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.