Getting the Kids to Work
Last autumn, The Independent’s Deborah Orr took a stand when she wrote: ‘Corporate Britain should stop bleating and get on with it’. Her issue? The new work-life balance legislation, and corporate Britain’s response to it. To this veteran of the prove-you-can-do-it-like-a-man nineties, who has collaborated in concealing the existence of children between the hours of 8 and 6, the determination and sheer gall of Orr’s comment is breathtaking and bewildering. Breathtaking to have patronising, emotive adjectives like ‘bleating’ applied not to working mothers (who are generally as serious, responsible, hard-working as the next man), but business. Bewildering that the balance of power and public opinion might have changed so very much over ten years. Remember those threats of scrapping maternity benefits for better-off mothers? Instead, we’ve gained the right to parental leave, nursery vouchers and improved maternity benefits. It all feels too good to be true. Why is Whitehall suddenly on the case? Why is business bothering to listen? Could there be money in it somewhere? Could the falling birthrate be concentrating our generation’s mind on its corporate pension? It’s not quite that good. The Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry apparently ‘whinged’ so much last autumn about the ‘unfair burden’ which new work-life balance legislation could place on businesses, that the government gave in. Now, according to critics like Orr, the package of family-friendly measures drawn up in response to the Work and Parents Task Force report does not go far enough. It does not give hard-pressed parents the right to work flexible hours – it only gives them the right to ask.
The bigger picture
Orr’s campaign is part of a wider social and economic problem. Just as we have divided the secular and the sacred, we have divided work and home, family and firm, caring and career. The work/home divide is a physical manifestation of other, deeper economic divisions, including the dismantling of the lifelong economic interdependence of children and parents within the welfare state. Children are no longer a personal pension scheme, so who can afford such a costly investment in the nation’s future? Having children has become a matter of individual choice (an idea which slipped in with contraception), a leisure interest, a hobby. Babies, and those unfortunate enough to be left holding them, are tidied away into their own child-friendly places until they are old enough to be economically productive. Economic and social dualism seem to penetrate to the very extremes of modern society. In the Seventies, an Asian government ran a birth control campaign. They were worried about overcrowding and the depletion of limited resources. ‘Two is enough’, insisted every bus stop. Tax penalties and school place allocation all conspired against large families. Families abstained, women devoted themselves to their careers. It was remarkably successful. And then, the realisation dawned that the economy’s most valuable resource, the human variety, was becoming worryingly scarce. The policy was reversed. There were generous tax breaks and preferential schoolplace allocations for working mothers. Now the bus stops pleaded: ‘Have four if you can afford it’. Soft-focus public service TV ads showed idyllic family scenes urging people not to wait until it was too late. A government dating agency offered a course of concert visits and barbeques, culminating in an Alpha-style weekend away, to help high-fliers overcome their shyness. Couples who lived with their in-laws were encouraged to drive down to the coast and ‘do it’ in the car. It was beginning to look like desperation. Our generation has grown up worrying about population growth, so it is hard to believe that we are theoretically only a generation away from extinction. The natural urge to procreate has proved strong enough to withstand contraception, abortion, and the dismantling of the family – so far. But work needs workers need work. And political parties need to remember that. Parents make up the majority of the workforce, and their children make up a fairly indispensable 100% of the future workforce. Without work, workers cannot eat, cannot live, will not be. Without workers, work will not be. The indivisibility of the two is at the heart of our economy. The fact that we have forgotten that is at the heart of its problems.
Back to the beginning…
The spheres of work and home aren’t distinct in the creation story: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it”‘ (Genesis 1:27-28). God creates, blesses and addresses the man and the woman together. Reproduction and work are handed over in one sentence: fill the earth and subdue it. One breath produces joint responsibilities – these matters are not poles apart. The first sign of division comes as a direct result of the Fall, when Adam is assigned to painful toil, and Eve is allocated pains in childbearing in Genesis 3:16-20. Here, God addresses Adam and Eve separately, and tells them how very hard life is going to be. As we know only too well.
The Rule of Law
Can legislation bring a halt to this mad unravelling, and help us work at reconnecting the divided aspects of our lives? Certainly it is a step in the right direction, although, as Orr rightly points out, the new work-life balance laws fail to protect the weak against the rapacious – as employment legislation should. All the same, as the law stands, it could curb excessive commercial demands and perhaps help to change public opinion even further – particularly if it ensures the right of both parents to ask for and receive flexible working arrangements. Legislation alone, though, is never going to be the answer to improving work-life balance in Britain. It can’t begin to address the other factors in this equation. What about our selfish ambition, our greed, our natural laziness? What about the fallenness and innate inequalities in the world, where those of us who work often don’t have time to stop for lunch, and yet many have no work to feed their families? And, if used badly, the legislation could make things worse, because an economy divided against itself can’t stand for long. If all we do is set employers against parents, parents against employers and the childless against everyone, not a lot of work or parenting will get done. Three years ago, agonising about whether to ask for part-time employment after my fourth child was born, I concluded I couldn’t. I had the world’s most reasonable boss. But work had been coping very nicely without me for six months, and, neurotic with night feeds and nappies, it seemed necessary to prove something, to stake a claim, make a comeback and do the job as well as I had before. At vulnerable times you’re glad of legislation. To have had a legal right to ask would have made a difference. Eventually, my opportunity to work parttime came, and went, not as a result of legislation but as a result of the changing demands of the economy. Let’s face it: the economy is mightier than legislation. But ultimately, it is not the economy or the lawmakers that I serve, and knowing Whom I do serve is what makes it all possible, and all worth it. We are called to serve Him wholeheartedly, and that call includes our work. This call still applies, even when you’re a working mother (not to mention a working father).
Transforming & restoring
It is easy for working mothers to become angry and resentful, because we put in punishing hours at work and at home, we are exploited and unappreciated, and no-one can possibly know the half of it. But that’s where we’re wrong – Someone does know, just as He knew of the misery of a badly treated, insignificant, pregnant foreign domestic servant, Hagar (Genesis 16:11). The God of the Universe saw her unhappiness and sent an angel to meet her in her distress and desperate escape. The angel asked her, ‘Where are you running to?’, not because He needed to know the answer, but because she did. She knew very well what she was running away from, but she hadn’t really thought about the next bit. Hagar was part of a bigger plan than she could have imagined – God already had a destiny for her and her son. So He didn’t tell Hagar to take it easy or put her feet up. He actually told her to do the hardest thing, the very thing she didn’t want to do: to go back and submit to Sarai, the employer she feared and despised. There were no concessions: no mention of time off for ante-natal appointments and afternoon sleeps. He just told her that she would have a child – a problem child, but a family, a nation, and a future. A child named Ishmael, God hears. Working mothers are doubly-blessed: with children, our lifetime’s most creative work, and with work which enables us to support them and use our gifts. That perspective can help us take our eyes off our own struggles and focus on the struggles of others – the colleague battling with loneliness; the childminder struggling to make ends meet; the office cleaner; our child’s teacher; the health visitor. We are also in a strategic position to help reconnect work and family in our society. Sacrificing the professional image to the sticky mitts of our little ones is risky, but it is only by allowing others to see ourselves as the whole people we really are that they can begin to understand. Making room for families in the workplace can be inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive, but with thought and prayer, it is possible – in a way that threatens neither work nor child but enriches both. It’s time for working mothers to come out about motherhood and find a new kind of professional integrity. And it’s time for the rest of us to let them. While none of this will solve the fundamental reason that the workplace is full of thorns and thistles, and childbearing is full of pain, we know that Genesis 3 is not the end of the story. We know that through God’s own Son, through His sacrifice on the cross, God is continually working at reconnecting and restoring – heaven and earth, humanity and God, transcendent and immanent. All that was broken will be made whole. Ultimately, it is not through family-friendly legislation, economic restructuring, better communication or our own individual efforts, but it is only through Christ that we will find the key to a true life wholeness and, within it, a ‘work-life balance’.
“Just as we have divided the secular and the sacred, we have divided work and home, family and firm, caring and career.”
“It’s time for working mothers to come out about motherhood and find a new kind of professional integrity. And it’s time for the rest of us to let them.”