On election day, my baby turned seven months old. He is getting so big! He can do amazing things like burble with assorted syllables and cadence (he’s gonna be such a chatterbox), eat soft finger foods, crouch on all fours with a proud “I’ll crawl one day” look on his face, and smile openly and joyously at anyone who smiles at him.
They say parenting is rewarding, and all these things are prize jewels, yet my work is also invisible. Sometimes parenting feels like my born purpose in life, just a total delight. Other times I feel my attentiveness slipping and know it means I really need a break, and in most cases there’s no one to give me a break right then. I muddle through vaguely dissatisfied, trying to meet our needs as best I can, wishing things were better set up for babies and that my husband had shorter working hours. For me, at the moment, motherhood is devoting heart and mind to compensating for society’s lack of responsiveness to the needs of babies and children.
Then there’s this election, and I was pretty enthusiastic about the Greens’ thriving kids policy package. It keeps hitting me, daily, the gulf between my baby’s life and the lives of babies in poorer parts of the country. He is warm and cosy all the time, he is read to, talked to, sung to, played with, he is cuddled and soothed, he lives in a smokefree home, he is enrolled in a great early childhood centre for next year, he has two parents who adore him, his parents don’t know anyone who is out of work, his neighbourhood is safe. When he greets the world with his great grin, he expects it to smile back. And, given his demographics, it will.
So I felt pretty ridiculous for my moaning, jeez, I’m so bloody lucky, life’s a happy song in this house, some people have it hard as nails, some parents are scrambling to find work and pay rent and keep their kids warm and fed. “My husband works long hours at his well paid desk job” yep, it sounds like a parody tweet from the first-world-problems twitter account.
…On the other hand, our wants are modest. We don’t want or expect anything more for our children than we had ourselves. If we could buy a house on a good public transport route, if we could both get home from work in time to hang out as a family, if we could take a few days off during school holidays and a couple of weeks to go camping in summer, we’d be set. This is the sorrow of the modern left. How can you be progressive when you’re fighting to maintain?
A quarter of New Zealanders are children. A fifth of them live in poverty. And half of those have a parent in work.
Don’t have kids of you can’t afford them. First blush, sounds reasonable. Until you think about it, and see that it demonstrates a very strange attitude towards parenthood. To care for children, you need to cut back on paid work. But children are expensive to support, very few people can afford to pay for everything their kids need without any government assistance. We’d be struggling financially if it weren’t for interest-free student loans and a public health system that provides free prenatal care.
A quarter of a million children live in beneficiary or low wage households (with insecure, irregular work), going without things they need, even John Key thinks it’s a concern. But there is so much talk about incentives to get into work, and welfare dependency. That’s not the problem, the problem is the assumption that everyone is able to set up a career first, and have children second. And the assumption that you stop being a parent when you arrive at work. Meanwhile, childcare is expensive and difficult to arrange, and anyway, parenting should mean spending time with your children. When I enrolled bubs in his daycare, I was told that drop off is any time after 7.45am and pick up any time before 5.30pm. “Do any children stay all day?”, I asked. “Oh yes, around a third of them.” That is really not ideal. There is no point in solving material deprivation if children end up deprived of their parents’ time as a result.
We need to go back to first principles and look at all the big aspects of social support and hash out a new consensus – with children at the centre. At the moment it’s a jumbled up incoherent mess, and we can’t solve it by piecemeal policies to provide more funding for this thing or that thing and let’s slap on a new tax here or there to pay for it. National say they want to address child poverty, I want to take them up on this. Progress comes from building broad support, from making ideas seem obvious so that all political parties get on board.
Not everyone becomes a parent, but everyone starts out as a child, and children are people too. Meeting their needs is paramount. It’s an idea we should all be able to sign up to.