CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Mother Wars

Jul 3, 2001

The battle over motherhood continues unabated, with a recent controversy re-igniting a long standing debate. In the one corner are those who feel that government policies tend to penalise stay at home mums, while rewarding those who move into the paid work place. In the other corner are those who argue that most mums don’t want to stay home, that careerism is the only fulfilling role for mums, and governments should further help mums who want to leave home for the workplace.

The most recent round in the fight was initiated by a paper by ANU demography professor Peter MacDonald. Writing in the June issue of People and Place, MacDonald argues that current government policies are skewed in favor of the “male bread-winner model” and this is out of step with the wishes of most Australian mothers. He suggests that we change government policies to make the paid workplace more attractive for young mothers, provide more high-quality day care, and encourage more role-reversal, that is, encourage men to do more work in the home, while we encourage more women to pursue careers. Such changes in policy, MacDonald argues, would be more in step with 21st century Australian society, and would also address our declining birthrate problem.

The debate heated up in the Fairfax media (the Age, Sydney Morning Herald) with articles and counter-articles appearing. Feminist SMH author Adele Horin waded into the debate, presenting MacDonald’s arguments in a column on the 20th  of June. To her credit (unlike many of her previous pieces) she did allow an opposing voice. She featured a mother who is happy with the current arrangements: “I don’t miss working and I don’t intend to go back, at least until the kids are well and truly grown up”.

The next day Age writer Bettina Arndt questioned MacDonald’s claim that tax and family policies are weighted against those who want to get into the workplace. She acknowledges that while current family benefits do offer some disincentives for women returning to the workplace after having children, this mainly applies to lower income families – at higher income levels these disincentives disappear.

She cited evidence from Lucy Sullivan of the Centre for Independent Studies and Anne Harding of Canberra University that economic disincentives are a mixed bag, with many families who want children disadvantaged by the current tax and family benefits system.

She went on to argue that MacDonald’s main solution is the expansion of high-quality day care, especially for mums whose children are over the age of one. His claim that France is a role model here was challenged by Arndt. Citing research from an important new book by British sociologist Catherine Hakim, Arndt argued that the French system, while offering helpful child care policies, had a real crisis in fertility that was only turned around recently by strong pro-natalist policies. Hakim shows that the clear majority of French women want government policies to allow them to spend time with their young children, rather than simply offer more improved child care services.

Several days later MacDonald again went on the attack, arguing that Arndt had misrepresented his argument. He restated his original position, taking a few swipes at Arndt along the way. Interestingly, he didn’t refute – in fact, he didn’t even mention – the evidence marshaled by Sullivan, Harding, and Hakim. He simply assumes that for the overwhelming majority of women, life in the paid workforce is a fait accompli, and we need not even ask if this is so, or if it is preferable, or if it is in fact desired by most young mothers.

Preference for Home

How is one to assess this latest round of arguments? In many ways the real question is whether the views of the mother featured in the Horin piece are representative of most women, or whether MacDonald is right to claim that most mums would rather be in the paid workplace. It seems that the evidence is against MacDonald. A number of surveys have found that most mums would prefer to be at home with their small children. Many feel they are conscripted into the paid workforce against their wishes, but tough economic times often compel them to do so. Yet a majority of mothers with young children have consistently said that they would rather be at home for the first year or two of their child. One survey of 4511 adults found that 69 per cent of respondents preferred that the mother stay home when she had pre-school children. Australian National University research found that only 4 per cent of respondents felt that women with pre-school kids should work full time, while only 31 per cent thought they should be in the labour force part time. Another survey discovered that one-third of working women who put their infants in child care centres would prefer not to work if they had the choice.

A comprehensive study undertaken in Britain has showed an overwhelming preference for home. The study found that 81 per cent of mothers would choose to stay home if they could afford to. Only 6 per cent said they wanted to continue working full-time.

A 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believe that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.

Falling fertility

One issue most of the main players in the debate can agree on is the decline in Australian – and Western – fertility rates. There is agreement not only that the decline exists, but that it represents a major problem in need of urgent correction.

Indeed, recent Government discussion papers have examined the tandem problems of the current birth dearth, and the rapid expansion in the population of the elderly. These two factors taken together spell trouble. Simply put, how will we be able to finance the Age Pension and the health and aged care systems, with fewer breadwinners and more pensioners and the elderly? The entire rationale of the welfare system may have to be rethought. The viability of the welfare system is based on the ability of current workers helping to finance our elderly and retired population. If that becomes unsustainable then we are all in big trouble.

The government reports which discuss these issues do not have any clear solutions to such problems. They do note that “any policy that reduces the cost of having and raising children will have a positive effect on fertility”. Thus more family-friendly policies are an important part of the solution.

Yet government policies along with social and cultural trends have tended to move in the opposite direction. Instead of encouraging family formation, governments, aided and abetted by feminist ideology, have tended to penalise families while rewarding individuals. Women in the paid workforce have been subsidised, while traditional family structures have been deterred.

Some governments have sought to encourage fertility rates by various means, realising that more people means more workers, which means a more sustained means of financing the welfare system. They have noted the connection between the rise in female workplace participation, and the declining fertility rates. Thus some are offering cash incentives and other schemes to encourage women to have more babies, and defer careers for motherhood, at least temporarily.

Family groups have long argued that policies that support families will have a positive impact on societies. Conversely, anti-family policies will harm society. Turning around cultural and social trends will not be easy. But recognising the importance of families and doing something about it can be done. Family groups have long lobbied for a home-maker’s allowance and other policies to encourage child bearing and raising.

Affirming marriage

Until the trend of declining fertility rates is addressed, our social welfare problems will continue to grow. And fertility rate problems will not disappear unless governments actually support (in theory and in
practice) struggling families, and the embattled concepts of motherhood, fatherhood and marriage.

Indeed, the research also shows three other related facts: 1) Women with egalitarian attitudes as opposed to traditional attitudes are less likely to intend to, and actually have, a child, and are more likely to separate and divorce. 2) Women have fewer children than they actually would like to have, because of economic pressures, etc. 3) Fertility is highest in all socioeconomic groupings for married women. For example, 27 per cent of women in de facto relationships have no children, compared to just 8 per cent of married women.

These three facts show that marriage is an important factor in the fertility equation, and policies that encourage marriage and more traditional attitudes will result in more children, which many women want but are not having.

Thus we need to affirm the importance of marriage and family, instead of belittling them and discouraging those who want to marry and have children. Whether governments will be willing to make such choices remains to be seen.

The recent Federal budget put a lot of resources into the elderly community. This will not however solve the long term problems mentioned here. Unless we deal with the birth dearth problem, the needs of the retired and aged will simply become more pressing.

Whichever party is elected at the next Federal election (perhaps in December), it will have to urgently assess these growing problems, and take appropriate measures. Interestingly, even the Labor Party has recently made some stirrings in this direction. The Opposition health spokeswoman Jenny Macklin has said that we are in danger of becoming a child-free society. And the Opposition spokeswomen on the status of women, Carmen Lawrence, suggested that double-income families would be able to borrow an “advance” against their future tax benefits to allow one parent to stop working to raise children

In the past, whenever conservative politicians – or pro-family groups – made such suggestions, they were accused of bribing women to stay at home, or of trying to turn back the clock. So both sides of politics are beginning to note the extent of the problem. It is hoped that one (or both) will act on this growing problem.

The solution then to the mother wars may not be in line with Peter MacDonald’s suggestion. Genuine choice for all women, coupled with positive family policies that actually affirm marriage and encourage natalism, seem to be a major part of the solution. The way forward is not to dictate in advance that women should be coerced into the paid work force. Nor should they be forced to stay at home. Women should be given the freedom to attend to the needs of their young children, without feeling guilty about it. Resisting the feminist hegemony will be difficult, but at least government policies can contribute to a renewed emphasis on the importance of marriage and the value of motherhood.

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