A question of choice … Gonzalez vs Clegg on the school run

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, who has always struck me as a women who does not suffer fools, was understandably rather irritated when she was quizzed this week in an interview in Grazia about how she manages to balance her work and her family. Drawing attention to the inequality faced by women as a source of curiosity in this respect, she was quoted as saying: ‘I have three children, a busy career and a very busy husband. My husband has three children, a much busier career and a busy wife. Nobody would ask him how he balances everything.’

Indeed, no-one did ask her husband, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, but the papers this week have been full of articles and comment pieces spawned by reactions to her interview, most of them commenting (with an irony which she may not appreciate) on his childcare choices: in particular, whether it is right that he manages to make time to rush between office and home to do the school run a couple of times a week. Quentin Letts wrote disparagingly in the Daily Mail about Mr Clegg, describing him as ‘hen-pecked’ (an adjective which offends both partners in any relationship), and telling him to sort out his affairs so that he could devote himself to his work while his wife stepped back from her work to look after their children for a few years. Minette Marrin in the Sunday Times agreed. Others were more accommodating, praising Mr Clegg’s involvement with his children – Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday, for one, although even she manages to suggest that this is a good political move, keeping him in touch with the people.

It is extremely tempting to enter the debate and to come down on one side or the other – should he or shouldn’t he? Parental duties or national responsibility? But of course, this would be to fall into the trap of assuming that there is either a right way or a wrong way, an all-or-nothing solution, when we know in our hearts that life is much more complicated than this, and requires much negotiation. Theirs is a lose-lose situation – it is as easy in our current social conversations about women to imagine Miriam Gonzalez vilified as a stay-at-home mother as it is as a working mother, or her husband paraded as a curiosity for staying at home as it is a neglectful out-of-touch father.

Neither of these two people strikes me as unintelligent or uncaring in any way whatsoever; each is almost certainly aware of their responsibilities to family, work and the rest of the world. Most important of all, we must avoid the trap of assuming that we have the right to tell the Clegg family exactly how to run their lives, and to criticise any decisions they take which might not conform to our preconceptions of how they should be organising their family. If their children were neglected or in danger, then we would be right to intervene, but we have no right to force prejudices upon them.

Surely in our society, in all matters pertaining to gender, quite apart from other aspects of our lives, we have been working towards enabling genuine choice; let us value it when we see it in practice.

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