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Eyes Wide Shut in the Child-Care Debate

Julie Stephens: Only Confronting the ‘Never Said’ Will Identify the Needs of Both Child and Parent

There is a curious mismatch between the emotional charge of the most recent manifestation of the child-care debate and the tediously familiar arguments trotted out, particularly by the pro-child-care ‘lobby’. Whenever any suggestion is made that child-care may have a negative side for children, as shown in the latest research by the United States National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), the same people dominate media discussion and demonstrate a now customary lack of imagination. Social commentators like Gay Ochiltree, Leslie Cannold, Sara Wise and Don Edgar seem ready to spring into action to dismiss any research that is critical of current child-care arrangements. In an effort to always defend the status quo which I still find puzzling, many of their arguments serve to censor rather than open up new ways of thinking about the care of children.

For instance, the mantra is repeated that Australian child-care is different and of a better quality than everywhere else. Even if this were true — in fact our caregiver-to-infant ratios are below international standards — does this mean that the findings of the most comprehensive study of formal child-care should be deemed irrelevant to us? Does the persistent cry that working parents have no other choice — itself open to question because the correlation between income and care is between high income and child-care, not the reverse — mean ‘end of story’ for further research and discussion on formal child-care in Australia?

As for the ‘institutional child-care is good for children’ argument of Leslie Cannold, we should be reminded that the same used to be said about the benefits of corporal punishment. The point here is not to reproduce the overstatement often characteristic of this debate, but to apply the same vigilance and scepticism to our present taken-for-granted understandings (which, it goes without saying, are just as ideological) as to past depictions of what was ‘good’ for a child.

Inherent in the public debate on child-care are contemporary notions of the child and childhood. Much dispute centres on determining the long-term results of spending time in institutional child-care. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is often a preoccupation with subsequent academic performance as a measure of whether this kind of care is right or wrong for the child in particular, and society in general. This emphasis on ‘effect’ rather than on ‘affect’ is itself indicative of wider cultural (and class) imperatives, where childhood is seen as a time, not in-itself, but to be spent productively preparing for future academic results and a place in the workforce.

What is missing from the current discussion? We know very little, other than on an anecdotal level, of the emotional life of babies, toddlers and children in formal care. With the exception of the nuanced work of Anne Manne, and the not so nuanced but equally confronting interventions of Michael Leunig, very few contributors to this debate focus on the possible perceptions and experiences of children themselves. The voices of child-care workers are also notably absent. Where are the interventions from the child-care centres which (within necessary regulatory guidelines) may be striving to develop different ways of organising care, new and compassionate approaches to those children who never seem to settle in and get over the grieving process, or ways to ensure that the needs of the child outweigh the imperatives of running an institution? Or are child-care centres in Australia — with their appallingly low wages for workers and high staff turnover — also caught up in the rhetoric that they represent the ‘world’s best practice’? These kinds of silences not only compound parental anxiety, but also reinforce a kind of inability to look at this issue with new and open eyes.

A few years ago, a friend attended a parent evening at her toddler’s crèche. As a public relations exercise, the crèche (the organising committee of which she was an active member of) decided to film the activities of the children over a day, and then speed up the film for the parents’ entertainment. As the daily routine of the children unfolded on film, the initial amusement of parents was replaced by a deathly silence. It would seem that for these well informed, middle-class parents, it was a shock to view the stark evidence of the regimentation, rigid conformity and institutionalised nature of their children’s child-care experience. The film momentarily enabled a different reading of the child-care centre; not just as an environment full of stimulation, toys and activities and things parents would like to arrange for their children if only they had the time, but as something unfamiliar, as an institution first and foremost, with little resemblance to prevailing ideas of family and home.

My point here is not to suggest that this is the only ‘truth’ of formal child-care. Like adults, children’s experiences are various. However, it is one truth that needs to be confronted if child-care is to be improved and new social policies initiated. Another truth, revealed by the recent findings of the NICHD study, is that babies and children apparently need their mothers. The study found that the more time children spent being cared for by people other than their mothers, the more aggressive behaviour they demonstrated. This has not been received as a ‘good news story’ for women. The finding has been interpreted as both startling and problematic. Yet, isn’t this one of the ‘never saids’ — to borrow Foucault’s language — of the discourse on child-care: that a baby’s and child’s love is particularistic, deeply passionate, excessive, obsessive (sometimes oppressive), and the object of this kind of love, even with shared parenting, is usually the mother.

This sort of love, like the kinds of love parents feel for their children, is not readily contained, not always rational and refuses to be compartmentalised. In the words of Anne Manne, this love is an ‘anti-commodity story’. It is the unbearable heaviness of being. And of course, in a culture where paid work is the key social value, it is a love that gets in the way. It would be more convenient if mothers were as replaceable and as easily substituted as we thought they were when riding feminism’s second wave. To put this love into the picture when discussions of formal child-care are concerned is crucial, and it certainly complicates the debate.

This brings me back to my opening observation about the disjunction between the emotional heat of discussions around formal child-care and the pronouncements, by the supporters of the status quo, that parents and children are happy about current arrangements (aside from requests for a little more paid leave here and there). Where then does the passion and outrage, provoked by such things as the findings of the NICHD study, come from? Australians are working the second-longest hours of all countries in the OECD. Doctors are reporting unprecedented numbers of women presenting with undiagnosed illnesses largely relating to exhaustion. There is an ‘epidemic’ of post-natal depression. Publications like the Melbourne Child inform parents about psychologists who specialise in the treatment of depression for the ‘under fives’. No simple return to previous gender roles or tinkering with social policy will alter this wider context. Something much more fundamental is required. Our eyes need to be prised open to the real implications of maintaining the status quo. And the onus should be on the uncritical defenders of child-care, and the child-care industry, to raise this debate to a different level, a level where genuine criticism and good research is welcomed as a way forward, even if the news is bad.