Babies and jobs: no easy choices

02-12-2004

Whatever the decision, mothers feel 'role strain'. Women trying to juggle family responsibilities and their working lives are suffering from "role strain" despite improved childcare and more positive attitudes towards working mothers over the past decade.

The finding comes from a report by the National Family & Parenting Institute, which offers a snapshot of family life in Britain today, and charts how families and the parents' roles have changed since 1994.

It concludes that although more women are working and more mothers returning to work, and sooner, parents often have significant problems making their own and their children's lives work smoothly.

Mothers, far from "having it all", suffer "role strain" whatever they choose to do after having a baby, UK Family Trends 1994-2004 says.

The report also examines the role of fathers, parent-child relationships, and wider community and family support.

It cites research tracking 400 women before they gave birth and at six and 12 months afterwards, which found that those who returned to work felt uncomfortable about the impact on their children, and that a substantial number of those who preferred to stay at home with their children were uncomfortable about the impact on themselves.

Despite government schemes to encourage flexible working and expand childcare, negotiating a return to work still poses "considerable difficulties for many mothers", it says.

Its author, Helen Barrett, a senior research fellow at NFPI, says: "Although a number of aspects of women's work conditions appear to have improved, the choice of whether to work or not to work is still difficult for most women.

"For many women in the UK, balancing work and family life (which is often perhaps experienced as being torn between the demands of paid and unpaid work) is a sizeable challenge."

The study suggests that fathers' roles have shifted, but not nearly as dramatically as mothers' over the decade.

It is published as the government prepares a 10-year strategy intended to show its commitment to childcare, which Tony Blair has called "a new frontier of the welfare state". Labour is determined to make promises to ease the pressures on working families a key plank of its election campaign.

But the report says support for families has not so far kept pace with the rapid change in working lives, particularly those of women.

By last year half the workforce was made up of women, the proportion of mothers at work having risen from 57% in 1990 to 65% in 2000 and 68% last year.

More than half (55%) the mothers of children under five were now employed. The hours mothers work are also lengthening, though they still dominate the part-time workforce. From 1992, when only 15% of mothers worked 31-40 hours a week, the figure increased to 32% by 2001 and proportion working more than 40 hours rose from 8% to 10%.

A "typical" household now has 1.5 earners, the study says, adding that attitudes towards mothers working has become more positive over the decade, though women are significantly more in favour of the idea than men.

The report suggests that women are generally happy about their work, and that their income is now increasingly important to their families' overall budgets.

But the pay gap between men and women persists, reinforced by women leaving and then returning to work several times to care for children. And they still find it difficult to negotiate a return to work on wages that are advantageous to them.

Although childcare provision has been "altered considerably" by the Labour government's reforms, there is "still no coherent overall policy in relation to daycare services - especially services for under-threes".

Britons still have some fundamental doubts about the benefit or otherwise of daycare for young children, and this hinders efforts to create an effective policy, the study says.

Arguing that families in other countries do not seem to feel such strain as many in Britain, the report says: "It may be necessary to question whether all that is needed is workplace reforms that may often be designed with only the demands imposed by paid work in mind, as opposed to wider considerations such as the relationship between paid and unpaid work."

The campaign group Working Families, which is dedicated to helping families improve their work-life balance, agreed yesterday that many parents faced an uphill struggle, although it condemned media horror stories about the alleged ill-effects of childcare.

Its spokeswoman, Maggy Meade-King, said: "There is no question it is a very difficult juggling act, and parents ringing our helpline say they have difficulty making everything add up. "Some things have definitely got better, and the signs for childcare are good, but parents still feel torn."

Jack O'Sullivan of the campaign group Fathers Direct challenged the report's qualified conclusion that there had not been "revolutionary changes in men's behaviour or self-image" in the 10 years studied.

He pointed to a 2003 study which showed that men now provided a third of the care of children under five, adding: "What is interesting is the direction of change rather than where we are at one particular point." There had been a "social revolution in men's behaviour in families".

Lucy Ward, social affairs correspondent
The Guardian

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