Sunday, March 20, 2005

Home Alone

Initially I assumed that full-time mums who put their toddlers into day care could be found only in suburbs where $1million won't buy you much more than a run-down semi.

I thought that a stay-at-home neighbour who off-loaded her son into day care several days a week from the age of two was a wealthy aberration.

Then I saw the signs of an emerging trend. Several friends and acquaintances who left the workforce after having a second or third child not only kept their older children in formal care - some enrolled their babies (usually after they turned one) as well.

Indeed, it's standard practice (at least among my middle-class peers) for women who go on maternity leave with a second child to keep the older child in part-time care so they can have time alone with the newborn.

This year, a relative - a committed and capable homemaker who lives in the outer western suburbs of Sydney - put her second daughter, aged two, into a long-daycare centre. Her older daughter started at the same centre when she was two and both sisters spend three days a week there.

From the inner city to the outer suburbs, a silent revolution is under way, not just in relation to how our society cares for children but in regard to a new-found sense of entitlement among traditional homemakers.

While full-time working mothers used to talk (somewhat unconvincingly) of making "quality time" for their kids, full-time mothers are now making quality time for themselves.

Far from seeing working women as neglecting their children by putting them in child care, full-time mothers want a slice of the action.

The most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (released in 2002), show that an extraordinarily high percentage of Australian parents are using formal child care for non-work-related reasons. The survey revealed that only about half the children in long-daycare centres were there because both parents worked; just less than 20 per cent were placed there for "personal reasons"; and almost one-third were enrolled because the parents considered it beneficial for the child.

When it came to family day care - where up to five children are looked after in a carer's home - about 60per cent of clients were working parents; 20per cent had their kids in such care because they thought it benefited the child; and a further 20 per cent used such care for personal reasons.

It is not widely realised that under policies introduced by the Howard Government, non-working women can claim 20 hours of childcare benefit a week - the equivalent of two long days. Working mothers can claim up to 50 hours, but most employed women with preschool children work three days a week or less. This means that often the children of working mothers are not spending that much longer in day care than the children of full-time mothers.

Yet the work-family debate is still polarised and still conjures images of the forgotten homemaker whose children are grafted to her hip. (Just look at Lynette, a mother of four and the most desperate of the Desperate Housewives from the hugely popular television drama.)

The traditional homemaker is still usually seen in opposition to the go-getting careerist, juggling the baby formula and mobile phone as she abandons her infant to the haphazard care of strangers in a long-daycare centre.

Working mothers often describe how their jobs give them a sense of independence and time out from the unceasing demands of parenting. For the first time in history, scores of non-working mothers are demanding substantial time away from their children for similar reasons. (I also suspect that many homemakers outsource their children for a couple of days a week because their husbands and partners still take a minimalist approach to housework and child rearing.)

Curiously, this radical trend has been little documented, probably because it would upend time-honoured ideas about traditional mothering and self-sacrifice - ideas that still hold fast in our political culture.

Australia is one of very few developed nations that lacks a universal paid maternity leave scheme because the federal Government feels this would discriminate against stay-at-home mums. Would that include the tens of thousands of full-time mums now claiming childcare benefit?

Is the growing enthusiasm for child care by homemakers freighted with public policy implications? Absolutely. Before long, the Government and the community will need to decide whether subsidised child care for non-working parents is a permanent perk or unsustainable rort.

Certainly, in inner-city areas, it is not uncommon for long-daycare centres to have waiting lists that run into the hundreds.

Daycare centres are meant to prioritise employed parents, but the work test seems to be only loosely enforced - no one has ever asked me for evidence of my employment.

The hard reality is that working parents are competing against single-income and unemployed families for extremely limited daycare places. When I asked a spokeswoman for Family and Community Services Minister Kay Patterson whether non-working parents' access to day care might need to be restricted, she demurred and blamed the shortage of places on real estate.

She said that in inner-city areas where land costs and rents are high, few daycare operators can afford to open large centres - even when demand is palpable. (There is some evidence that in outer suburban areas, where land is cheaper, there is an oversupply of childcare centres.)

This is the same Government that is talking about forcing sole parents - mostly women - to return to the workforce once their children are at school. To do that, sole parents will need scarce before and after-school care places and, in some cases, long-daycare for their younger children - places that may already be taken by the children of full-time mums.



Blogger No_Newz said...

Here in the states we have a thing called latchkey kids. The children come home to an empty house from school and care for themselves because their parents are working or out making time for themselves. The law in my state says when they are 12, they no longer need adult supervision. As a parent with a 12 year old, I think they (at least mine) need more supervision at this age more than ever. But I'm an old fashioned chick. I stayed home with my kids until they were in school full time, working only late night shifts, while their dad was home or working from home, taking care of them at the same time. I've never really been a fan of daycare centers and know many "have" to use them. For me though, I'm selfish and didn't want to miss a moment of my kids growing up. Maybe they will have less material things as a result but too bad, I said so!

1:13 AM  
Blogger Dewdrop said...

I'm from England, and have been a part time worker since having my three children. I had approximately 9 months maternity leave after each child was born, and then went back 3 days a week. I work term times only and my husband and I work around the school hours so I can take them and he can pick them up on the days I am working. We are lucky are guess, and have managed without having to use paid childcare centres. My parents helped an awful lot when my kids were very small too, at times before my kids all went to school.
I am not a fan of childcare centres, and I'm old fashioned I suppose and believe in 'your child, your responsibility', i.e. the mum and dad should be the main childcarers. Of course, that is only MY opinion. Full-time mums using childcare centres? I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I guess the mums need a break, and perhaps their partners don't pull their own weight. But I think something like that is a sad inditement (sp?) on society.

5:56 AM  
Blogger gemmak said...

I'm not sure of the stats here in the UK but it would appear that the few places there are, are taken by those who can afford to pay but don't necessarily need the place and those that need the facility can't afford the places.....despite our gov't encouraging parents, particularly lone parents, back to work!! Uh?

7:43 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

TY Ladies your opinions are very much appreciated :)

I tried not to put forward my personal opinion in the article and just state what the facts are.
My own personal opinion doesn't differ to any of you. However, my own story...because "A" is an only child, i really thought it would be to her benefit socially wise, to attend 10 hrs a week, which was 2 half days. Yes, i was at home i didn't work, hubby was working nightshift and sleeping during the day. "A" was 3 when i first put her in and i continued it for 2 years. If i thought for one minute she didn't like it i'd have pulled her out. Let me stress, i didn't do it for me....i did it purely because of the only child syndrome.( which i believe is bullshit but that's another blog..LOL )
I am also old fashioned, i beleieve that if circumstances allow then you need to be home when your kids get home. I am in a fortunate situation that i can work from home when i am not in court, and i am able to pick "A" up from school, which gives us time to chat about her day etc.

BTW...Dewdrop, Welcome!!! :)

10:21 AM  
Blogger English Professor said...

Fascinating post, Michelle. Here in the states, we're used to Mother's Day Out, which is often run by a church and offers child care Tuesday/Thursday for four or five hours a day. I used it the last two semesters of finishing my master's degree--it was just the right length of time to get to campus, go to my classes, and get back. But I waited until my daughter started first grade to return for my doctorate.

I understand that some moms want off one short day a week to buy groceries, have their hair cut, eat lunch with an adult, etc. But non-working moms leaving their kids in regular daycare? Unbelievable to me.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

EP ~ TY :) Yes, i agree.

It's funny, i don't know the States are in the same trend as us here, but women these days are really not interested in having children. I know so many young women in their mid to late 20's extremely career, and money oriented, all not interested in having kids.
I know i was 32 when i had "A", but i always knew i wanted to have a child....even when i was young.
In Australia our birth rate has fallen from 3.60 kids per family in 1970 to 1.3 in 2004.

4:36 PM  
Blogger riskybiz said...

Here in Canada we don't have universal daycare, but they do in Quebec.
In the last federal budget the government set some money aside to get the universal daycare program set up.
What the government didn't do was offer tax breaks to single income families. I think that it is wrong!
My own situation, when my wife was off maternity leave, I reduced and altered my work schedule. This enabled my son to be with one of his parents most of the time. I enjoyed all of my time with him and it did not hurt my "career" one bit.
I was a trucker then as I am now.

12:28 PM  

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