Swedish sociologist Jonas Himmelstrand believes that when children start nursery under the age of three, they risk suffering “more mental health problems and difficulties at school”. On the day the Times ran a report on this, my own three-year-old – who’s been at nursery since he was nine months old – decided to behave like a total sod. To be fair, those aren’t the words the nursery staff used (nor did they use “a pint-sized Begbie out of Trainspotting”, which may be more accurate). They said things like “didn’t do good listening” and “needed time out” and well, we all know what that means. And of course I felt bad, even worse than I might otherwise have done, for even though most days he’s lovely – full of kisses and cuddles and pweeese and fankoos – on that day it felt like the start of a downward spiral. He was, it seemed, a juvenile delinquent in the making and all because I’d “farmed him out”.
Of course, I don’t truly know what the future holds for my son. If one day he does suffer “mental health problems and difficulties at school” I’d like to think I’ll be there to help him and not off on self-indulgent guilt trips. So I didn’t dwell on my obvious failings for very long (apart from anything else, I was too busy making a customised dinosaur-pirate-princess behaviour chart).
Whenever reports like this appear in the news, I don’t exactly block them out, but neither do I feel they offer any great challenge to my worldview – or indeed anyone else’s. I know the standard ways in which a woman who uses childcare is meant to react: either defensively, singing the praises of his or her son’s nursery and how educational and nurturing it is, or in shameful, self-flagellating agreement, promising to cut down her hours or even “downsize” and drop out just as soon as she gets the chance. Like most real, live women, I don’t do either of these things. It is painful to admit, but I don’t think nursery is necessarily the best place for my son. Even so, the real-life implications of this aren’t as obvious as some might think.
As you’d expect, some people like nothing better than hearing that nurseries – or “baby farms”, as they affectionately call them – might not offer the ideal start in life. Take the Mail’s Peter Hitchens. A news story like this is enough to take his mind right off the cruel mockery of What The Papers Say and back onto crude caricatures of second-wave feminism and the damage it has wrought on the lives of women (“proper” women, that is) and children:
Nobody ever questions the claim that it is automatically good for mothers to go out and be wage-slaves. Once, this idea was widely hated, and every self-respecting man worked as hard as he could to free his wife from the workbench.
Then the feminist revolutionaries began to argue that the home was a prison and marriage was penal servitude, chained to a sink. Most people thought that was nuts – until big business realised that women were cheaper than men, more reliable than men and much less likely to go on strike or be hungover than men.
What I find interesting (and disappointing) about this is that it’s not so far from some modern-day feminist readings of what second-wavers believed and did. The kitchen sink argument is seen as outdated, simplistic and hopelessly class-specific but it’s still relevant given that we’re doing little to change the ways in which we perceive and reward domestic labour in terms of both political and economic inclusion.
While it’s true that the feminism of Betty Friedan and Marilyn French was focused on the lives of middle-class, university-educated women, the idea that it essentially became a tool of capitalism, focused only on the “self-realisation” of these women at the expense of working-class women, seems to me a distortion. It’s not just that many working-class women have always done paid work, even after having children, it’s that economic liberation is vital for all women. You can’t claim that they are not chattels yet expect them to live in a state of forced dependency on men. A man cannot “free his wife from the workbench” but he can force her from it. Being a wage-slave has its advantages over having no financial independence whatsoever, reliant on the goodwill of your children’s father (with no union, colleagues or HR department to turn to when you’re not paid your dues). Excluding a particular class of women from paid work (but not work itself) on “moral” grounds is patronising and demeaning, and it shows not an ounce of respect for the actual work that stay-at-home mothers do. And yet we can say all this and a younger generation will look back on previous struggles and see only shoulder pads and glass ceilings, every feminist a wannabe Sheryl Sandberg. That’s the climate in which people like Hitchens can trot out lines like this without it even appearing controversial:
A selfish upper crust of female lawyers, professional politicians, bankers and journalists imagined that all women enjoyed work as much as they did – when the truth is that most do it to pay the bills
Once again, give a woman a high-status job and she’s doing it for fun and shoes; give her a low-paid one and she’d much rather be dependent on a male sexual partner, regardless of how he treats her (I am of course forgetting that it’s all feminism’s fault if men are not all noble workbench liberators, but we don’t really have time for that here).
There are plenty of things wrong with the argument that using paid childcare is intrinsically a bad thing. It targets a very specific group of women (those who do jobs which middle-class men perceive to be their preserve) and represents paid work as an unnecessary indulgence (we do not seem to have the same qualms about single parents, instead castigating them as scroungers if they fail to move heaven and earth to get extra shifts). It devalues the massive contribution mothers have always made to the economy and public life – just because you didn’t notice them doesn’t mean they weren’t there all along – and takes the post-war push to drive women who’d operated very effectively in male space back into the home to be a moral crusade, a return to “how things always were”, ignoring the extent to which childcare patterns vary greatly over relatively short spaces of time. It disregards what children gain from having a mother who is financially autonomous, particularly where relationships are damaging or abusive (yes, she’s more capable of leaving, and no, that’s not always a bad thing). It treats the capacities and dynamics of family groupings as exactly the same, claiming to be about valuing stay-at-home mothers yet exploiting their implied self-sacrifice as an excuse for not offering them any further support. It downplays the resentment that mothers who “don’t work” face from exes and the genuine deprivation caused by the withholding of maintenance payments. It sidesteps issues such as difficulties in returning to paid employment and the resultant poverty women experience in old age. It pits “good” mothers against “bad” ones, squeezing fathers out of the picture. It presents nursery workers as uncaring and incompetent (of greater concern should be that they are underpaid and undervalued). It presents second-wave feminism as an indulgent “experiment” rather than a genuine response to exclusion. It’s a bullying rhetoric which becomes unduly focused on what women are doing wrong without offering them ways to put it right.
I’m quite prepared to talk about whether nursery is an imperfect option and to look at how we can make things better (even in the knowledge that I’ll be told “we / men / the child-free / employers / childcare providers / the government can’t afford that in today’s economic climate!”). I’m not prepared to do so without any acknowledgement of the fact that exclusion from paid work is not a mere matter of checks and balances – it can’t be compensated for by giving one’s husband (that’s if you’ve got one) a transferable tax break.
We live in a society that values people according to their wealth, and one which seriously undervalues caring roles. Mothers have to find a way to operate within that society and protect their children while they’re at it. It’s no good telling them they’re selfish and over-ambitious when they’re merely seeking security and acceptance. It’s no good pitying them for being “forced” to work if you have no real suggestions for making unpaid childcare compatible with being an equal member of society. Making it more “affordable” for some women not to earn money is not the same as granting non-earners choice, status and respect. And yes, in the meantime, some of us seem to be fucking up our children even more dramatically than others. But if the only answer you can offer is “bear the load, parasitical woman”, then you have nothing to offer me, my children nor anyone else’s.