Why should work be a baby-free zone? | Melanie Reynolds

Some mothers want their infants with them. And with the right provision, everyone would benefit
•Melanie Reynolds is author of Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care, 1850-1899

The care of kids, and I use this colloquial term deliberately, for that is how I was taught to name children as a working-class mum from Yorkshire, is debated ad nauseum. The stats tell us there are a million more working mothers today than 20 years ago.

We know mothers give the bulk of care to children at home, but when the need to work arises – and maternity and paternity leave have been exhausted – they resort to a variety of providers: state-funded or private nurseries, creches and/or relatives.

Usually, when childcare is discussed as a policy issue, the attention is on cost, with political parties competing to make it more affordable. This, it is often assumed, will make them more popular with female voters. The idea that both parents should be out at work, and their children cared for by other people, is rarely questioned. This is as true on the left as on the right, and as true of female politicians and commentators as it is of men. Not without good reason, feminists fear that standing up for the idea that babies and young children should be cared for by their parents is a short step from forcing women out of the workplace.

Yet many women, and some men – particularly those in low-paid and unsatisfying jobs – go out to work only reluctantly and in spite of the fact that they do not believe separation from their very young children to be in their best interests. Today, as in the 19th century, the main reason for many mothers going out to work is that male wages are too low to support a family.

Yet history tells us that there is, or once was, another way. During the industrial revolution mothers used the same childcare model they had in pre-industrial times and worked with their babies and toddlers alongside them. In my work as a historian, I have discovered accounts by female mill workers of how they took their infants with them to the factory, placing them at the side of the loom “in a basket”.

Similarly, female salt mine workers around Manchester “carried their infants to work and once there, breastfed them and placed them down safely to sleep”. Women nail-makers hung swings from the ceiling as soothers and used large egg cartons to make cots, while Birmingham button-makers used sawdust tubs for the same purpose. For many women workers in the 19th century, taking their babies to work was their legal and customary right.

This is not to idealise the Victorian working environment, which was harsh and dangerous. The abolition of child labour in favour of education was one of a huge raft of measures that made 20th- and 21st-century workplaces easier and more safe. But we can still learn from the example of the women workers who had no choice but to set about softening, strengthening and shaping their workplaces around their maternal needs.

They domesticated workshops and mills by building makeshift cookshops, as they needed to eat in order to produce enough breast milk, and employed girls to run errands and clean for them. Some of these women were also top-class trade unionists. In 1875, an all-female strike committee, the Dewsbury and Batley Heavy Woollen Weavers Association, successfully opposed a 10% wage cut put to 25,000 workers and their families in 50 mills. Women trade unionists did not suddenly emerge for the 1888 Match Girls Strike, or indeed to become the Dagenham girls 80 years later.

Unfortunately, these innovative childcare practices were outlawed after 1900 in favour of the male breadwinning wage. This meant that men had the sole responsibility of providing for their families, a political choice enshrined by David Lloyd George’s welfare state reform in 1908 via male unemployment insurance.

I say “unfortunately”, in part because the hopes built upon the male breadwinning wage – that it could provide for families on its own – were vastly overplayed. The consequence was millions more families in poverty, and a situation that continues today in which, if the mother of a baby or small child wants to help boost her family’s earnings, she must effectively split her wage with a carer.

Of course, punishing poor women is nothing new. Under the cruel 19th-century poor law, mothers had to pass their children over to a nurse upon entry to the workhouse. The economic difficulty facing single mothers is legendary – and forced many thousands into lifetimes of pain in the last century when they were forced to give their babies up for adoption. Even today, single mothers disproportionately bear the “scrounger” label, as do some married mothers who have to rely on state benefits because they can’t take their babies to work.

Ten years ago, the Parenting in the Workplace Institute was founded in the US with the aim of providing resources for a growing number of employers, allowing new parents to bring babies to work. Currently, it suggests there are around 200 companies with such programmes, who have between them “hosted” 2,100 babies, usually for the first six months of life. Typically, parents who join such schemes are able to interact with their babies at all times, while their workplaces have designated rooms for changing and feeding.

In the UK, our much stronger parental leave entitlements mean such arrangements are arguably less urgently needed, particularly by professionals who can afford to take time off. But many others cannot afford to take full advantage of their leave entitlements. Meanwhile, thousands of home workers are already combining paid work with parenting. In many small, family-owned businesses such as local shops, having children around – playing behind the counter, or helping out – has long been the norm. Nannies and childminders too sometimes combine looking after their own children with the paid work of looking after other people’s.

Extending such working patterns to other professional settings won’t appeal to everyone – and in places such as hospitals or building sites, it would clearly be unsafe. But the idea that taking a baby or young toddler to work might be one of a menu of options would provide further choice for parents facing difficult decisions and reduced incomes in the first year of a child’s life.

Ask yourself if it would really be so difficult to buy a frock from a shop assistant with a baby in her arms, or sleeping in a swing or sling. Would this stymie anyone’s sales technique? Perhaps we should be shocked to see a new mother in a shop without her baby rather than with it.

Wider acceptance of breastfeeding in public places is arguably a first step towards more child-friendly workplaces. To get any further down this road will take committed campaigning, and backing from unions, MPs and feminist groups. But we can find succour in women’s history, which reminds us that in the 19th century some working women found ways to combine employment and motherhood, that I believe meant they had more rights and independence in respect of childcare than many women do today.

• Melanie Reynolds is an associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and author of Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care 1850-1899


Melanie Reynolds

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Actually, Jeremy Hunt, many stay-at-home mums want to work. This is why we can’t | Abi Wilkinson
Parents trying to get back into employment face so many obstacles. We need support, not chiding, from the chancellor, says journalist Abi Wilkinson

Abi Wilkinson

19, Feb, 2023 @12:01 PM

Article image
Discriminating against pregnant women is not just wrong, it’s foolish | Rowan Davies
Women are still hit by the motherhood penalty at work, with lower wages and stalled careers. If men did more childcare this would change, says Rowan Davies, head of policy at Mumsnet

Rowan Davies

20, Feb, 2018 @2:04 PM

Article image
We lumber grandparents with the care of our children – but it has a price | Gaby Hinsliff
A generation of older women are having to give up their own jobs so that their daughters can pursue careers. Labour’s pledge will help them

Gaby Hinsliff

16, Apr, 2015 @3:00 PM

The government must find a way to enable parents to work | Camilla Chafer
Camilla Chafer: Parents need flexibility of working hours to keep a job and look after children

Camilla Chafer

29, Aug, 2010 @5:00 PM

Article image
Taxpayers’ money spent on childcare is not wasted – it’s an investment | Deborah Orr
Fifteen hours of free childcare a week might not allow mothers to return to work immediately — but it lets them know that the state respects and supports their intention to do so in future, writes Deborah Orr

Deborah Orr

24, Oct, 2014 @4:41 PM

Article image
More time for daddy | Open thread

Open thread: Fathers will be able to take up to six months' paternity leave while the mother returns to work. Is this a victory for families?

Open thread

28, Jan, 2010 @2:30 PM

Article image
The depressing truth about female creativity and the pram in the hallway | Fiona Sturges
Sweeping the subject of working mothers under the carpet only implies there isn’t a problem, says freelance writer Fiona Sturges

Fiona Sturges

21, Mar, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fathers are happier when doing more housework, says study
Report also found men who spend more time with their children and work similar hours to partners are less stressed

Amelia Hill

04, Nov, 2010 @8:20 PM

Article image
Mothers at home deserve support too | Claire Paye
Claire Paye: While offering subsidies for working parents, the government is penalising those who want to care for their children full time

Claire Paye

15, Apr, 2013 @4:30 PM

Article image
Why don't more dads work part-time?

Nearly two-thirds of fathers would like to spend less time at work and more time at home. What's stopping them? And what do those dads who have made the career sacrifice feel about their decision?

Stuart Jeffries

20, Oct, 2009 @11:27 PM