I joined Alex Kaschuta on her Subversive podcast, to talk reactionary feminism, motherhood, postmodernism, LARPing and why there’s nothing sex-positive about porn.
Have a listen here.
The Motherhood Blind Spot
The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:
Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.
Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.
Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.
All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.
Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.
The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.
The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.
This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.
It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.
But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.
If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.
Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.
In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.
Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.
So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.
The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.
But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.
If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.
It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.
That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.
To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.
My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.
Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.
I talked about relational meaning and its implications for how we understand and order human interactions with Palladium’s Wolf Tivy. Have a listen here.
Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.
But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution.
It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.
How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse.
Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies?
In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.
Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom.
But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation, for much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common.
Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.
Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money.
But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.
The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.
Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count.
It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.
For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.
But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.
To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life.
This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too.
Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based.
Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstract; it hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices.
The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.
But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.
And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.”
The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.”
This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships.
Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.
Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you.
But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale.
Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction.
From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota.
Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated.
I loved this wide-ranging conversation with Elizabeth Oldfield of the Theos think tank, on relationality, motherhood, liberalism and its limits in our need for one another.
Have a listen here.
I joined Freddie Sayers, Paul Embery and Giles Fraser to talk post-liberal idylls on UnHerd’s Lockdown TV..
With Sam Leith and Freddie Sayers…
Our local church runs a monthly service aimed at children, with crafts and without Holy Communion. The team that organises the Friends and Family services are lovely, work very hard to come up with activities and an appealing programme for younger worshippers, and it is popular with families many of whom I don’t see at regular services. My daughter (3) loves it.
It’s on the first Sunday of every month, so the first Sunday of Advent coincided with the Friends and Family service. My daughter enjoyed decorating the Christmas tree, making little Christmas crafts and other activities. But one thing puzzled and still puzzles me.
This is one of the songs we were invited to sing. ‘Hee haw, hee haw, doesn’t anybody care? There’s a baby in my dinner and it’s just not fair.’ It’s supposed to be a funny song, from the donkey’s point of view, about the Holy Family in the stable and Jesus in the crib. What I don’t understand is why this should be considered more suitable for children than (say) Away In A Manger.
The former depends, for any kind of impact, on a level of familiarity with the Christmas story that allows you to see it’s a funny retelling and to get the joke. That already makes it more suitable for adults. The latter paints the Christmas scene in simple language and follows it with a prayer that connects the picture with the greater story of the faith it celebrates. The tune is easy to learn and join in with. Why choose the first, with its ironic posture and ugly, difficult tune, over the latter with its plain language and unforced attitude of devotion?
I’ve wondered for some time what it is about our culture that makes us reluctant to allow children to be serious. Children are naturally reverent: if the adults around them treat something as sacred, even very young children will follow suit without much prompting. This should come as no surprise – the whole world is full of mystery and wonder to a 3-year-old. It is us that fails so often to see this, not the children.
So why do we feel uncomfortable allowing children to experience seriousness? Sacredness? Reverence? How and why have we convinced ourselves that children will become bored or fractious unless even profoundly serious central pillars of our culture, such as the Christmas story, are rendered funny and frivolous?
The only explanation I can come up with is that it reflects an embarrassment among adults, even those who are still observant Christians, about standing quietly in the presence of the sacred. What we teach our children, consciously or unconsciously, is the most unforgiving measure of what we ourselves hold important. But it seems we shift uncomfortably at the thought of a preschool child experiencing the full force of the Christmas story in all its solemnity. Instead we find ourselves couching it in awkward irony, wholly unnecessary for the children but a salve to our own withered sense of the divine.
If it has become generally uncomfortable for us to see reverence in a young child, during Advent, then the Christian faith really is in trouble.
Figures released recently by the ONS show that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children are now in work, more than ever before. Second-wave feminism has long treated women’s entry into the workplace as an unalloyed good. The ONS numbers, and the rise in the number of working women, were met in just this way by Claire Cohen at the Telegraph, who writes that this rise is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’
Cohen’s turn of phrase suggests millions of women chased weeping from rewarding careers into resentful servitude wiping bottoms and scrubbing doorsteps. Children are presented as a burden, or an obstacle to the more satisfying business of slaving over a hot spreadsheet. The ONS report is more circumspect, observing rather more neutrally: “Almost 3 in 10 mothers (28.5%) with a child aged 14 years and under said they had reduced their working hours because of childcare reasons. This compared with 1 in 20 fathers (4.8%).” So are women, as Cohen puts it, really being ‘forced’ by the inconvenient demands of dependent children to crush their career aspirations under the burden of school pickups and bottom-wiping?
Back in 2001, sociologist Catherine Hakim presented a multidisciplinary approach to understanding women’s divergent work-related choices in the 21st century: ‘preference theory’. She showed how five transformations have coincided to give the majority of women in advanced liberal economies more choice about their lives than ever before: contraception, equal opportunities, the expansion of white-collar work, the creation of jobs for secondary earners and a general increase in the importance of individual choice within liberalism.
Hakim argues that in the context of these transformations, women’s greater freedom is expressed in three main preference clusters: home-centred, work-centred or adaptive. In other words, given the choice, around 20% of women will choose a home-centred life, 20% of women will choose a work-centred one and the rest – the vast majority – will prefer a mix of both.
The ‘adaptive’ group, she suggests, is the most diverse, containing women who want to combine work and family as well as career ‘drifters’ and those who would prefer not to work but are compelled to from economic necessity. As a group they are responsive to social policy, employment policy, equal opportunities legislation, economic cycles and other policy changes governing areas such as school timetables, part-time working, childcare and so on.
Though Hakim’s work on preference theory is nearly two decades old now, Equalities Office statistics released last week support her tripartite breakdown of women’s preferences: nearly two decades after her book was published, around 20% of UK mothers are working full-time, 20% are not working at all and the rest falling somewhere in between.
The Equalities Office sees women’s divergent employment behaviour post-baby as a bad thing, with the introduction full of discussion of the ‘large pay penalties’ experienced by women with children, and the ways in which taking time out to propagate the species is ‘damaging for career progression’. The inference throughout is that women are compelled through the unfortunate demands of motherhood to cramp their soaring career dreams to accommodate the exigencies of dependent children. The report as a whole is full of bright ideas for policy levers that could be applied in one way or another to equalise this post-baby burden between the sexes and equalise the working patterns of mothers and fathers. But if Hakim is right, is it not possible that today’s statistics just reflect the way women prefer to work?
Flexible working, maternity leave, good quality childcare and so on are excellent things and should be celebrated. But so is not feeling pressured by the entire aggregate voice of the policy and media machine to increase our labour force participation at the expense of time with our families. It should not be beyond the capacity of commentators and policy wonks to consider that plenty of us are working about as much as we’d like to, and just consider other things as important as, or more important than work: for example the ability to flex a schedule to nurse a convalescent toddler, rather than chasing her out to the childminder miserable and full of snot. Or (God help me) sewing Halloween costumes. These things matter too, even if no MP can take credit for them and they do not show up in the sainted GDP stats.
Rather than presenting women’s part-time preferences as evidence of the hill feminism still has to climb, or the malign depredations of sexism, those good people at the Equalities Office and elsewhere might turn their minds to ways in which the diverse range of mothers’ work and family priorities could be better supported – including those choosing to work less.
A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.
If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.
Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.
In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.
Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.
Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”
The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.
So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.
In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.
These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.
This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see here, here or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.
It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.
Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.
When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).
The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.
Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.
What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:
“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”
These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.
If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.
Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”
To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.