Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When I gave up work to have babies, I often, then as now, had to fill in forms. Very often the form demanded to know my “employment status”. In order to exist in the eyes of the official world, I had to choose between employed, self-employed, unemployed or retired.

Since I did not feel in the slightest bit “unemployed”, usually I would heave a sigh and tick “self-employed”, forcing my occasional pin money from journalism to stretch my status up to the same giddy heights as Madonna and Bill Gates.

Most people do not realise this, but a parent who stops earning in order to bring their own children up has no official status at all – she simply disappears off the public radar. She gets child benefit – but she has no clear status at all.

This loss of a place in the world has never been properly measured. And the at-home-parent slips not only off the official radar, but the social one too. It may be that slight hint of contempt from garage mechanics or estate agents…suddenly you are “just the wife”. It may be the questioning looks later on when you try to find a job: “So what exactly have you been doing all this time?” Or it may simply be the snooty disregard of career women looking past your shoulder at parties.

The near-mythical existence of a tiny number of greatly envied “yummy mummies” - women lucky enough to be married to rich men, sensible enough to know that their children will only be small once, and also young and pretty enough to make the most of the experience – has simply whipped up resentment which is sometimes also directed at much less well-off parents who are stretching one income to do the job of two, simply so that one of them can be at the school gate at 3.30pm every day.

The Conservative Party is right (gosh, that was tough to type): family breakdown IS behind most of our social problems. But their policy review on the issue, chaired by Iain Duncan-Smith (who tried to get the Tories interested in social justice while he was their leader, and got kicked out for his pains), only begins to delve into the reasons for family breakdown.

My theory is this: the job of keeping families together has been downgraded and at the same time parents have lost sight of long-term goals.

The one thing which would change the family breakdown rate instantly would be to allow a stay-at-home parent – mum or dad – to transfer their personal tax allowance to their spouse – not to a cohabitee, but to a spouse.

This would transform the status of both marriage and the job of parenting at one blow. It would acknowledge the contribution to society of parents who raise their own children AND acknowledge that marriage is a totally different kettle of fish from the drifting, twilight existence of cohabitation.

It would take a very brave political leader to introduce transferable tax allowances – there would be howls of protest. But a far-sighted political leader would just do it.
It would not cost the Exchequer a huge amount, because only families for whom it made a significant difference would take the option up.

It would benefit poorer families more dramatically than the rich, taking many right out of paying tax at a stroke.

And the dividends reaped in the long run – better literacy, happier families, fewer ASBOs – would be noticeable within twenty years – less than the lifespan of a nuclear power station. Best of all, it would – for once – allow mothers to feel that the system values them in whatever they do.


We still haven’t sent any Christmas cards, so Mr J. went to buy some yesterday. It was one of those shops which sells ONLY greetings cards, with the occasional miniature teddy bear thrown in. To reduce misunderstanding even further, it was called, I think, “Cards Galore”. Ever the optimist, Mr J imagined this would be just the place.
“Do you have any religious Christmas cards?” he began hopefully.
A worried look.
“You know,” he explained. “Christmas cards with a CHRISTIAN theme?”
A blank look.
“OK,” persisted my nearest and dearest, calling on all his academic skills, “How can I put this…cards for Christmas which have a baby on them. And a mummy.”
The shop assistant’s face brightened slightly, and she pointed silently to the display: “Best wishes for the birth of your new baby”.

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