When paying for child care is women's work

Margie Abbott admitted she left the workforce after realising she was only bringing home $20 a day after child care fees.

Margie Abbott admitted she left the workforce after realising she was only bringing home $20 a day after child care fees. Photo: Bloomberg

A few weeks ago, I was having a chat with a friend of mine whose first child has recently turned one. Having spent the first year of her daughter’s life being her primary caregiver, she was now preparing to re-enter the workforce in full time employment. Meanwhile, her partner was going to reduce his hours in order to make the transition as seamless for their daughter as possible.

“It’s his turn,” my friend said, simply.

She didn’t mean it was his turn to shoulder the burden of parenting while she ran off to pursue one of those pesky careers that women seem to think matter more than cooing over children all day. Rather, she believed it was his turn to enjoy the responsibility and pleasure of parenting their child, having spent the previous year shouldering the burden of financially providing for everyone.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking that’s hopefully indicative of wider social changes to parenting ideas. Chief amongst those is the idea that men and children both benefit from parenting practices that don’t rely on traditional stereotypes of motherhood and fatherhood - particularly the assumption that the latter is something that exists in tandem with a man’s identity, while the former is something that defines woman’s identify itself.

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My friends’ approach to parenting is in stark contrast to much of society’s view of the arrangement of heterosexual partnered parenting, which still positions women as the primary caregivers and forces those who remain in the workforce to justify their choices at every turn. Consider the insidious assumption within heterosexual partnerships that child care fees are automatically covered by the woman’s salary. It’s been sometime now since Margie Abbott entered the media fray to set the record straight about her husband’s so-called misogyny (‘Look, he’s just not, okay? He has three daughters! He loves Downton Abbey! He discusses his daughters’ looks with Matty “I Gang Banged A Girl In New Zealand And All I Got Was This Lousy Reputation” Johns!’). Yet I still bristle when remembering her casual admission that she left the workforce after realising she was only bringing home $20 a day after child care fees.

Now, I know how maths works. I know that when you add two salaries together and take away child care fees and Speedo money, you end up with the same figure no matter which column you subtract it from. But there’s a subtle difference between assuming that, as a partnership, you only end up with $20 more overall and assuming that, after childcare fees, the mother only ends up with $20 more overall.

Because the problem with this is how resolutely it ties the care of children to women. Apart from the obvious economic and domestic problems with that kind of accepted situation (as long as women are hailed as the ‘natural’ caregivers for children, they’ll be expected to sacrifice more in order to have them and be grateful for the sacrifice), it removes the social responsibility of men to be a part of the village that raises children. The continued notion that nurturing and sacrificial love are the domain of women (and indeed, their ultimate responsibility) is what allows unequal domestic and economic arrangements to persist, fundamentally challenging women’s right to individual autonomy and freedom. It assumes that there are no other benefits to women working other than financial ones, and asks that women-who-are-also-mothers justify their desire to work to prove that this gain appropriately balances against the cost. And all these repeated narratives from women and men waxing lyrical about how ‘her salary barely covered the child care so we decided it wasn’t worth it’ are phenomenally missing the point.

Assuming that childcare is both the emotional and financial responsibility of the partnered mother alone doesn’t just further distance men from the responsibility of raising children - it fundamentally disadvantages women by keeping them out of the workforce, threatening their superannuation payments later on and denying them the ability to live a life outside of their identity as a mother. It disadvantages children, because it helps to reinforce a society in which those things ARE the domain of women, thus repeating the cycle ad infinitum. And the only way to break it is to stop perpetuating the idea that child rearing is not just the predominant domain of women, but that it functions as the sole endeavour of their lives.

For too long, motherhood has been viewed as the natural pursuit of women, an inherent desire that will not just better them as people but actually deliver them into the status of being people. As Caitlin Moran points out in her memoir, How To Be A Woman, the process of women becoming fully formed human beings seems to be only possible through the action of them delivering another human being into the world. Women who choose not to have children are spoken of as deficient in some way, selfish and unfeeling; the only time they’re neither of these things is when they admit they can’t have children as opposed to won’t. At this revelation, they become figures of pity, women who’ve been tragically denied the chance to experience what it truly means to be a female and will forever be haunted by their brokenness. But while I don’t deny it’s sad for women who want to have children but can’t, the act of childbirth alone isn’t something that elevates them to a higher plane of existence.

These attempts to fundamentally link the role of motherhood to women’s personhood entirely achieve little more than denying women an emotional life outside of their children. And elevating the importance of motherhood in order to distract women from becoming equal leaders outside of the domestic sphere only encourages a society that absolves men of the responsibility (and satisfaction) of equal parenting.

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53 comments

  • In practical terms, if one of you has just had twelve months' leave you're going to deduct the cost of childcare off the salary that person could earn from returning to work. If you're both working, you're going to deduct it off the salary of the person who earns the least monetarily. In both cases, that's likely to be the woman.

    Commenter
    DisDis
    Date and time
    December 04, 2012, 8:31AM
    • Exactly. Most of the people with kids that I know simply subtract the childcare fees from the lowest wage and make their decisions from there. Which in one case meant that hubby gave up his job and stayed home with the kids because he was earning the least amount of money and had the same problem as Mrs Abbott - after the childcare fees were taken out of his salary, he was only earning about $40. It wasn't them trying to be revolutionary or feminist or anything like that. It was sheer practicality.

      Commenter
      Kit
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 9:08AM
    • That's the kind of thinking that can derail people, though. Why aren't people asking how much should be deducted from TWO salaries, rather than just the lowest one (which is highly likely to be the woman's)? It takes two people to make a baby, but the thinking seems to be that only one of these people should pay for it. And more often than not, given current gender roles, that person is generally the woman.

      Commenter
      Siobhan
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 9:19AM
    • It's quite possible that Margie was sharing the results of the overall consideration rather than the whole consideration. Perhaps she and Tony also considered Tony no longer working but she didn't feel it necessary to describe the entire decision making process.

      Also, making fun of Tony for his Speedos is hypocritical when so much has been said about the sexism surrounding comments on Julia's fashion sense.

      Commenter
      Anon
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 9:35AM
    • +1

      Commenter
      Sad
      Location
      ButTrue
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 9:39AM
    • Read closer, DisDis: "It assumes that there are no other benefits to women working other than financial ones, and asks that women-who-are-also-mothers justify their desire to work to prove that this gain appropriately balances against the cost."

      Of course a couple's finances are a central part of this discussion, but they're not the *whole* discussion. What if a woman wants to return to work because of the satisfaction it gives her, because she wants to be a mother *and* something else as well? What if the emotional cost of her being denied that option is greater than the financial cost of child-care?

      Thanks Clementine, you always shine a light of clarity on these knotty subjects!

      Commenter
      Al
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 9:58AM
    • "What if a woman wants to return to work because of the satisfaction it gives her",

      @Al The opposite argument could be put. The fact is for a majority of people work is something they do to earn money not satisfaction. Most men do not have a choice to stay home. Most women do. Increasingly industry caters to their needs giving them a choice but it does not offer men the same option.

      Commenter
      Bev
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 11:51AM
    • I agree. If you are looking at the financial benefit of both parents working you need to take into account what the family finances would be if only the greater paid parent was working compared with the total package for both parents working. When we had our first that's what we did and we decided that as I was only so-so about my job, it wasn't worth me working as both financially and intellectually, I gained very little from it. That made the decision to go back and retrain in a different career an easy one. 15 years later I'm in a job that I love and although still not really financially worth me working (we had another little one a few years ago), the decision is different because the intellectual benefits far out way the finaical ones.

      Commenter
      Working now
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 2:10PM
    • DisDis - um, no. The mortgage comes out before any childcare. So whilst I say "my wage pays the mortgage" it is universally understood that we BOTH share the cost. He pays half and I pay half by both working. In fact my partner PHYSICALLY pays the childcare out of his account and we had to save this whole year to afford childcare next year - money HE earned.

      This article is spot on. Men deserve to raise the children and work part time as much as a mother - as soon as society in Australia recognises it the better everyone will be. And by saying "it just wasn't worth it after we took out the childcare fees and I earned only $20" is something you'll ONLY hear from a family where the father earns a VERY decent salary. Whilst the non-financial benefits of working should also be taken into account, the fact is that you are not just $20 in the clear because you have another wage coming in and every little bit helps. If you divorce they don't make the mother pay the childcare fees alone do they, so these women are simply trying to justify a choice which they have every right to make, but one which is sadly frowned upon when men make it.

      Commenter
      cement
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 3:01PM
    • Siobhan
      It's because of the opportunity cost involved. If a woman returns to work who is normally the lower earner in a relationship and the outcome being that the family is only $20pw better off, for example, then you really have to ask whether it's worthwhile having the woman work. If the difference is far more substantial (say $200-$500pw better off) then it becomes an easier decision. But a sum that's not even a round of drinks you'd really have to ask why bother. It's not like work is fun, interesting or stimulating. It's hours on end of being chained to a desk having to answer to a boss that you loathe and deal with colleagues you dislike just to pay the bills.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 3:32PM

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