There has been a lot of chatter this week about childcare and who should have access to it under which circumstances. As the mother of two pre-schoolers I have followed the debate with interest, but have found the discussion to be entirely one dimensional. Since having children I have been a Work At Home Mum, a Stay At Home Mum and a Working Mum, so I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. I began my parenting life running a business from home and did so for 15 months with my son in tow.
When I was 5 months pregnant with my daughter I was suddenly put on bed rest for a month and life, without my permission, changed drastically and without notice. Overnight I became a stay at home mum by default, though between us my daughter and I were in hospital for almost six months. Her first year was filled with dozens and dozens and dozens of specialist appointments, making it difficult for me to work. After she turned one my husband and I discussed how our priorities had changed. We made the decision that I would be a stay at home mum a little longer, so I could spend a precious couple of years with my two children. This year I decided to return to the workforce and for part of the week I work at home, while three days per week are spent in an office.
During the year my daughter was at home recovering from chronic lung disease I had an incredibly energetic and curious two year old at home who needed more than I could offer. We put him into day care and I have no qualms about this whatsoever. In fact, putting him into care quite possibly changed the course of his young life, as his teachers noticed a couple of behavioural nuances that required immediate early intervention. There is no chance I would have had the skills or context to pick these up myself, and even if I had, I would have had no idea how what ‘scaffolding’ was, or what strategies I should employ to change his behaviours. Aside from this, I was a paying customer using a service, and had every right to do so.
Despite all the discussion and postulating about childcare for working and stay at home mums, very few commentators have expressed sentiments that echo my own feelings. This is surprising, given my varied background. A discussion on Channel Nine’s ‘Mornings’ between David Campbell, Sonia Kruger and Angela Mollard was of particular concern, as Mollard made sweeping statements that included references to stay at home mums getting ‘massages and manicures’ and ‘talking to the pool guy.’
I know many stay at home mums and none – not one – would say ‘massages and manicures’ were on their list of priorities. I know in our family, these are luxuries we can seldom afford when I am not working, and since we don’t have a pool guy, there isn’t much to talk to him about. There are so many reasons why Mollard’s words were damaging. For starters, it assumes all stay at home mums are from wealthy families. This is not always the case. I know of many mothers who simply cannot afford to go back to work. Some have several children of preschool age and when factoring in the astronomical cost of child care, it is not financially viable to return to work.
On the other hand, they feel is essential for their older children to have some kind of early education for a few days a week, and I completely agree with them. And this is where the argument against stay at home mothers accessing child care comes unstuck, because early education is so vitally important in so many ways. Within this discussion, we must not ignore the benefits of day care in educating and stimulating little minds. All children deserve the right to access this level of care, across every socioeconomic and geographic sectors of society – unequivocally. Socialisation is part of the appeal, but learning to be independent, having the confidence to try new things and being exposed to different teaching styles are all great reasons to put a child into day care, regardless of the child care needs of their parents.
Furthermore, Mollard’s comments are a gross dismissal of what stay at home mothers do. There is plenty to occupy the lives of stay at home mums other than frivolity. Such comments from a woman in Mollard’s position as a well-known working mother can only further any gap in ideology between working and at home parents. Ms Mollard herself mentioned PND as a possible exception to her blanket rule that working mothers be given preference to child care over stay at home mothers. I agree that child care can be extremely important for women who suffer from PND. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to predict PND and given the waiting lists are long to access child care services in some areas, it would be very difficult to plan ahead or hold a booking for someone in case they were afflicted by it. There is no way of knowing who will suffer from PND and therefore no way of legislating who should be given priority over child care places. Some mothers have special needs children with varying requirements.
They may be unable to work due to their commitments for therapies, but either don’t want their child, (or other children), to miss out on the earliest opportunities for schooling or are in legitimate need of respite. In truth there are an infinite number reasons stemming from an infinite number of varying circumstances which may lead a mother, (or a father), to either work or stay at home. There are, of course, parents who make different choices and that’s okay too. I know women who utilise their family members as carers in lieu of day care, and families who just plain don’t need it despite both parents working, often due to well-planned shift schedules.
What this means is it impossible to generalise, and if we want to level the playing field for women it is imperitive that we don’t. The truth is it is impracticable to make judgements about the greatest need for a child to be in care based purely on a woman’s working status. We can’t say whose needs are greater, and we absolutely shouldn’t need to. Prioritising one group of mothers over another can only be a bad thing for women within society – as mothers and as future mothers. Years ago women had no choices, but fought long and hard for decades to achieve the right to make the best decisions for their families. Every mother should be supported in her choices whether she works or does not work, or sits somewhere in between. While it may be true that most stay at home mothers will on average have more flexibility in their day to day lives than most working mothers, this does not mean that their needs or those of their children are any more or less relevant.
What this discussion has reminded me is that none of us are ever truly aware of someone else’s circumstances and so generalisations such as those made by Mollard are by and large quite ridiculous, and more than a little archaic when it comes to parenting. Moreover, this discussion is such a wasted opportunity. Imagine if, instead of waxing lyrical about who needs what the most, or making insinuations about the legitimacy of either the working mothers or the stay at home mother’s method of parenting – what if we directed all of this fervour and energy into lobbying for better conditions for all of us? More access to better priced child care. For every family. Such a simple idea, it may even work.