Thursday, July 9, 2009

Further thoughts on childcare

I can see this discussion on childcare is going to be an ongoing one but it is such an integral part of my thinking and my future, and ultimately, and more importantly, of Phoebe's thinking and future, that there is no ignoring it. Surely, after the decision to have a baby in the first place, it is the single most important decision I will make during the early years of her life. And, given how important we now know those early years to be to the emotional and intellectual growth and development of a child, it may well be the most important decision I make on her behalf ever, one that could have long-reaching effects if I make the wrong, or conversely the right, decision.

I have just started reading a book called "Motherhood: How should we care for our children?" by Anne Manne. It is a post-feminist look at the incongruities between the feminist promise that women can have it all and the reality of choice between a career and motherhood. Manne asks why do women have to choose between "staying at home and suffering reduced career opportunities" or returning to work and relying on an "inadequate childcare system"? Does our society really respect the needs of our children? At least I think that's what it's about. I've only read the prologue.

Apart from the retrospective slant and Manne's voice of experience, I felt like I could have written the prologue. Well, perhaps the fact that it is retrospective and written from experience by definition means that I couldn't have written it. Let's just say this book spoke to me. Well, the prologue did.

Take, for example, the following paragraph:
"Before I became pregnant with my first child I thought about childcare as a kind of abstraction. I had not the slightest understanding of how it would affect a child, but I did have a strong sense of what it might mean for women in realising their legitimate aspirations in the wider world."
My thoughts exactly, only voiced somewhat more eloquently than I might have put it. I probably would have said something like:
"Before Phoebe was born I just thought, 'oh yeah, I'll sort out some childcare. It'd be nice if the grandparents could help us out with that but they can't so we'll just put the baby into a daycare centre. It'll be nice and social. It'll be good for it [I didn't know the sex, remember?]. Plenty of other families do it and they're all fine. Then I'll go back to work. Easy.' But since having her, getting to know her, being around her, reading about babies and how they develop, forming my own ideas on how to raise her and introduce her to the world, I am beginning to wonder if daycare is actually the right choice for us. I want her to have undivided attention until she's a bit older. I am now more convinced than ever that the way to raise a happy, secure, independent and social child is to give them as much love and attention as they need in their first months and years of life."
Or, as Manne puts it:
"What had seemed a reasonable course of action before birth ... now seemed unthinkable in relation to this tiny vulnerable human being that both of us as parents spent so long, and with such intensity, trying to "read", to understand the language of gesture, to find what things or actions soothed her or made her happy."

So, although I will still look at some other daycare centres that have been recommended to me, I have now started to consider other options, such as family daycare. However, Manne then goes to on to talk of her own "bodily anguish" in being separated from her daughter for half a day a week whilst working, even though her daughter was in the care of her father during this time. She talks of her search for decent childcare for her baby, from daycare centres who confined children to cots and playpens or left them to cry, to family daycare where young children gleefully yelled "mummy, mummy" whenever the doorbell rang, and then suffered the inevitable disappointment that came with the realisation that it wasn't their mother. She maintains that the older the child, the better they coped with being separated from their parents for such long stretches of time.

Manne talks about separation anxiety, which generally affects children from the age of six or seven months when they first become aware of how important their mother (or father) is to their wellbeing, to around 18-24 months when they become more independent. She says to be separated from their parents for long periods of time causes grief in a baby. The intensity of love that a child feels for its parents can't be underestimated and a baby of less than two years old can't be expected to understand that their mother will collect them in eight hours. Eight hours is an inordinate length of time to a baby. It may seem like forever. Imagine how you would feel if you were separated from your lover for an indefinite period of time. You don't know that person has gone and for all you know you may never see them again. Sure, you have friends who can help you take your mind off things, entertain you for a while, but will they replace the person you have lost? Is this what daycare is like for a baby? Perhaps not, but what if it is?

A child's journey towards independence is a natural progression and can't be rushed and in fact Manne believes that those children who aren't pushed go on to become more independent later, probably because they feel secure. I know that I felt quite safe moving to Australia six years ago because I had a safe and loving family to return to in England. If my parents had sent me here against my will it would have been a very different story.

She also talks about the practicalities of someone else spending such a large proportion of time with your child and this was one of the things that struck me when I visited what I shall now refer to as The Hellhole on Monday. I want Phoebe to see the world through my eyes, and through Toby's eyes, in particular Toby's eyes actually as he has a childlike enthusiastic view of the world (unless we're talking about global politics or economics). I want her to spend days in the park, at the beach, in the garden. I want her to look through Toby's vegetable patch for the latest snowpea (something her three year old cousin loves to do when she visits), to pet and play with the cats, to talk and read with her mammy. (Another quote that reached out to me was "books are not essential in everyone's life, but they are in mine".)

I don't want her watching hours and hours of television. I don't want her to stop asking for what she wants or needs because she isn't listened to. I want her to fall asleep on my lap when she's feeling particularly needy, to have quiet time in her bedroom away from other people. As Manne points out childcare, unless it's the very elite form of a nanny who comes to you, does not afford you the luxury of privacy. I had never even thought of that. I know it's like school and then work. I know that life is about learning to get along with people you might not normally choose to spend time with but when you're one year old, or younger? These are precious years for our babies, ones that they will never have back. Do we really want them to grow up so quickly?

I know I was lucky to have a mother who stayed at home with us. In the '70s and '80s it was much more common but even then some of my schoolmates had mothers who worked. But now I am beginning to really appreciate just how lucky I was and I want the same for my own children. It's such a short amount of time really. I don't intend to be a stay at home mum forever. I can imagine being a lot happier putting Phoebe into childcare when she's nearer two years old but will I still have a job? Two years is nothing to me but it's everything to Phoebe and it could make such a difference to her development. Are two years of child-rearing worth losing my job over? Is my job worth missing out on Phoebe's formative years and giving her the best start that I can? What will really matter in ten or twenty years time? What will be my most significant contribution to the world? I think we all know the answers to these questions.

Perhaps I should become a professional blogger. I could get friends to babysit Phoebe for half a day at a time in return for looking after their kids. I am quite sure that if I took my time over it, rather than just bashing out a blog post in twenty minutes whilst Phoebe is sleeping, I could be quite a good writer. I just need to figure out how to make money from it.

Manne says "the experience of becoming a parent is a revelation of what is deepest in us, of our humanness and our mortality." I couldn't agree more.

Post script: I visited another childcare centre today and feel much better about things. The room where the babies sleep was bigger and nicer. When you first walk in there's a huge space with carpet rugs, mats, cushions and toys. The carer was sitting on the floor with two of the babies. Another baby was sitting on her own with a book, seemingly quite happily. The kitchen area was separate from the change area and all seemed very clean and nice. The director showed me round and was a lovely lady. She gave me some paperwork to take away. None of this "just keep calling and when there's a vacancy we'll give you some stuff to look at." It probably helped that we arrived at the end of the day after some of the babies had already left, whereas with the other place we obviously arrived at feeding time (which makes it sound like a zoo). I spoke to the director about routine and she was quite happy for Phoebe not to be in one until she's a bit older (18-24 months). Although I'm still not convinced daycare is the right thing to do, especially for five days of the week, I do feel a lot better about things. Have another couple to look at next week or when we get back.

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