Ask Maaryam Hasan if she believes that her decision to have three children was a lifestyle choice and she looks baffled. Hasan, 26, lives in an East London refuge with her three young sons after escaping her physically abusive husband: a second cousin 10 years her senior to whom she was married by arrangement aged 18.
“Did I choose to have three sons?” Hasan says, through a translator from the Tower Hamlets charity that funds her refuge place. “I didn’t choose anything. I came to this country from Bangladesh with no English. I knew nothing about contraception. If I did know about the pilI, I would not have been able to take it. Things like that are not in the control of women like me.”
Ask Gemma Hockenhull, a 35-year-old freelance graphic designer based in northwest London, what she thinks about stay-at-home-motherhood being a lifestyle choice and she snorts. Hockenhull would like to return to work after the birth of her two-year-old daughter Martha, but – with her pre-tax earning power of £130-a day leaving little wiggle room over the £80-a-day cost of wraparound childcare – Hockenhull’s stuck. The family now lives off the income of her partner Dominic, who works in publishing and earns £35,000 a year; with £1,200 a month mortgage to cover, budgets are tight.
“I loved my year’s maternity leave,” she says. “But now – unless we find a way of covering a new mortgage on one income – we’re sleepwalking into this 1950s-style set-up of male breadwinner and reluctant housewife.”
Even if the Hockenhull family qualifies for George Osborne’s much-trumpeted 2015 Summer Budget initiative of 30 hours per week of free childcare for three and four-year olds, Hockenhull knows that none of the providers proximate to the family’s home in Kensal Rise will have staffing levels adequate to providing the underfunded additional places. “It’s unrealistic,” she says.“It’s a scramble to get a place when you’re paying top-whack,” she says.
The assault on working class mothers of multiple children and on middle class mothers who fail – despite the obstacles – to do their bit for economic production are the latest sallies in a UK government propaganda campaign that seeks to reposition the mechanisms through which women are paid less than their male counterparts in the same jobs,by which women are accountable for an estimated 30 hours a week of unpaid domestic and caring labour and by which traditionally female-gendered work is woefully, often illegally,underpaid – factors that feminist theorists refer to as “structural oppressions” – as a “lifestyle choice”.
There’s no obtuseness in this. When George Osborne unveiled the 8 July Summer Budget – which further reduced the total sum families on benefitscan draw to £20,000 a yearas well as limiting child tax credits to two children – he was explicit.
The social security system, he said on the Budget’s announcement : “should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to taxpayers who pay for that system”. That exemptions have been made to the child benefit cuts for women who have borne a child as a result of rape only underscores the conservative ideology-crafting that’s behind these moves.
These days, “lifestyle” is a loaded word. The phrase is an anglicisation of 19th-century German psychiatrist Alfred Adler's Lebensstil, or “style of life”, which in Adler's coinage referred to an individual’s unique unconscious and repetitive way of responding to (or avoiding) the pillars of human life: friendship, love and work; responses conditioned by childhood prototype. Somewhere along the line –in pace with our wholesale shift to a capitalist consumer culture – a term that referred primarily to a human being’s inner world came to refer toher or his outer world.
“Lifestyle” today is the career you have; the money you make and what you choose to spend it on as the signifiers of your identity; the social scene(s) you identify with.
Osborne’s “lifestyle” is per a toothier, pejorative meaning: redolent of frivolity of fad consumer electronics and regrettable hairstyles; fly-and-flop holidays on maxed-out credit cards.
This trivialising of our nation’s poor and underprivileged is a rhetorical trick that’s become central to this government’s messaging. This powerful discourse, on the back of the 2007-2012 recession, has provided moral propulsion to the project of dismantling state support for the nation’s neediest. Frequently, this rhetoric is framed in a gendered way. Women are both central to “dependency culture” and the reproducers of this culture as the bearers of future welfare recipients. As Dawn Foster puts it, in her state of the nation article on working class feminism the middle class now “have children”, whereas the the working class “breed”.
Yet that’s not the whole picture. This government, as no Conservative-controlled British government before it, is making it its business to take on big-ticket feminist issues. Legislations against female genital mutilation and forced marriage have been more than totemic, with efforts being made to educate agencies in their implementation. The upcoming criminalisation of coercive and controlling behavior, the precursor in 95 percent of cases to physical domestic abuse, has been welcomed by domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid.
This pick ‘n’ mix engagement withthe rights demands of activists feminists might seem confusing, were if not for a common thread: cold, hard cash. The enshrined right for a woman to earn a full-time wage? This is the convenient neo-liberal capitalist feminism of personal responsibility that undergirds Sheryl Sandberg’s notorious book and movement Lean In.
Grand idealistic gestures on issues such as FGM and political representation?Good ideas, yet they elide British women’s more fundamental needs: the proper acknowledgment of the costs, as materialist feminist Sheri Ortner would put it, of production and reproduction, rather than the financially expedient, albeit short-sighted, devaluing of the costs of care and domestic labour.
The upcoming amendment to the Serious Crime Bill, to criminalise coercive and controlling behavior, too is all well and good, but what about the places where those women go to flee such violence, the women’s refuges and safe houses that are closing across the UK as their local government funding is slashed?
The Resolution Foundation have calculated that a low earning single parent – in 91 percent of cases this parent will be a woman – working 20 hours a week at £9.35 a hour to support one child will be £1,000 a year worse off by the end of this government.
The latest budget further ingrains the corrosion in gender equality measures set in train by the Department for Work and Pension’s flagship benefit system: Universal Credit, which the Child Poverty Action Group argues take insufficient account of the nature of modern families and provide incentives for a retreat to the “single breadwinner” family model.
Such measures are all one with the current government’s fanciful imagining of a Britain in which all Britons have had the life opportunities of white, middle and lower-middle class males before social mobility ground to a halt.
Forget “lifestyle”; the 21st century buzzword Osborne should appraise himself of is “intersectionality”: the de rigueur school of thought that seeks to model the deep imbrications between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination that lead a working class immigrant woman from Bangladesh to stare at you blankly when you ask her how she feels about lifestyle parenting choices.
It’s become fashionable sign off stories on the shuffling progress of gender equality measures with an upbeat pay-off. And yes, it’s seductive to see women as the answer to these deeply gendered civil rights issues.We have our working class women heroes in Focus E15, the young mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham for the right to social housing; and feminist flag-bearers in the arrival on UK soil of of “femocracy” in the form of the Women’s Equality Party – femocracy in its US and Australian incarnations has done much to cement the gains of Second Waves feminists’ rights demands.
But for all of these direct activists there are milllions of British women like Maaryam Hasan and Gemma Hockenhull who find themselves knackered from round-the-clock carework, knocked sidewards by government cutbacks andwondering why their husbands gave up doing the housework at some point in the 1990s.
Perhaps that’s the covetable “lifestyle choice” Osborne’s talking about? Exhaustion.
*Some names have been changed in this article