At first I thought it was a joke. Well, maybe not a joke per se, but certainly a spoof. How else to construe the wildly over the top rantings of Cristina Odone in the Telegraph, condemning measures announced in Wednesday’s budget aimed at addressing the UK’s stratospheric childcare costs?

Specifically, the government will cover £1200 per year in childcare costs for those who earn under £150,000. Odone denounced the measure as a victory for ‘hands-off parenting’ and a slap in the face of women who stay home to take care of their children.

First, some context: it’s a widely acknowledged fact that UK childcare costs are the highest in Europe. In an article entitled ‘How the cost of bringing up baby is bankrupting middle Britain’, The Guardian reported last October that British parents spend an average of 27% of their income on childcare as compared with 5% in Sweden and 13% in Europe as a whole. Think about it: that’s more than a quarter. Costs are so high that they often obliterate a second income which means some couples have opted to have one partner – usually the woman – stay at home as the more economical solution. Needless to say, the government have been under some pressure to act.

First, they took the highly questionable decision to change the ratio of children to carers in childcare settings, which prompted widespread alarm from people who know what it’s like to change one kid’s nappy while watching two others fighting in the corner over a toy, and a fourth working out how to turn the door handle all by themselves. This government habitually regards experience as a form of bias, so no one had solicited their view, of course.

And now there’s to be direct financial aid to offset childcare costs. 

The coalition government has quite rightly been accused of being no friend to women. Last month, The Observer reported the results of research that showed that in the last 10 years Britain has dropped a whopping 27 places – from 33rd to 60th – in international league tables of women in elected office. From austerity cuts that have been shown repeatedly and convincingly to have a vastly disproportionate affect on women, to the paltry number of women in the Cabinet let alone David Cameron’s ‘inner circle’, there’s a growing view that the country is being run by a boys’ club who don’t know or care about women’s concerns. And it shows in the polls, with a declining number of women supporting the Tories and fewer still swallowing George Osborne’s austerity doctrine.

Having said all that, I’m somewhat more sympathetic to Odone’s point than you might think. Childcare is one of the many forms of unpaid labour women undertake, on which the economy relies significantly but which is never acknowledged as work. As the mother of 18 month-old twins I can state unequivocally that I don’t recall being more exhausted in my life than I am now. Not during end of term exams at university, not working 12 hour days planting trees in the Canadian wilderness, not during the four years I spent launching and then running my own business.

What mystifies and alarms me about Odone’s argument, though, is not so much the claim that childcare by a parent is hard work just as it is for those who are paid to do it, and that the government ought to acknowledge that. It’s the dizzying speed with which she dispenses with her critique of government policy – ‘Their motive is clear: mothers who are not at home are in the office, stoking the economy’ – to deploy the familiar weapons of guilt and fear in order to attack mothers who work. 

First, she trots out Youth Justice Board statistics on the cost of dealing with young reprobates to make a tenuous, unscientific and decontextualised connection between youth offending and absent mothers. ‘No one claims that all children who get into crime have an absent mother,’ she concedes. ‘But if their mother were at home, and felt that being at home was a choice the government rated – and rewarded –  the child would feel monitored by a respected figure of authority. Most children would modify their behaviour accordingly.’ Says who? 

She then announces that ‘stay-at-home mothers believe that a mother’s presence makes a difference to a child’s well-being. They believe that crèches and child-care centres cannot replace mother.’ Yes, that’s right. All of them. And I’m guessing that for Odone the ones who say they want to work – indeed, even enjoy it – are either stooges for this productivity-obsessed government, lying, or criminally negligent parents who would happily hand off their child to a passer-by on the high street so they can enjoy a bit of ‘me’ time.

It’s an uncomfortable but predictable irony that I’m writing this blog precisely two weeks after International Women’s Day when I wrote another piece, ‘Who Owns the Sisterhood‘, about the harm women do to each other, with no help from men. With surgical – albeit unintended – precision Cristina Odone has illustrated far better than I could ever describe the ugliness that erupts when we presume to speak for some women, while demonising those who don’t conform. For all her righteous indignation and putative defence of stay-at-home mothers, Odone has done no one a favour.