The morality of motherhood

There was a vaguely depressing article in the Guardian yesterday (,,1855782,00.html) which had John Hutton, the minister in charge of work and pensions discussing ideas for tackling child poverty. The depressing part was less the existence of child poverty (which is hardly news), than the government’s suggestions for tackling it. John Hutton made the right noises about child poverty being a moral issue, but his solution is pretty simplistic. Everybody should be in paid work. Take this, for example:

Hutton, his deputy, Jim Murphy, and their new chief adviser, Lisa Harker, have alighted on two distinct priority groups that badly need to be helped if poverty is to be tackled: first, lone parents; and second, the unemployed non-benefit-claiming partner in a family where the other member of the couple is in work. Hutton points out that 40% of the children living in poverty are in such households. He says: “People assume poverty is confined to lone parents. It is absolutely not.”

Hutton admits these unemployed individuals in couples – often parents with children – are a new frontier for the employment service since, as they are not claiming benefit, they are not in contact with Jobcentre Plus, the government’s employment service.

“It is a challenge for us,” he says…”If such households are to be lifted out of poverty, they need someone in a full-time job, and the other partner working part-time. It is perfectly fair if they don’t want to work for whatever reason, but we need to extend the help, advice and support we make available to them. They can make whatever decisions they want. It is a free country. I would not want to force them to work, but at the very least we need to better signpost to childcare services such as Sure Start.”

Surely the real moral issue here is that it is no longer possible to maintain a family on one full-time wage. (The poverty being measured is relative, rather than absolute, but even relative poverty is unpleasant). The government ought to be thinking about whether the minimum wage is too low, not how to get more people into inadequately paid jobs. Similarly, the government’s solution to the problem of lone parents in poverty is to get them into work and Hutton implies that there needs to be more attempts to get even those with relatively young children (under 11) into work.

Some mothers (and it’s overwhelmingly mothers we’re talking about in both cases) even of small children would prefer to be in paid work if it was available. (I do myself). And the government has done a lot to help working mothers in terms of childcare provision and subsidies. But the implication of their policies seems to be that full time motherhood is now to be regarded as a luxury item, only suitable for the relatively small percentage of families where one partner has a well paid full-time job. Yet other parts of the government are insisting that parenting must be more intensive, more care must be taken to raise well-behaved children and to support their educational progress. (There is also a separate pressure point in that grandparents, who in many cases would traditionally provide additional childcare and support, are themselves expected to be in paid employment, even beyond the retirement age).

Why does the government not value full time parenting? Because, I suppose, its economic benefits cannot be measured directly. What worries me is that the recent political debate seems to make motherhood a zero-sum game. Either parties aim to benefit working mothers or non-working mothers, but not both. David Cameron’s ideas about transferable tax allowances aren’t much help for stay at home mothers because they don’t much benefit those only just above the tax threshold. Maybe it’s time for feminists to revisit an old campaign. Rather than wages for housework, how about wages for parenting?


13 thoughts on “The morality of motherhood

  1. I totaly agree with everything you say.
    Mothers are undervalued in society.
    This and other feminist dominated governments have been hell bent on destroying families and forcing women out to work to futher their own dogmatic,ideolologies.
    We in the mens movement value freedom of choice for men and women.
    More women than ever are chosing to reject feminism for what it is, and are joining us to fight the supremicist attitudes of the far left dominating feminists.


    • Can you give me any evidence that women have been *forced* out to work by this government? (There are certainly economic incentives for them to do so, but that’s a different matter).

      If the men’s movement does really value freedom of choice for men and women I’m all in favour of that. I think that’s what feminism is about. What I object to is movements that only favour men and women choosing the “right” options, or those that argue that men and women “naturally” want to do different things.

      And who (and where) are the far left dominating feminists? I would be hard pushed to think of any of them (and if you’re going to cite Cherie Blair, please remember she’s not exactly anti-motherhood).


  2. But where do the wages for parenting come from?

    I do not want to pay more tax because for other people`s children.

    Let`s face it: most people know in advance whether they can survive on one wage or not before. If you cannot afford to give up your job in order to have a baby, you either have to delay motherhood or sort something else out, i.e. ask a nice granny to babysit. But how can anybody expect society to pay for their children?

    I agree with Hutton. Child poverty often occurs because people are too eager to breed to think of the financial implications, and suddenly – oops!



    • Society already does pay for children – via child benefit, schools, tax breaks etc. The reason it does so? Because they are the taxpayers of the future. If there are too few workers in the next generation, you don’t get your state pension, however much National Insurance you’ve paid (the money isn’t ring-fenced). And there may also not be someone available to wipe your bottom when you end in a care home (as you quite probably will do if you have no children yourself).

      The argument that people are ‘too eager to breed to think of the financial implications’ doesn’t tally with the fact that birth rates are falling generally in the UK, but that the decline is stepper in the lower economic classes. Currently, birth rates are below replacement levels, i.e. the only reason Britain’s population is still increasing is because of immigrants, otherwise it would be shrinking. (There’s a separate debate about whether rising or decreasing population is a good thing, but that’s a a different matter).

      I think the main reason that two income households have become essential is soaring housing costs. In many parts of the country, two incomes are essential to get any kind of property with a mortgage. (Rents have also gone up substantially, and rented accomodation is often not a realistic solution). I think there is a serious argument that one of the best things the government could do to promote family life would be to put severe limits on banks’ ability to loan out vast sums for house purchases.

      As for the handy grannies, the economic pressures are also reducing their availability. They are expected to work longer (as I mentioned already). The expectation that you should move anywhere in the country to get a job separates extended families (at least for the middle classes), as does the tendency for the retited to relocate to lower cost areas.

      Meanwhile, what do you think women should do who become pregnant while in unsuitable circumstances? Abortions on economic grounds aren’t technically legal.


  3. Re child benefit, etc, that`s fine, but I think it`s sufficient. I feel that there is a difference between benefits attached to the child (nurseries, public schools etc) and benefits which the mothers receive to them personally because they do not work because they have babies. I would say yes to the former and no to the latter.

    Of course, we are all aware of the plummeting child birth rates, but I would not be too confident that these babies pay for our health care and pensions in the future. In an ideal world, it is meant like this, but not necessarily. They can become unemployed and livelong receivers of benefits. They can become offenders and spend most of their lives in jail, funded by society. They can die young or get an excellent education funded by society and then emigrate and never pay something back. You never know.

    I agree about the soaring household bills and unavailable grannies.

    I disagree that one should abort for financial reasons – this would be a very sad thing and it should remain illegal for all times.

    But what I condemn is women who cannot financially afford a baby but still decide to have it because “the state will pay for the baby and also for me to remain at home”. This is unfair. There are so many people who have no choice and have to rely on state benefits. Then, there are the above people who make a conscious decision to put themselves into a position where they can claim. This puts an additional strain on the system and one day may punish every “genuine” claimer of benefits when these will have to be reduced due to the large “demand”.

    That`s what I meant. Sorry if this was not clear from my first post.



    • There are several different situations to consider here and I think they needed to be separated out.

      The first is young women (say under 20) who become lone mothers before they’ve entered the workforce or often even finished education. I think everyone can agree this isn’t a good idea for the mother, the child or the economy. But the idea that such women consciously decide they will let the state support them (or choose to have a baby to get a council flat etc) doesn’t hold up. Anyone with basic economic knowledge can see that they’re going to end up far worse off by having children at that early age. The problem is, these women are clueless about economics, the benefit system and often about lots of other things as well. They ‘fall pregnant’ or they decide to have a baby because they want someone to love and to love them, and they don’t see any better thing to do than be a mother. I suspect there is almost nothing you can do to the tax/benefit system that would make them act differently, because they’re not making rational economic choices. If you really want to avoid this happening, you either have to invest a lot in better sex education and more educational prospects generally for them, or you have to get very heavy-handed in forcing potential mothers into abortion or adoption. (The collapse in well-paid jobs for male manual workers has probably also hit such women hard – in previous generations such women might have been able to marry young and become a ‘respectable’ mother).

      The second case: women who plan to become lone parents. My impression is that women who plan to become lone mothers (as opposed to those who become pregnant by accident or have a relationship break up after conceiving) tend to be older and economically self-sufficient before they have children and they then normally go back to work after the birth. So economically they’re probably not a particular burden to the state, though I personally think such being a lone parent by choice is morally dubious.

      Finally, there’s the issue of couples (married, in a civil partnership or stable cohabiting) who have financial problems if they have to survive on one full-time wage, while the other partner looks after children full-time. Traditionally, men were expected to wait to marry until they could support a wife; now presumably the suggestion is that they can marry/pair up, but not have children. The problem is that because of house prices, extended education, student debts, more and more couples may find they can never afford to survive on one wage (or even one and a half salaries). There are fewer and fewer places where you can buy a starter home on even a median salary.

      The response by the government is that in that case both partners of even small children should be in work. However, for pre-school children this often doesn’t really make economic sense, because the costs of childcare are so high. If you have a minimum wage job and pay daycare costs you end up with wage rates of about a pound an hour, once you’ve paid tax and NI. I was barely making any money in my last job, although it paid substantially above the median wage. The only way that the government makes work for most mothers of pre-schoolers economically worthwhile is by massively subsidising childcare via tax credits. *But* this is only available to mothers who work at least 16 hours a week (effectively a half-time plus job). Therefore the government is encouraging small children to be put into daycare full-time or at least for substantial periods just at the time at which studies are suggesting this may possibly harm children’s development. Does this compute?


  4. Oooh, I was fuming when I read this! I am probably one of these ‘parents in poverty’: I didn’t work until my son went to school, and now I only work when he is in school as a physio, a cleaner, as whatever I can. So no income over holidays etc. But I *chose* this, because I think it’s the best way to bring up a kid. Yeah, he misses out on some material things, but like this school holiday, he’s had a great time, because we’ve been doing stuff together, he’s been able to choose what he wants to do etc.

    Finanically the government does try to force everyone to work, and assumes that is a good thing: it penalises those where one partner doesn’t wish to work via the tax system. What would REALLY help me is if the tax system were changed so that my unused tax allowance could be used by my husband. Otherwise what’s the point of being married? We would genuinely be financially better off if we split up and I went to live with my parents.


  5. Hello there,

    first of all, sorry for not getting back for almost a month! It`s not that I wanted to sneak out of the conversation, I just have not been visiting this website any more and was unaware that the discussion went on!

    You bring up some interesting points, magristra, and I agree with most of them.

    1) young woman who fall pregnant before entering a career

    Yes, they may be women who feel that being a mother is the best they can do or who want to be loved. I agree that education indeed is an issue although I have recently read that, although more awareness has been raised, the teenage pregnancy and child poverty has continued to increase as well.

    But I still cannot help wondering whether these women would still chose motherhood over working if they knew that there was no council flat and no state benefit?

    Of course, they and their children are worse off in the end, but they do not see this. They are too young. To them, at first class, it appears to look like they can have it all: the baby, the own flat and the income, and they do not need to lift a finger!

    Accidentally becoming pregnant is a different matter, of course, but for women to continue to have babies, never pair up with their fathers and continue to rely on benefit is a different thing which I do feel strongly about.

    To be quite open: I loathe paying for such persons! There are hard working couples who would like a baby but have to put it off because they cannot afford it. And these women have no care in the world and have their growing families financed by just this very couple I have mentioned above. Not fair!!!

    Compulsery adoption and abortion will never work, and I do think that this is against human right. However, if there was any chance that this could ever be possible (and I know it is not) I would advocate compulsoury contraceptions for people who cannot financially afford to raise a child.

    2.) women who elect to become lone mothers.

    Yes, I suppose they are usually financially secure and more mature (unless they are category 1), and if so, I find that there is nothing wrong with this. I find it a brave thing to do, actually.

    3.) couples who cannot afford to raise a child and do away with one wage

    This is a sad thing, IMO. Childcare is so expensive, while, IMO, it should be free of charge. I know women who have to think hard whether it is worth their while to go back to work when all they earn goes to childcare and there are not much better off in the end. If this was my choice, I`d rather spend time with my own child rather than having him or her raised by strangers. Something is terribly wrong there. I may go as far as saying that today`s society and economy is not a child friendly one at all.

    Personally, I`d like the model of various generations living under one roof, with everybody helping to raise the children and the elderly being integrated into the family for as long as they live and never ever be pushed away into a home to be cared for by strangers. But we often have no choice, because we have to rely on a full wage and cannot afford to cut down working hours.

    @ Karen:

    I apologise if you took offence with my post.

    I understand that you want to bring up your child rather than giving him or her to strangers in order to go to work, but they do make it extra hard today. I agree that giving your tax allowance to your husband to use would absolutely make sense!

    The German Bellycat


  6. Any welfare system has to deal with the problem of those at the bottom of the heap who are there partly because of their own actions: what the Victorians would call the ‘undeserving poor’ as opposed to the ‘deserving poor’. There are two issues: how you identify them and what you do about it. First of all, it’s very difficult to decide who counts as deserving of support or not: either you do it by rules and then some people are arbitrarily excluded or it’s done based on personal views and prejudices. People find the means test humiliating enough – what about a morals test?

    The second problem is what you then do with those who you consider the undeserving poor? In the nineteenth century and before this was simple: you let them starve. But if you do not want people dying in the street (or stealing so they can eat), then you have to provide some minimal level of support, and I can’t see popular approval for bringing back the workhouse. How much support you give depends on what you think is suitable for a civilised, wealthy society. One of the things I found shocking when I was in the USA was seeing a food bank in a supermarket in North Carolina. You were encouraged to donate food to be given to people in the area. North Carolina is not the poorest part of the US and there had been no recent natural disaster and yet this was still felt necessary. (Apart from help for the homeless, I have never seen such requests for donations for people in Britain). I do not want to live in a society where it is routine to rely on charity so people can eat. I am therefore prepared to accept some freeloading off the state in helping the ‘undeserving poor’.

    However, the case of lone parents is even trickier morally. Even if you argue that some mothers are ‘undeserving’, what about their children? They did not choose whether they were born or who their parents were. You cannot penalise lone parents without making life worse for these children, who are already starting life at a disadvantage. It is for the sake of these children that lone parents get additional money and (sometimes) a council flat. Any suggestions for how you reform welfare that doesn’t pay central attention to the effects on such children is deeply flawed.


  7. Unfortunately, I have to agree with you: If you withdraw support from the mother, you penalise her innocent child. But I just refuse to accept that young women forever have children as an excuse to have a lazy life courtesy of myself and every other tax payer.

    Also – almost every child has a father, and way too often they entirely opt out of their responsibility and are not pursued. Unfortunately, by nature, the father will never have the same responsibility than the mother. But still, he should be the first point of contact, not the state.

    I would think that, if a young woman knows that she has nothing to expect from the state for having a child with no financial means support it, the number of those changing this lifestyle would decrease over time. Or am I too naive?

    There will still be women who slip into this situation without a fault of their own. But as a “career” choice, surely, this option would die out eventually?


    • Decisions about having children are not normally made mainly on rational economic grounds. If they were, there would be almost no children being born in Britain. In an advanced economy, where you don’t need to rely on your children to support you financially in your old age, if you have a child it will make you financially worse off in 99% of cases. Fertility rates have dropped, but not that much. As for teenage girls, births by them are already going down: 8.3% of births in the UK were to women 19 and under in 1986-1990, 7.4% in 1996-2000, 7% in 2004.

      The US, I believe, did move away from a welfare system that supported single mothers to one that put extra stress on them working. The results have been pretty mixed: there’s some discussion at the New York Review of Books (,


  8. I simply find it irresponsible not to consider finances if you plan to have a family.

    But I would not necessarily say that having children makes you worse off. Your pension may not be as good, but you would like to think that your children take care of you to at least some extent?

    Nice link, btw, thank you!


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