outside the home.
When my local MP canvassed for my vote at the railway station a few years ago. I told him bluntly that I would vote for the party that did the most for families. In particular, I said, the party which actually addressed the financial difficulties foisted upon us by the tax system which penalises women for making happy homes and bringing up our own children. He didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. “We can’t turn the clock back,” he replied, a tad impatiently. “Women going out to work is a fact of life. My wife works, because she wants to, and we have young children at home.” I tried to explain that this was beside the point (I was going out to work myself at the time, but only in order to pay my share of the mortgage), that what was really at issue was the life-work balance, the situation of families where the earnings were not high enough to pay for good care, let alone give us a choice about going ‘out’ to work, etc. That it was a question of justice. Of human rights, even.
I later had a brief but interesting email exchange with this MP. It seemed he was prepared to enter into a dialogue on the subject. He wanted to change politics for the better, he said. He promised that if re-elected he and the shadow chancellor would look carefully at the taxation question, at least. In which case, I replied, I will vote for you. I liked his openness. A few months later he was running for the leadership of the Tory party. His name is David Cameron, and I just might vote for him again. If he keeps listening and thinking creatively, that is. Otherwise I’m voting Green. If they can’t save us, at least they can save the whales.