Child-care dinosaurs’ time is past

Dated views about women and work are deservedly dying out.

What’s happening in cultural politics? All we find out is filtered through the eyes and ears of people whose formative experiences occurred at least 20 years ago. They seem to have grown conservative and dull, and are frightened of new ideas. A gulf has opened between what they are saying and what younger people are thinking.

Mark Davis, Gangland (Allen & Unwin, 1997)

``WHY don’t they all shut up already?’’ wonders a friend as the papers erupt again with the familiar anti-working woman/anti-child-care diatribes of the previous generation. While the impetus for these flare-ups varies, the parameters and content of the debate never change.

The same old questions about women, work and the care of children are being asked and answered by the same old people: ageing baby-boom journalists and academics who raised their young families in the 1970s and ‘80s on the basis of advice they received from the child-development ``experts’’ of the ’50s.

These child-care dinosaurs share a number of assumptions and values. They assume that the care middle-class mothers give their kids is the ``gold standard‘’ and thus all middle-class mothers should provide all of the care for their children, especially those under five. Because mothers ``should’’ be caring for their children, dinosaur thinking proceeds, they are the ones that ``leave them‘’ in child care and are consequently responsible for the ``consequences’’.

These assumptions and values lead the dinosaurs to keep asking the same questions they’ve been asking since the late 1960s: should women/mothers work?

Of course, back in the 21st century, few members of Gen X and Gen Y – those currently considering parenthood or raising young children – can relate to these assumptions and values, or the questions they generate. As recent large-scale, longitudinal studies of Australian women and my own research demonstrate, younger women assume the role of work in their life and value paid employment as an important source of identity and independence.

In contrast with their baby-boomer predecessors, increasing numbers of young men are comfortable with women’s educational achievements and supportive of their career aspirations. For most of them, the question ``should women/mothers work?’’ is laughable and the assumption that only a child’s mother is capable of providing excellent care is dubious.

Indeed, recent evidence suggests a considerable number of young men, possibly up to a third, want to be and believe they should be active fathers: sharing the work of breadwinning and the hands-on work of caring for children with their partners. In such relationships, both parents make, and share responsibility for, decisions to share the care of their children with one another and with granny and/or a paid carer.

Because many Gen Xers and Yers assume both parents do and should engage in paid employment and share responsibility for child care, the questions they’d like to see asked and answered revolve around the proper division of work and care responsibilities. How should parents divide these tasks between themselves? What role should the state and/or employers play in sharing the responsibility for children, either directly or through policies and practices that help parents balance work and family responsibilities?

Such debates are not without precedent. Indeed, countries (such as Swede and the GDR) that assume – rather than contest – women’s involvement in paid employment ask them regularly, although the answers vary considerably.

While the child-care dinosaurs have and will continue to strangle such debates, their reign is nearly over. The boomers, those propagating the current paradigm and those buying into it, are ageing. In seven to 10 years, the last of their kids will have fled the nest and concerns about superannuation, aged-care beds and pensioner concessions will be uppermost in their minds.

It is simply inconceivable that a generation on the cusp of retirement, clutching dog-eared copies of W.D.Winnicott’s 1957 tome on child development, will continue to muster authority in debates about the having and raising of young children. Not just because their ideologies are so far past their use-by date, but because many in the coming generation of prospective and actual parents will have spent a fair bit of their childhood in centre-based care or the care of someone other than their mothers. They simply won’t be vulnerable in the same way as were their parents to dinosaur scare-mongering about the damage caused to kids by non-maternal care.

My advice to those of the current generation and the next, who have been alternately aggravated and bored by the latest rounds of the child-care ``debate’’, is to hang in there: we are listening to the death throes of the child-care dinosaurs.

Don’t expect it to be quick or quiet. Surely the dying of the giant lizards rarely was. But be prepared with questions, ideas and solutions for when all has finally gone quiet. The debate has ossified for far too long; we’ve got a lot of work to do.