Fuelling myths about mothering and child-care

Issue 

Who Cares? Guilt, hope and the child-care debate
By Sally Loane
Reed Books, 1997. 359pp., $15.95 (pb)

Review by Pip Hinman

Who Cares? provides valuable information about the evolution of professional child-care in Australia, including the impact of feminism and, since the mid-'80s, government cuts and moves to privatise this once world-renowned community-based service.

But Sally Loane also does a lot more. While she says she is simply canvassing arguments on the raging debate, in fact she ends up giving credence to those who are vociferously arguing against socialised child-care.

This wouldn't be particularly unusual except for the fact that Loane still considers herself a feminist.

A product of affirmative action reforms won by the second wave of the women's movement, Loane, a mother of two and a senior journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, nevertheless ends up querying, if not condemning, some fundamental principles upon which feminism won such widespread support.

In this she is not alone. Other former champions of child-care such as Fay Pettit and Wendy McCarthy have also changed sides. Once advocates of child-care both for its ability to liberate women from the home and for its educative and socialising role on children, these women are now convinced that child-care may be dangerous.

While they cite the declining standards of hygiene and staff-to-child ratios — both of which will inevitably worsen under federal and state government cuts — their main argument is ideological. They are now firmly back in the pro-nuclear family camp, complete with its utopian schema of "one-on-one care" by mothers.

Loane is not anti-child-care, nor could Who Cares? be accurately described as such. But her belief in the superiority of care provided in the home and her guilt at putting her own children in child-care when they were still quite young are dominant themes.

If most mothers feel guilty (at times) about not being the ideal mum, this is not due to some individual failing or the shortcomings of professional child-care but to society's unrealistic and sexist expectations of women's "most important role".

The "supermum" myth doesn't flourish because women have tried to do too much (work and have a family) — as Loane believes — but because it suits the powers that be, who want to continue to benefit from women's unpaid labour in the home, to make us feel guilty about "neglecting" it.

A clever (if not entirely honest) writer, Loane is well practised at drawing the reader in with sketches of familiar scenes such as the chaos at breakfast time (trying to get everyone clothed, fed and out the door by 8.30am) and the heart-rending look and tears when you finally say good-bye at the centre. With this device, Loane manages to generalise many of her own doubts about child-care.

Loane rejects those who criticise her ideological change of heart. Towards the end of Who Cares? she says that these women have possibly changed their minds on child-care from the "wisdom of hindsight" or "a position of insight".

She flatly rejects the idea that the radicals of the 1960s and '70s have become conservatives in their middle years, "nostalgically yearning for the good old days when mothers were mothers at home and dads went out to work and kids came home to milk and cake every afternoon". But even her argument on this point is borrowed from previous ageing-conservatising generations.

Loane's emphasis on the problems associated with "the child-care generation" and the fact that parents — particularly mothers — have "lost" parenting skills as a result feeds the conservative ideological backlash which is accompanying government cutbacks.

Given the government's moves to privatise child-care, Loane has to bear some responsibility for acquiescing in its reactionary ideological push for women to go back into the home. While acknowledging that child-care is here to stay because women will continue to work (career choice and economic necessity), Loane argues that women should make the effort to make child rearing more of a priority — otherwise, like her, they'll regret it later on.

An annoying aspect of Who Cares? is Loane's tendency to address and generalise from the experience of her peers — upper middle-class women who are very comfortably off (and can afford nannies, cooks, gardeners, cleaners) and therefore can make choices about their working lives. Most women do not fall into this category and rely on quality child-care to feel confident that while they are at work, their children are both having fun and being well cared for.

Loane presents no compelling evidence that children cared for at home are better off in later life. In fact, she cites surveys which show that child-care children are more confident and assertive at school and not so willing to accept authority compared to those who mainly stayed at home (perhaps this is part of the reason why John Howard is so keen to push women back there).

The push back to the '50s and the theories of John Bowlby — a US psychoanalyst who hypothesised that a child's attachment to its mother was so crucial that it would suffer lasting effects if it was maternally deprived — is gaining strength.

If we agree that a woman's biological potential should not fundamentally determine her social role, and that to be a good mother does not mean 24-hour contact with her child, then we have an ongoing battle on our hands.