In an article last week, the founder of Childline, Ether Rantzen, said that in the last 12 months, the organisation had heard from more suicidal children than ever before. It’s an awful thing to read, and in her article, she went on to address some of the issues facing children today, including cyberbullying and online grooming, that she believes has contributed to this shocking statistic.
But among the causes of the widespread depression in young people, according to Ms. Rantzen, are working mothers. The article is headlined, “Britain’s desperately unhappy children need more time with mummy – and less online”. She even suggests that because her mother was a housewife, she and her sisters “came first”.
This is hugely damaging – and unfair. The implication that by working, a mother is not putting her children first is tired and backward, and would deeply upset working mothers across the world. At a time when progress is slowly being made to address the gender pay gap and improve equality across society, Ms. Rantzen’s comments are incredibly damaging. Not only does she seem to be blaming working mothers for the poor mental health of their children, but she suggests that a father can’t step into the fold and do his share of the parental responsibilities.
There are a number of reasons why fathers and mothers can’t share the responsibility completely equally at the moment. Many employers, for example, still fail to offer flexible working arrangements, while others offer inadequate paternal leave and pay. What’s frustrating is that everyone benefits from flexible working. Recent research by the Centre of Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that rigid working arrangements cost the UK £62.5 billion every year.
I feel very fortunate that my husband and I have chosen to be flexible. He took time off and then worked part time when we first had children, and I was working full time growing my first company. Now we balance it so we can both achieve what we want professionally, and have more family time.
But in a flexible working system based on output not input, and one that isn’t restricted by location, a career break wouldn’t always be necessary. This wouldn’t necessarily be possible in the case of single mothers, but even this possibility has been overlooked by Esther Rantzen. She describes telling a teenage boy “suffering very serious problems” to talk to his mother, but the boy says she’s so tired after work she can’t talk to him. Could it not be possible that this woman is the sole breadwinner in her family?
When it comes to parental leave, the state needs to play a more significant role. In the UK, statutory paternity leave is a paltry two weeks, and in monetary terms equates to just over a quarter of the average UK income. Other countries put the UK to shame in this area. In Germany, new fathers can have up to nine weeks off work at nearly £360 per week–more than two-and-a-half that of the UK. If we are to see a shift in the balance between parents of domestic and parental responsibilities, and to come in line with our forward-thinking international neighbours, we must push for change at government level.
Sadly, another obstacle to shared parental responsibility is that there are also some men who are simply reluctant to push for change that would allow them to take a greater role, and in doing so free up their partner or wife to re-enter the workplace on her own terms. Even accepting paid paternal leave is some distance from actually challenging employers to offer more flexible working arrangements, and showing that men, too, would like to see more equality is that part of life. Indeed, only one in 100 men in 2016 actually used their now-statutory Shared Parental Leave allowance.
Esther Rantzen raises some very serious issues and her contribution to improving the lives of children across the UK can’t be overstated. Nevertheless the problems that she tries to address in her article are not causes by working mothers. Whether it’s by necessity or by choice, women should be supported as much as possible in their efforts to re-enter the workplace after giving birth.