Friday 28 October 2016

It's not only men who can be dinosaurs, Ms Zappone

We need to have proper conversation about our children, without consensus and without name-calling

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Katherine Zappone demonstrated last week that some old feminists can be outdated too Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Katherine Zappone demonstrated last week that some old feminists can be outdated too Photo: Douglas O'Connor

It is amazing that anything in the Budget came as a surprise to anyone. What is even more amazing is that anything in it came as a surprise to any Fianna Fail politician. But the truly amazing bit is that some aspects of the Budget, and the consequences of it, seem to have come as a complete surprise to people in Government.

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Pretty much everything in this Budget was flagged in the weeks running up the actual Budget announcement, that quaint bit of theatre where the country shudders to a halt to watch the Dail in action for a brief few hours. We were sketchy on some of the detail of some things, but we pretty much knew the thrust of everything.

But the people who formulated the Budget weren't sketchy on the detail. For example, Katherine Zappone, despite allegations in the last few weeks that Fine Gael were coming up with an alternative childcare strategy behind her back, knew exactly what was being announced about childcare. And indeed, she was portrayed as one of the big political winners in the Budget. And indeed, most people welcomed at least something being done about childcare. Even those of my generation, who are largely through the intense childcare years and who never got a thing, and who now vaguely resent having to pay for other people's childcare, grudgingly accepted that it was a good thing that hard-pressed families would get a bit of help.

But by Thursday, Katherine Zappone was having to backpedal frantically and justify her childcare package, and ensure people that she "absolutely does value the caring of children at home".

How did Zappone not realise the war she was declaring on women (or men, but let's face it, it is overwhelmingly women) who choose to, or have no choice but to, stay at home minding their children? I had several conversations about potential banana skins in the days prior to the Budget and everyone agreed that unless there was something done for stay-at-home mothers, the childcare issue was the big banana skin. But Zappone seems to have been genuinely blindsided by the reaction. Why could she not see there was going to be a huge problem when anyone could have predicted it? You would hope that she wasn't so blinded by old school, second-wave feminism that she thought that no one would object to an agenda that solely promoted setting women free from their children. Presumably she hasn't missed the intervening part of that whole conversation where lots of women argued that feminism was about having a choice too? And that choice could involve being a full-time mother? And that some full-time mothers felt subjugated by people's attitudes to that choice?

Any politician that has to come out explaining and assuring people that they do recognise caring for your own children as a valid choice is losing. Imagine if Katherine Zappone had to come out explaining and reassuring people that she recognised that a woman wanting to work was a legitimate choice. Or worse, imagine a man who had to do that. He would be a condescending old dinosaur.

Mattie McGrath was called a Neanderthal last week when he expressed the opinion that the family unit was being undermined by the state promoting a childcare model over parental caring. And maybe he is. But women can be dinosaurs too, and maybe Katherine Zappone demonstrated last week that some old feminists can have quaint, outdated assumptions too.

Frances Fitzgerald too felt the need to reassure people that she recognised the legitimacy of stay-at -home mothers saying, "clearly that is a choice that parents make". Not exactly a ringing endorsement but an acknowledgment at least that stay-at-home mothers exist. Simon Harris, in his precocious wisdom, talked about looking at childcare costs from an economic point of view but pointed out that from a societal point of view it is a massive burden on people.

It felt a little bit like Simon was almost saying that children are a massive burden on people. Or maybe I'm being oversensitive to the language we use around this. Because, like all parents, I sometimes worry that at times, like summer holidays or whatever, we can tend to view our children as a problem to be managed. What the hell are we going to do with them next week? Where can we farm them out to? And you worry too that they pick up on this attitude, that they can sense that they are being treated as a problem. And you worry if there is any long-term damage being done there. And it leads to terrible guilt too. You think about how short and precious these years are and how much of it you miss. We had a wonderful childcare situation and we continue to have very special people in our children's lives. But then you see how happy they are when you spend time with them, and how they thrive on any extended time spent together like holidays, and you wonder if all of us are being sold a pup, but if we just can't afford to let ourselves think about the alternative.

Childcare and the rearing of children is a hugely tricky issue. And woe betide anyone these days who says that children might be better off with their parents. And it's not really fair to criticise other people's choices. And bear in mind too that staying at home with their children is not a choice many parents can make even if they would like to. The ideal from most parents you talk to would be a situation where everyone could work part-time and have the best of both worlds. But despite the promises made about prosperity and growth and technology, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Women have been liberated to work outside the home, sure, but, for example, no men were liberated to work in the home in the process. As much as it was about choice and women's liberation, it also became about an economic imperative that has made many households dependent on two incomes.

We probably need to have a huge conversation about this, a conversation that involves the liberation of women, men and children. Ultimately it's probably a conversation that involves looking at the whole system of how we work and live. That's probably an ambitious goal for any government, never mind a government as precarious as this one. But Katherine Zappone knows well how an honest and difficult conversation can change everything. Feminism taught us that. Certainly there is more work to be done, and the current generation of feminists are fighting those battles. But the world they grew up in is indistinguishable from the world in which their mothers grew up.

Tricky conversations don't happen if people are blinded by consensus, such as the consensus that working parents supported by state sponsored childcare is the ideal model for everyone. Neither is a tricky conversation helped by name-calling, where people who argue outside the fashionable consensus are branded Neanderthals.

Katherine Zappone has started something with regard to childcare, and it is long overdue and to be welcomed. She has also accidentally started a conversation that is long overdue and to be welcomed. We probably owe it to our children to try and have that conversation.

Sunday Independent

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