By Agatha Lisiak
The low total fertility rate in Poland (1.3) has repeatedly been juxtaposed, in Polish and British media alike (often in an alarmed tone), with the apparently much higher (2.13) total fertility rate of Polish women living in Britain (ONS 2014). As analysts from Polityka Insight have cautioned, these numbers tend to be taken out of context: if we consider the overrepresentation of young women (20-39) among Polish migrants, Polish women in the UK give birth to only 15% children more children than their counterparts in the same age group in Poland. And yet, it remains a fact that the birth rate in Poland sank considerably from 2.0 in 1990 (GUS 2014), and the new government is set on reversing this trend.
The campaign program of Poland’s conservative party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who won last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, included a proposal to introduce a universal child benefit. The campaign promise has recently materialized in the form of the Family 500+ program, which, in a nutshell, is a monthly child benefit of 500 PLN (£90) for all parents or legal guardians (irrespective of their income) who have two or more children and for parents of only children if their monthly income per family member does not exceed 800 PLN (£140). The program has raised much controversy as economically flawed and socially unfair and has been criticized as discriminatory for single parents. For example, whereas a wealthy couple with three children will be legible for 1000 PLN a month, a single mother of an only child, whose monthly income even marginally exceeds 1600 PLN (£280) per month (the minimum wage in 2016 is 1850 PLN, or £330), will not receive any support within the new framework.
As feminist researchers have argued, women in Poland (and elsewhere as well, for that matter) are reluctant to have (more) children not, as it has often been alleged by the conservatives, because they are career-obsessed selfish monsters, but primarily because they simply cannot afford them. Job insecurity, unemployment, low salaries, precarious living conditions, and underdeveloped childcare infrastructure paired, in a perverse manner, with exorbitant costs of childcare are among most often cited reasons for not having children among Poles who declare desire to have them. Aside from these very concrete structural problems, another factor impeding women in Poland from having (more) children is, as we learn from talking to Polish mothers living in the UK and Germany, a general sense of unaffordability of life as a mother in Poland. What exactly then makes mothering affordable?
In my research project Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, I ask Polish women living in British and German cities about how mothering works for them in their adopted homes. The narrative and visual responses I have gathered so far point to the importance of the ability to satisfy family’s basic needs through an income that, even if minimal, allows for renting an apartment, keeping the fridge full, and even saving a little for trips to Poland or vacations in a warm country. What is also much appreciated is the partially free childcare (for kids older than 3), free medication for children, and financial support for single mothers. It comes as a big relief to the Polish mothers I have talked to that they can not only borrow, but also afford to buy everything they think their children need: clothes, shoes, diapers, strollers, toys, etc.
I see the danger of my findings being misinterpreted by those who oppose state support for low-income families on the grounds that benefits recipients are irrational and bound to spend the money on excessive consumption. Imogen Tyler, Les Back, Owen Jones, among many others, have addressed such misguided views and repeatedly debunked the myths that emerged around them. And yet, it suffices to leaf through The Daily Mail, or to listen to politicians of the governing party, to realize that these misconceptions obstinately prevail in Britain. I, therefore, find it important to stress that the Polish mothers I have talked to in Birmingham and London do not think they found themselves in a welfare paradise, they are not set on having more children only so that they claim benefits on which they will then live extravagantly. What they undoubtedly cherish, however, is the kind of social security they lacked in Poland. As Paulina put it:
I simply feel free because we have a place to live, we have a car, and we don’t have to worry about money, which is very important when you have kids, it saves you a lot of stress. … I feel safe here, as a mother. It’s nice.
Paulina is a single mother who works as a waitress and attends college to be able to qualify for a better job. Her house is mold-infested (and the landlord refuses to do anything about it), her brother’s second-hand car was bought only after a long period of saving, and yet Paulina claims to be better off than in Poland where an independent place to live and a used car were beyond her reach.
Paulina feels safe in Birmingham because her basic needs are fulfilled. And basic needs, especially for low-income families, include the need to look respectable.
I wouldn’t say I buy a lot, and I don’t spend much money on it, but I buy nice things that don’t cost I-don’t-know-how-much, but I like it that they have… I like to buy only nice clothes for [my sons], I don’t like ‘home clothes’ — not even at home. I don’t mind if they get them dirty. I don’t care. I can always wash them. And here clothes don’t cost a fortune.
Clothes, as Virginia Woolf famously noticed, have “more important offices than to merely keep us warm”. In the absence of other forms of social recognition, investing in children’s clothes may be the only measure of achieving respectability available to low-income parents.
As austerity policies in Britain have disproportionately targeted women and children, it may seem surprising that recent immigrants feel safe there. It is important to remember, however, that Poland and other not-so-new-anymore EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of communist regimes in 1989-1991 – and that it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminization of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern Europe and South East Europe as Slavenka Drakulicdiscloses in her essay evocatively titled How Women Survived Post-Communism (And Didn’t Laugh). To those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in postcommunist countries, having children in the UK appears to be a much easier task – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, even despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing.
Dr. Agata Lisiak is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute of Social Sciences and Lecturer at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Urban Cultures in (Post)Colonial Central Europe (Purdue University Press 2010), as well as articles and book chapters on gender and migration, everyday life in the city, media representations of the city and cultural memory. She has published in City, Forum Qualitative Social Research, View, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Journal of Urban History, and other peer-reviewed journals. Agata is interested in visual cultures, everyday urban cultures, spatialities and visualities of migration and developing methodologies for researching said issues (http://vmw.bard.berlin).