Home » Men, pick up your toilet brushes! It could solve the great British baby shortage

Men, pick up your toilet brushes! It could solve the great British baby shortage

by Narges Mohammadi

If there is one silver lining to 2024, it has to be that eye-watering childcare costs have finally risen up the political agenda. I had the first twinges of hope watching Question Time earlier this month, as the primary care minister, Andrea Leadsom, and Labour’s Lisa Nandy duked it out over which party had the better record on childcare. And this week, we have actual male politicians, including the prime minister himself, talking about the childcare crisis with the urgency that it demands.

I wish it was for happier reasons: it’s being talked about now because the free 15 hours of childcare that parents were promised in the autumn statement may not be delivered by the original April deadline. Sunak promises the scheme will happen, and Labour says that if it wins the likely election this year, its childcare plan will be even better. It hasn’t spelled out how, but still, 2024 bodes well on this issue.

Credit must be given to the women’s campaigners who have been raising the alarm on this for years. Though the cynical part of me wonders if the Conservative promise may also have something to do with an issue that has been gaining ground in the rightwing press and in the hard-right flank of the party recently: that of Britain’s baby shortage.

Britain isn’t producing enough babies to provide the workforce needed to support an ageing population. Holding the population steady requires 2.1 children per woman; right now we’re on 1.6. You can top up the deficit with immigration, but Conservative voters aren’t keen on that. Indeed, some of the harder-right commentators have used the shortage to push fearmongering racist narratives about the decline of the white Briton, and hint at the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Not to mention the “family values” do whistle: take Miriam Cates, the Conservative backbencher who has made this topic a personal mission. At the start of this month she hit back at childcare for infants altogether, asking if it was best for children to be given to “strangers”, and wouldn’t it be better to help parents (let’s be real: she means mothers) stay home without fear of financial destitution? The idea that many mothers want to do some work doesn’t factor.

We should take note from other parts of Europe, most notably Hungary and Poland, where having children is being pushed as a moral imperative, resulting in barriers to abortion and the erasure of LGBTQ+ identities. We’re not there yet, but one unnamed cabinet minister has suggested borrowing Hungary’s policy of tax cuts for women with children.

Helping with childcare costs is therefore a bit of a win for the Tories – they get to look right-on for women, and appease some of the extremists they insist on placating.

But childcare costs aren’t the only reason for Britain’s baby shortage. Trust me, I’m 35 – the stick-or-twist age for having kids or having more kids – and this topic dominates my peer group’s conversations. There are issues around suitable housing, the hit on earnings for mothers (British mums only get six weeks of “decently paid” statutory maternity leave, compared with three months or more across many parts of Europe), the difficulties of accessing infertility treatment on the NHS and trouble finding a partner.

But here is one factor that isn’t mentioned nearly enough: chores. Japan’s Nikkei newspaper analysed OECD data and found that countries where men and women share them more equally tend to have more children. Take, for example, France and Norway – these are countries where men tend to do more around the house, and they have more children on average than Britain (1.8 and 1.7 per woman, respectively).

Yes, those are nations where maternity leave is better paid, there is significantly more paternity leave or shared parental leave, and childcare costs are lower – but we can’t discount the chores factor, especially when you compare them with Japan and South Korea. Those countries also have better-paid maternity leave and lower childcare costs – but Japanese and South Korean women are still doing the vast bulk of the chores, and have fewer children (1.3 and 0.8). Is it really so surprising that if mothers have a poor quality of life, it will put women off having more children?

Arguably, distribution of chores may not be a matter for government policy; perhaps that is more about culture and education. But as rightwing voices use the baby shortage as a way to push their worldview – an anti-migrant, low-public-spending, traditionally gendered worldview – it’s worth remembering. It won’t be the cliched red-blooded breadwinning man and docile domestic woman that will spark a baby boom. Bring on the men with the papooses! Hands up, gentlemen who are unafraid of the bog brush! Britain’s future is with you.

Source: Guardian

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