The quality of motherhood: Remember that this is a tale of two maternities

Maybe we need to lift ourselves out of the ‘I don’t know how she does it’ mindset
  • @janemerrick23

If you are a parent in your 40s and 50s, there is finally hope for you.

The Government has recognised that you are a member of the “Sandwich Generation” – squashed in between the competing demands of having to look after your children and your elderly parents. Mid-life crisis? You’re too busy for that.

Women, in particular, are suffering from being stuck in this inter-generational rut. There are men who are forced to give up work to look after an elderly mother or father, or both, but it is, according to the Government, mainly mothers who become full-time carers. There are now half a million people in the UK caring for a relative with dementia, and this number will grow by 150,000 by 2021.

So, among the Bills announced by the Queen in the State Opening of Parliament today will be legislation giving powers to Sandwichers to ask their local authority for financial help towards carers or adaptations to their home. Councils are complaining, but £150m will be handed out from central Government to help them meet their budgets. The increasing elderly population is one of the greatest issues of our time and, even with very little money to go around, George Osborne needs to target cash at alleviating its burdens.

The “Sandwich Generation” appears to be the product of later parenthood – so mothers and fathers are likely to be in their 40s and 50s when their children turn into teenagers, just at a time when their own parents are requiring more help in old age. Leaving it later to have children is also driving the UK down the list of which countries are best for motherhood. In an annual report by Save the Children, this country comes 23rd – behind most other European countries, including austerity-hit Greece. Unsurprisingly, three Scandinavian countries are at the top.

The charity says that we are so far down the table because of our relatively higher rates of teenage pregnancies and older women using IVF, which increase the risks of infant and maternal mortality. I’m sure having maternity services pushed to the limits doesn’t help either. After a problem-free pregnancy (at the not too ancient age of 36), I had a birth that both my daughter and I were lucky to emerge from unscathed. I was only admitted to a hospital labour ward after 36 hours of contractions at home because I wasn’t “far gone” enough. Once I was there, my community midwife went off sick and I wasn’t seen by any member of staff for eight hours because the ward was too busy. I realised later my careless mistake in going to hospital on a Saturday – the NHS, brilliant as it is, does not seem to function properly at weekends. It was only at 5am on the Sunday that, because my baby had been trying to get out for nearly 60 hours, doctors decided it might be a good idea for me to have a Caesarean section. She finally arrived “naturally” when I was in the operating theatre. I thought my case was unique, until I read a report about women frequently left alone on labour wards because of midwife shortages – usually at weekends.

Save the Children also blames obesity in pregnancy as a risk factor in Western countries. Surely Mr Osborne must share some of the blame for this, by axing the £90 Health in Pregnancy grant, which expectant mothers were encouraged to spend on nutritious food.

The pressures of the Sandwich Generation, combined with the Save the Children report, show how tough it can be to be a mother in Britain today. Then again maybe we “hard-pressed” mothers need to lift ourselves out of the I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it mind-set. By focusing on why the UK lags so far behind the Scandinavian beacons of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it is easy to forget the countries far below us on the Mother’s Index.

Consider motherhood in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo has a one in 30 chance of dying in childbirth or from other maternal causes, compared with one in 12,200 in Finland. In Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and India, child marriage and poor nutrition help push those countries to the lower end of the table. On average, one in six African mothers is likely to lose a newborn baby, Save the Children says. Given that there are six mothers in a typical National Childbirth Trust (NCT) group, that statistic certainly gives middle-class women in the UK some perspective. Save the Children wants G8 leaders, led by David Cameron, to commit to ensuring that all expectant mothers have access to midwives or other skilled birth attendants, something which 40 million women a year currently do not have.

Yes, it is not good enough that the quality of motherhood is so poor in the UK, and we should be demanding better in such an advanced nation, as well as giving help to sandwiched mother-carers. But we should also be outraged at the lack of maternity care for women in Africa and south Asia. Fearful of the Tory right, the Prime Minister has dropped a plan to enshrine in law the 0.7 per cent aid target, and so another Queen’s Speech goes by with this commitment left with temporary status. If Mr Cameron really cares about international aid, as he says he does, he needs to show leadership at the G8.

Jane Merrick is the political editor of The Independent on Sunday

Twitter: @janemerrick23