Counting the real cost of child care

It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave.

It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave.

The landscape of motherhood has changed significantly since the 1970s. Feminism and contraceptives have given us greater choice over when and how many children we will have (if at all), and yet the dilemma of what to do with those children once they are here is still firmly rooted in dated ideals of what constitutes good caring.

One of the key election issues this year will be the current national childcare crisis. A staggering 180 staff leave the sector each week due to low wages, while at the other end, parents have faced fee increases of up to 17% since August 2010. While the Gillard government has introduced initiatives to raise the quality of care delivered, they have not yet determined how (or if) they will pay for the improved care. Child carers are paid as little as $18.58 per hour. The guy who stacks the baked bean cans at your local supermarket earns more than the person caring for your child.

If Australia is to increase the female work participation rate, the government needs to remove the boundaries that stop women from going back to work. While sorting out the childcare industry is vital, so too is the need to change our society’s expectations of who will deliver this care, in particular this idea that a woman is ‘supposed to be the carer’. Perhaps in real life it’s not stated in such obvious terms, it’s more of an assumption that has largely escaped public query. Stay-at-home-mothering is convenient for everyone really, except where the woman has a life or ambitions outside of the home. If she does, her situation is articulated as an ugly choice between her own needs vs. her children’s. If we could stretch our minds a little wider, perhaps we could imagine a world where women can have a life outside of the home, the kids can be attended to by a loving carer (relative or professional) and through everyone’s needs being met, we all feel valued.

It’s illegal in most Australian states to leave a child aged under 12 alone, even in the car while you pop into the supermarket to grab some milk. Putting this into perspective, someone is going to be responsible for that child for 12 years – if not caring for them directly, then arranging their care, monitoring their care, and finding a way to pay for it all. This someone is virtually by default, the mum. Even once children reach school age, every 10 weeks school holiday care has to be arranged, not to mention the 6 to 8 weeks children spend on summer holidays. It’s a wonder many women return to work at all because the gulf between working hours and school hours is so wide.

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In many families the stay-at-home-mum arrangement is a by-product of the breastfeeding relationship. Maternal bonds might have greater opportunity to develop in the first year, but this should neither tie women to the role of primary carer forever more, nor should it absolve men of caring duties.

Jessica Valenti raises the idea that men are still largely regarded as ‘babysitters’, who step in and step out in order to ‘help out’ around the house, a view legitimised by the 2010 US Census which noted that any parenting performed by a father was ‘care’, whereas the mother’s parenting contribution (the ‘designated parent’) was not counted at all.

This gendered division of care is a disservice to men, who are capable of caring for children just as adequately as women. It also preserves this idea that kids need their mothers on tap; beyond the period of early infancy and breastfeeding, I would argue anyone with loving regard for that child could attend to their needs.

In her book Why Have Kids? Valenti notes that even progressive young men go into partnerships with the expectation that when they have children, their partner will shoulder the weight of the caring duties. Woman are literally left holding the baby, right up until that baby is 12 years old.

A girlfriend recently asked her husband what he thought they should do about their youngest child’s care (at age 2, the child is 2 years away from preschool). His answer was “Whatever you think is best”. Childcare is a topic on which men are barely expected to have an opinion; this mindset is as antiquated as the idea that a woman would defer all financial decisions to her husband.

This notion of what we’re ‘supposed to do’ keeps women at home long after the baby has been weaned. ‘Supposed to’ keeps us home when we want to return to work, and it muddies our future prospects because we risk losing our currency in the employment market, either by taking us out of the workforce altogether or putting our career ‘on the bench’ as a part-time worker.

Scandinavian countries lead the way in women’s workplace participation (in Denmark, 86% of mothers return to work, and in Sweden, more than 70%), I daresay because their care systems are built for this new parenting landscape where both sexes are acknowledged as having caring responsibilities and the boundaries of work, home and care are marked out with this in mind.

It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave. We’re very grateful for the leave, but there is so much more that needs addressing.

If we all begin to publicly acknowledge the cost of caring to families, perhaps it will do more to raise the value of the caring previously and currently provided by (mostly) woman and (some) men across the country. The stay-at-home mum is virtually extinct in Sweden because there are no barriers preventing women from returning to work. Let’s hope that if Australia ever reaches their levels of female workplace participation, the stay-at-home mum’s memory is not erased for all those woman hours were not contributed in vain.

77 comments

  • The stay at home mum is not virtually extinct in Sweden. Scandinavian countries eventually worked out that providing high quality child care for babies and toddlers demanded such small ratios of kids to carers that it was more economical to assist parents to stay at home. Those "parents" are overwhelmingly women. Most women are stay at home mothers at the beginning of their children's lives. Scandanavian countries also have the most gender concentrated work forces of any western nations, ie the concentration of women in teaching, nursing and other caring professions is incredibly high.

    Commenter
    Children first
    Date and time
    February 11, 2013, 8:23AM
    • +1 Children first

      The Swedes also worked out that most mothers actually want to care for their own babies and forcing them back to work for financial reasons isn't good for the mother-infant relationship, family life, or the wider society. But, as Karen points out, they recognized that many fathers want to care for their infants as well.

      In Sweden, parents of newborns receive 480 days (about 14 months) paid leave which must be claimed before the child is 8. Three months is set aside for the mother, 3 for the father, with the rest shared between them. That means huge flexibility for family life, whether the mother and father stay at home for the full first 14 months of their baby's life, or whether they work part-time after the first however months or first year, receiving the remainder of their paid leave on top of that.

      http://www.sweden.se/eng/Home/Society/Child-care/

      In addition, their whole business culture is different to ours. They're far more progressive, with their business structures tending to be flat and consensual rather than hierarchical and authoritarian as ours are. Also, they're just far more flexible, realistic, and caring about the well-being of their citizens, recognizing that this starts with family life, and so their work-life balance is much healthier. They work to live, not live to work.

      No system is perfect and there are always individuals and groups of individuals who don't care about society as a whole and only care about their own self-interest, but on the whole, the Swedes have social and economic structures in place to support what they do. Australia, as yet, does not. Our society and political parties aren't even at the stage of realising that a ratio of one carer to 4 infants is inadequate. We're years behind the Scandinavians.

      Commenter
      Think
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:11PM
    • I'm assuming this is what you've heard/read. My Scandinavian friends are scandalised at how 1950s the genders are here: one bloke went to pick up his kid from childcare & was non-plused at the total absence of men turning up. In Sweden, he says men and women consider child responsibilities as equal. Here, women get lumped with it.

      I am always amused when young women tell me "I'm going to take a year off with the baby, then my husband is". I have yet to see ONE male do it, apart from my husband who actually does see us as equals. When the time arrives, there's always an excuse: my training is nearly complete, I earn more, etc.. The thing holding women back in Australia's workforce is the attitude of men.

      I was told by senior supervisors, all male, that I should be home with my kids like their wives, that I should have had longer on maternity leave so they could replace me, etc.. Men are generally very sexist in Australia. They are happy to leave care of kids to women because they can, many aided & abetted by women who are lazy/infantile & don't want to work.

      Commenter
      Carmine
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:18PM
    • @ Carmine I agreed with you wholeheartedly up to your last few words. Women who stay home with children could hardly be called lazy or infantile.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 1:50PM
    • @Carmine

      Though fathers in Scandinavia take more responsibility in childcare, the majority of leave is still taken by mothers for infants. Once back at work, you're right, the fathers play a much greater role than fathers in Australia, mostly due to more enlightened gender relations and business structure.

      I agree with Rachael, though. Slagging off at mothers who want to care for their own children for longer is hardly helpful. Why is a woman lazy when she cares for her own children, but a woman who is paid to care for someone else's isn't? Such an attitude is just a symptom of social manipulation, a fear that women will be dragged back to the 1950s domestic slavery if we don't all ditch our babies and go into full-time work, and a denial of a deep bond that a great many women feel with their young children. There is a middle way so that mothers, fathers, and babies/toddlers can have what they need. Really we need to be pushing for the kind of parental leave the Swedes have.

      Commenter
      Think
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 3:36PM
  • You've absolutely hit the nail on the head. The childcare debate won't move forward until men are fully included in the conversation.

    Watch what happens as we move towards the election and 'women's issues' like childcare are debated daily with barely a mention of the fathers.

    Commenter
    Mez
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    February 11, 2013, 8:27AM
    • What is your vision for how these public conversations including men would go?

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 11:05AM
    • for a start, we could have equality when it comes to requesting flexible leave. Personally i have been asked why my wife cant pick up children from school when requesting 1 afternoon working from home per week, a request that was denied whilst mothers in the same organisation are given flexible leave.

      I am now looking at leaving for a more flexible workplace but should i be made to change jobs just becuase i want a small role in raising my children and im male.

      Commenter
      jb
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:14PM
    • I'd like to stop labelling things like this as 'women's issues' for a start. As long as we keep talking about how 'women' are going to get back to work and how 'women' are going to juggle the kids, we'll get absolutely nowhere ... and it would have been nice if this article had run in SMH instead of the female-focused Daily Life.

      Give the dads a chance to balance work and family and perhaps take on part-time work more often and we might be surprised what comes out of it.

      Commenter
      Mez
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:22PM
    • Go for it jb! You're exactly what I'm talking about. I suspect there are A LOT of dads out there like you. Find a more flexible employer so that others can follow suit and your situation becomes more the norm than the exception.

      Commenter
      Mez
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:26PM

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