Childcare is a matter that greatly affects parents and employers – the main cogs in our societal moneymaking machine. Childcare benefits and tax deductions are offered as enticements but rarely are the needs of children considered by policymakers. A focus on numbers, timeframes and dollars motivate the big decisions. Childcare is big business and is currently influencing almost all childhoods in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that 90 percent of children under five currently use some form of childcare. Tens of thousands of Australian children are in formal childcare for more than 45 hours a week.
Natural parenting is an ideology, not a dogma. It is about instinctively raising our young, and making informed decisions. Does childcare compromise or compliment our conscious parenting ideals? Are those who perceive theirs to be a natural parenting style more protective than most other parents? In compiling this article I sought the opinions of around twenty mothers of babies and young children.
"While I do not doubt that they are capable of taking care of an infant, I doubt their ability to care for my infant the way I would like. I was sexually abused over a period of 2.5 years by a family friend who babysat myself and my younger sister every second weekend when our Mum worked the Saturday shift. So, you can probably tell I have some trust issues. I honestly believe I am the only one who can protect my child’s innocence." Bree feels compromised every time she leaves her little boy with another adult. Her instincts tell her to hold him close, but our modern society and her own circumstances require that they sometimes be apart. If mother and son are most content when they are together, shouldn’t it be that they have enough assistance so this can be their reality?
"I know that my children would be far less happy if they were with me all the time. I can’t give myself to them the way other mothers can. So my compromise is to give them someone who will care for them with love and joy. If they weren’t happy with the arrangement, they wouldn’t have to go. I’d have to make changes within myself so that I could provide what they need." Bronnie, a mother of three, recognises that parenting can be a struggle. She deals with this by sending her preschoolers into a home with a carer where they are treated like her grandkids, and explains that it’s exciting and fun being at her place. Many parents lament that such quality care doesn’t exist for them. They share Bronnie’s feelings of inadequacy in raising their children without support.
Kathi parents in isolation from family, and has used a creche, centre and a Montessori school. "I don’t think any model of care is better or worse as such. I’ve only had good experiences, but I’ve also trusted my instincts and done a lot of looking around and asking questions before making decisions. Kathi’s boys are older and in care for short periods. She is often nearby and her boys are usually together in care."
"She’s just like a grandma, only much more capable." Joanne has both positive and negative experiences to share about her children’s varied childcare arrangements. In contrast to this fond description of a local day-carer she describes a situation in a centre. I stayed in the courtyard one day to watch him settle in and was dismayed to witness a sad scene of neglect for a very upset crying child. This experience resulted in my pulling my child out that very day after voicing my complaint with the three staff who were present at the incident, and then the Supervisor. "I don’t regret that decision one bit and would never send my child back to a daycare centre unless I was completely confident that the staff were A Grade." Joanne clarifies that natural parenting is not all or nothing – it’s a continuum that accommodates many family dynamics and practices as we all have different capacities in terms of finances, personal resources, etc.
"I chose to use a centre because I believe that with many staff members present the chances of anything happening to my son are almost non-existent. I could not feel comfortable with family daycare unless I personally knew the carer. That’s just me – paranoid-plus about my kids." Jo is a mother to three and has been pleased with her son attending one day a week at a childcare centre. An added bonus is the centre’s cloth nappy service and healthy meals for the kids.
Lisa has worked in childcare and describes that behind the scenes, it is not so pretty. She is fortunate in that her mother helps care for her young son while she studies or works. However, were she not there would I have my child in care? "Yes. Would I have my child in a childcare centre? Not on your life. I would forge more networks, and improve on the ones already in existence to create a situation where I did have people to turn to and trust. I would make changes to my routine, studying externally and working the minimum required."
Vi describes what many of us long for in our lives – extended family who love and hold our babies on our terms. "Sometimes I have felt that I am not doing my job properly because I am so frazzled and have just need some time to hit a coffee shop or wander around the mall. Right from about one week old I have had family take my kids for me. Even if they stay in the house while I nap, or take a walk by myself. I am from a very supportive natural parenting background and my family will even come over and sleep with my kids for a night."
Sophie has help from her mother and uses a parent-run play centre. "I am the main carer of my children, we don’t have a lot of money but I have chosen to be there for my children in their first years. I don’t think I could have left them when they were little. It is such a precious and important time and I want to be the main influence in their lives." Mel agrees. "I figure if you have children, you should have them in your care a majority of the time unless absolutely necessary. I have rarely felt a need to escape from my children." She is pleased to have created a lifestyle that enables their family to be together most of the time. "Childcare centres are not natural parenting, in my opinion. Even if they use cloth nappies and feed the children an excellent diet, it doesn’t make up for the attachment a child feels towards parents who are with them all the time. I don’t believe that sending young children to childcare fits in with natural parenting ideals."
With economic pressures forcing more mothers into the workforce, the quest for reliable care can cause heartache. Carol believes that a child is better off with their mum, dad or other close person, but does feel positive about her daughter’s childcare arrangements. "She is there three days a week and currently loves it. Of course there are down sides. They definitely struggled with the breastfeeding concept and were a bit concerned about the fact that I refused to let my daughter cry herself to sleep. She was bullied at the centre and was quite traumatised by it. However I did feel that the staff handled it well."
"Every time I sought childcare for my kids I came to a dead end. All the available options potentially compromised my child’s safety or attachment. We ended up reorganising family life in order to meet everyone’s needs", Linda explains. "My need to take classes or sip coffee to escape the demands of motherhood was met by making time at home more interesting for all of us. When the budget was tight and I considered returning to work, I again realised the need to shift things at home to ease the pressure. We won’t get these days back; I want to make the most of this time with our children."
Sif shares, "I strongly feel that childcare isn’t for under threes. Before three it is preferable that care comes from someone the child knows well or has come to know through several days spent with the said person and the parent/s. Care shouldn’t be for extended hours, 8-10 hours a day isn’t care, it’s parenting. I’ve studied this extensively and care, as it is most often done these days, is pretty harmful to kids under the age of seven and definitely harmful under the age of three. By “care” I mean outside well-known and trusted family and friends."
Sif’s claims are substantiated by research such as that done by child psychologist Oliver James. He says, “Ideally, before the age of three the child would have an exclusive minder who is emotionally responsive. It’s difficult to find a good carer, and someone who is going to stick it out with you for a long period of time. Group care is definitely not as good as one on one. You are much less likely to have the consistency that’s needed. So in theory, age three is the best age for the mother to return to work, however a lot of women would get depressed if they waited that long, and this would be far worse for the child. It depends on how much of a homebody you are.”
Oliver James seems to empathise with the child, but why this reasoning that an unhappy mother should return to work? Is there no other way to fulfil her needs, and those of her children? His final sentence puts mothering into a box. I know of many mothers who don’t like to be home and yet they’ve not sent their children to care. They’ve visited family and friends, joined playgroups, had lunch with Daddy or friends on workdays, visited the park or the beach, gone shopping or to the library, held art days or music sessions at home – whatever it took to stay sane in those first years. That’s not to say that mothers need to single-handedly raise their children…
It takes a village to raise a child.
Parents need to talk about building communities, creating a tribe (a la The Continuum Concept) and assisting one another. It is important to seek and offer more holistic childcare options. Studies show that childcare may not be what’s best for the child, but the assumption remains that it’s what parents need. I question whether mainstream childcare options are either parent-friendly or family-friendly?
Many of the mothers lamented that a more natural form of childcare doesn’t exist for many parents in our society. Extended family relationships differ to days gone by, and to traditional cultures. Everyone is so busy or on a very different path. Those who do have a network of friends may not know how to approach the idea of reciprocal childcare. Instructions to set up a Babysitting Club are below. We were once part of one such club; before it dissolved when members moved away or children started school, freeing their mothers for daytime appointments and employment. As a home-educating parent this left a gap in my support network that I found hard to fill. Our solution to meeting our childcare needs for several years was for my husband to alter his work commitments and be available to parent our children for more hours each week.
Susan explained, "I can see myself using (part-time or occasional) childcare in the coming years as my need for support grows." It is this lack of help that Melinda spoke of so poignantly. "All mothers need support. If using some form of care stops people from hurting their children because they are in the grips of extreme fatigue, loneliness or pain, then I believe we are a very lucky society to have this option available to those of us who need it. What we really need to do is hold compassion in our hearts for what it is to be a mother – a very socially under-supported role. Some of us might be strong (or maybe just stubborn) enough to stick it out with very little support. For others this is just too much to bear without it starting to impact on our mothering ability as a whole. We all know what we’d choose in an ideal world. But with in this chronically detached society, I’m not sure that choosing to take time out from our kids can really be the very worst thing we can do to them. A sad, angry or resentful mother probably has the power to do far more damage."
Robyn explains, "I look upon Tyler attending his centre these days as more for education purposes than for childcare. As a believer in the Montessori philosophy, I think it’s in our best interests that he attends formal education as they have the background and equipment to teach him properly." Robyn questioned other parents about the right age to commence formal education and whether or not those with an aversion to childcare would go on to homeschool their children. I remember homeschooling pioneer Beverley Paine telling me about her calling to home based learning. "We didn’t want to miss a minute of her five-year-old life." I believe that many home educating parents have a natural parenting style. Perhaps this has evolved from being with their children almost all of the time or it may have been a conscious choice from the start.
Parents with children in childcare often complain about the increase in illness. A Western Australian study has shown that it is quite clear that children in care, whatever type of care, had significantly more illness, than children who weren’t in childcare at all. Dr. Anne Reade spoke to Radio National about the results of her extensive study into illness in care situations. There are also concerns about development, behaviour, social skills and academic competence of children in long daycare situations. The severity of the impact is debatable, but most studies suggest that if parents have a choice, long-term childcare isn’t the best option.
We all know what we would do in an ideal situation. All we can do however, as real parents with real children and real needs in a real world is our best. No one is asking any more than that. If childcare is required for economic or other reasons, parents can take steps to balance negative impact. Some suggestions are:
* Some names of contributors have been changed to protect privacy.
Childcare and Early Childhood Education, Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2019
Nature vs Nurture, Body + Soul, June 27, 2004. Oliver James spoke with Bronwyn McNulty.
The Health Report, Radio National - N. Swann interviewed Dr Anne Reade.
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