VICTORIA WHITE: We need to make raising children a pathway to power for women

RAISING children is a passion.

It is a passion experienced more often by women than by men.

I know I will probably get hate mail and be snubbed at parties for saying this. When I have said it before, on radio and on TV, the reaction has been intense.

Guess what? I don’t care. I’m going to say it again and again and again. Because the fact that raising children is for many people, most of them women, a passion, is what’s missing from this massive international “Can women have it all?” debate.

The debate was re-ignited recently by Anne Marie Slaughter’s cover story for The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the Obama administration, gave it up after two years to go back to her academic job at Princeton because she felt her two teenaged sons needed her.

The most astonishing thing about all this is that anyone found it astonishing. Most of all Slaughter herself. What kind of hellish hybrid of 1970s feminism and American turbo-capitalism had convinced her that leaving her kids in another city for the whole week would be a breeze either for them or for her? But she did have the courage to question her decision publicly. She says many interesting things in her article, but the most explosive is her admission that she gave up her dream job because she wanted her kids. And that women seem to feel this desire more often than men.

There’s a talent gap worth tens of thousands of dollars between myself and Slaughter, but in the main, her story is the same as mine. The same as that of thousands, maybe millions, of other women.

I also gave up a great job, as an editor on a national newspaper, because I wanted to. No other reason, really. I was well-paid and could afford great childcare.

I was the main breadwinner, and unlike Slaughter, I did not have another job to go to. I stepped off into thin air with a small redundancy package and was very, very lucky that a parachute, in the form of a new job for my husband, appeared.

Nothing makes sense of this story unless you understand my passion to be with my children. I had four little children. Four universes. Four sets of wondering eyes. It was the biggest trip of my life. No office job could compete, even if it meant losing our house.

Plenty of other women feel the same passion to raise their kids themselves but simply can’t make it work financially. I know how lucky I have been. Especially now, as my kids begin to nose into their teenage years and I realise that their childhood is not forever.

This is why the lack of appropriate childcare, the reason routinely trotted out for the gender gap in paid employment, is so inadequate.

Thousands, probably millions of women — and some men — wouldn’t thank you for Mary Poppins as a voluntary worker in their home if it meant they had to leave their kids.

The subtle relationship between the availability of childcare and the number of women in the workforce has long been recognised, even by the EU and our own ERSI. You only have to look at the numbers. France, Germany and the UK have similar female workforce participation rates, but vastly different levels of childcare support.

And what western country scores highest for full-time, continuously employed women? The US, which has no widespread State-subsidised childcare system. And which American women are most likely to stay in their full-time jobs even if married with children? Black women. The women who most need to work because they are less likely to rely on their men.

It has been reckoned that if there were universal, no-charge childcare in the US it would increase the numbers of women at work by ten per cent. The rest of the women who are at home would stay there. Because they wanted to.

It’s the fact that so many women want to say home with their kids which has prompted the debate about whether long parental leaves and family-friendly policies are a good idea. Because women love them. And this reduces their earning power.

When allowances subsidising parents to stay home with kids were introduced in Finland and Germany, nearly 100% of women took them. Sweden, which has a high level of female representation in parliament has, according to the research of economist Catherine Hakim, the toughest glass ceiling in the developed world. It also has the most gender-segregated workforce, with women choosing low-stress, family-friendly jobs and reaching management level far less often than in the US. Not surprisingly, only about one in five Swedish women earns as much as her male partner.

The women probably don’t care any more than women anywhere, as long as they get to raise their kids. But this attitude leaves us with a huge, worldwide problem: how will things get better for mothers if there are so few mothers in positions of power, particularly in politics? There is no easy solution to this problem. I disagree with Irish Examiner columnist Colette Browne, who wrote on this issue last week. I don’t believe politics can be a good career for a parent passionate about rearing his or her own kids.

THE reason for this is that politics, like child-rearing, is a passion. Though people may have many loves, few have more than one all-consuming passion at one time.

Gender quotas of candidates are on the way in the next General Election, and they are worth trying. But I seriously wonder how representative of mothers of young children the new intake of women will be.

Only a minority of young mothers — who love their children no less than I love mine — happily hand over the rearing to someone else, either a partner or a childcare service, in order to pursue a fascinating career.

Some of these women will choose to go into politics and if they’re good enough they’ll have my vote. But there won’t be large numbers. Nearly 70% of Irish mothers currently stay home either full-time or part-time and research shows few want to exit the home full-time.

So how can their experience be represented in the Dáil? I think the Seanad should be reformed to represent the unrepresented: unpaid workers, be they carers, the disabled, the elderly, or the unemployed.

But most of all, we should dump our ageist attitudes to women who’ve raised their kids and push them into the Dáil. It’s because we insist on seeing rearing children as a cruel necessity, not a passion, that we don’t value their experience.

Older women have so much wisdom to share. There’s even a theory that humans only developed to the degree they did because women live so long after the menopause and become such effective workers.

We’ve got to find a way to make raising children a pathway to power. So that women whose first passion has been their children can have a second passion: humanity.


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