Why is paying for childcare still seen as women's work?

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

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 assumption within heterosexual partnerships that childcare 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 childcare fees.

Now, I know how maths works. I know that when you add two salaries together and take away childcare 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 to be grateful for the sacrifice, too), 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 childcare 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 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 reinforce a society in which those things ARE the domain of women. And the only way to break it is to stop perpetuating the idea that child-rearing is not just the 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 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.

This article first appeared on Daily Life.