“Children of working mothers have better social and everyday skills,” read an Irish Times headline last week. A few days later, The Guardian reported on another study suggesting that mothers should spend as much time with their children as they can afford, and went with the headline “Child’s cognitive skills linked to time spent with mother”.
Such is the game of pitting mothers against each other: you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. This of course is nothing new; the stream of new studies seems never-ending, and media loves reporting on them – likely because new mothers never fail to fall for the clickbait, desperate for some sort of evidence that they’re doing something right in this most difficult job they’ve ever tried their hand at. But perhaps there’s no coincidence that we’re seeing two of these stories in two leading newspapers in such a short space of time in the build-up to Christmas. Guilt is a powerful marketing tool – not least as we are bombarded with images of mothers hard at work on delivering the perfect family Christmas: finding the best deals on those most sought-after toys; creating the perfectly relaxing yet fun ambience in the home; doing all the food shopping, perhaps ‘getting away with’ using a ready-made stock pot; then standing in a doorway somewhere in the periphery looking selflessly blissful while watching their loved ones enjoy themselves.
Timely or not, these types of studies would perhaps be at least somewhat useful if it wasn’t for the fact that few parents feel as if they have any choice at all in the decision of whether to return to work or not. At the very least, thinking outside the box will involve a significantly lowered standard of living for most.
In Ireland, as Minister for Children Katherine Zappone unveiled the government’s new childcare scheme as part of Budget 2017 a couple of months ago, the new programme was heavily criticised. Many highlighted the complete failure to support stay-at-home parents, along with anyone opting for childcare provided by a family member or neighbour, while some went as far as to refer to the full-time crèche subsidy as an incentive for the “institutionalisation of babies and toddlers”, citing studies of young children’s most basic needs.
Further north, said institutionalisation of children is in full swing: in Sweden, quality controlled, local government funded nurseries are available for all children from around the age of one, and a full-time place costs no more than 1,287SEK (about €130), or 3% of the gross household income, per month for the first child. The cost drops significantly for the second and third children in a family, and the fourth goes free. Forget about ‘a second mortgage’, as Irish parents have come to refer to childcare costs – these working parents have two salaries to spend.
With a feminist foreign policy, a ministry made up of 50% women, and parental leave in place of gender-specific maternity leave since 1974, including three months earmarked for fathers since earlier this year and an equality bonus for parents who choose to split the 480 days equally, Sweden may be the promised feminist land; yet choosing the longer-term stay-at-home route comes with a huge loss of earnings as that second disposable salary is lost. Moreover, crucially, I have yet to stop receiving messages on an all too frequent basis from friends who have had enough, who just can’t make emotional ends meet, who are burning the candle at so many ends they don’t even know what’s up anymore.
Institutionalisation critics, meanwhile, are mostly concerned with the failing confidence of parents; Sweden’s childcare culture has resulted in a generation of parents who think that they can’t keep their children at home during the summer holidays because they simply don’t trust their own ability to entertain and challenge them. When siblings come into the world, children in Sweden are entitled to between 15 and 30 hours in crèche per week, something that’s been heavily questioned: why would parents send their children away when they’re at home?
A quick recap: we feed parents an endless diet of academically proven ways in which they are most likely failing their children, and then we blame the childcare system for making them doubt their parental ability.
The feminist elephant in the room is of course unpaid labour: the emotional labour that pushes mothers working outside of the home over the edge, and the housework and childcare work that is stubbornly unseen, unpaid and simultaneously always criticised. Because all these critics have grand ideas about what children need, but no one’s asking how their mothers* are doing. Don’t get me wrong: the last thing I want is to play into the rhetoric that poses that happy mothers have happy babies, as if having a bad day or struggling sometimes is somehow a failure. But the chirpy ‘getting mothers back into the workforce’ spiel is starting to sound a bit tired. We’ve been working all along – and that work won’t go away just because society refuses to value it.
So what does a truly feminist childcare model look like? A good first step might be one that doesn’t tell parents that their most important job in this world is to be productive in the sense of contributing to economic growth; one of flexibility and lack of judgement, one that levels the playing field not just in a financial sense but also when it comes to equality of choice and wellbeing. And a feminist media? Alas, it’s a long road ahead.
*And yes, to be clear: I do mean mothers, not parents. A close friend who became a father recently remarked when returning from a stroll with his baby daughter in the sling how easy it is to be celebrated as a super dad, what with all the smiles and encouraging comments. I’ve yet to meet a mother who feels quite that loved and supported by the general public. Also, refer again to the Christmas commercials. I rest my case.