Childcare – like life – is about so much more than economics | Zoe Williams

Solve childcare and you win the election. This is the calculation politicians make – whether they set about it like Nick Clegg, rolling out childcare for the poorest under-twos, or like Ed Miliband, promising 8am to 6pm care for schoolkids, or you take David Cameron’s rather perverse course of making childcare slightly cheaper for rich people. Nobody can afford to walk away from the territory. There are votes in them there kindergartens.

A practical family mind, planning what to do with its young rather than how to cast its vote, might ask some questions that aren’t about the bottom line. Would you necessarily want to leave your two-year-old in the care of a state whose Department of Education undersecretary, Liz Truss, famously worries about them “running around with no sense of purpose“? How does one measure purpose, exactly? Is it with a test? Do you want your toddler tested, or even your four-year-old?

And that’s a pretty long day that Miliband’s offering, isn’t it, 8am to 6pm? It’s longer than my day, and I’ve had all social anxiety bleached out of me by the slightly-too-hot wash of life. Sorry, of course this is all off topic: this discussion is about childcare; those questions were about education. And by the terms of today’s politics, those are two totally different things, albeit performed by the same people, upon the same people, in the same place.

More to the point, I was being off-message – you’re not allowed to ask whether a solution for the mother also works for the child, since that’s de facto unfeminist. Women, by modern logic, win by having economic agency and lose by being economically excluded. Children, having no productive contribution to make, are either a neutral value in the equation, an appendage of the mother, or a negative value, a drain on the mother. What if the mother wants to hang out with the child, not because she has been subjugated by the patriarchy but because she thinks the child is awesome? What if the father does too? Well, that point of view makes no financial sense, so unfortunately cannot be included in our discussion.

All we hear is a series of conversations about the “economic case” for childcare. It’s often billed as the “softer yet stronger” economic policy, just as women are (egregiously, in my view) presented as the “softer yet stronger” sex. The shadow minister for children, Lucy Powell, contrasted, on Comment is free, “business case after business case for boys’ toys like planes and trains” against “the case for childcare as a key economic driver to get women – and it is still mainly women – back into work”. Leaving aside the wisdom of trying to turn rail infrastructure into a gendered issue (in this day and age!), this remark distils the approach of the mainstream, which holds economic productivity as the highest goal of the human being.

Yet if you raise those “stay-at-homes”, the vexatious mothers who are in no rush to get back to work, who want to savour what is, set against 40 or, in the future, more like 50 years of a career, the unbearably short and precious timespan of a childhood – well, then you have allied yourself to a different sort of Tory. The breadwinner Tory, the marriage tax-break Tory, the Tory for whom getting women back into the kitchen is the first stage of getting the world back to rights. This entire conversation is caught between the Ukip frying pan and the Treasury fire: re-domestication on one side; a monetising, price-tag-on-everything agenda on the other.

Received wisdom has moved so far from lived experience that it’s almost comical. Nobody apart from Godfrey Bloom still thinks women should be full-time mothers as a function of their sex. Nobody apart from the Career Bitch of the Daily Mail’s imagination wants full-time, free nurseries running from birth straight into wraparound, free schooling. It’s not like parking a car. Wherever you leave your children – and that’s great, if it’s convenient and free – you’re still left with the problem of not being around them.

What almost everybody wants is this: the option of working full-time if they want or need to, without spending every penny they make on childcare, but the ability to work part-time if they’d rather divide their lives more equitably between home and work; an abundance of interesting and flexible jobs, so they can get away from their children for the sake of their sanity, but not so much work that they cease to be the main influence in their children’s lives.

People want the freedom to react to things – an illness, an irrational hatred of nursery – without that signifying a lack of professional commitment. Never mind women, this is what all parents want: some recognition, from the workplace and beyond, that there is more to life than making money, and yet that making money is a blessed diversion from full-time making a mess.

These are very simple ideas, but to execute, or even show oneself able to understand them, would take a significant shift in political stance. Not only would politicians need to stop talking about workforce participation as the only meaningful yardstick of successful social policy, they’d also have to stop talking about employers as these godlike creators of wealth and talk of them instead as people with as much responsibility to act like human beings as the rest of us.

We will all have periods in our lives when we are producing sod all that anybody could buy, when we are economically stagnant; some of those will be our happiest moments. We can’t allow this debate to reduce us all to a sheaf of payslips.

Twitter: @zoesqwilliams

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Childcare – like life – is about so much more than economics | Zoe Williams
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