WHO is best placed to bring up your child? You, or the possibly transient, probably underpaid, young, and not as naturally qualified staff of a daycare centre?
This is the question raised by a recent report from Unicef on the state of childcare in 25 developed countries. For the first time in centuries, it notes, the majority of parents in the developed world are farming out the care of their children to paid workers. At the same time, neuroscientific research shows that the architecture of the brain is formed largely through the interactions of the early years; love, it turns out, is as important for intellectual as for emotional development.
So this mothering thing that my generation was taught to disdain as something we could fit in round our economically valuable, high-status, real work proves to be not such a side issue after all.
Women have always known this secretly, of course. When we were on maternity leave, or doing more of the childcare, we could see how much social capital was created by meeting other parents hanging around at school gates.
This awkward truth remains the great unspoken issue of the childcare debate. Feminists don’t particularly want to face it publicly because it plays into the hands of reactionaries. Unfortunately, there’s another unpalatable reality, in conflict with that one: being with children all the time can be boring, draining and frustrating. Most women work not only because they couldn’t otherwise manage financially, but also because work offers self-esteem, sociability, power and dignity. The trouble with paid childcare is that it lets men off the hook. Women have to pay for childcare because most men aren’t prepared to cut back their hours to do enough of the parenting.
The countries doing best in UnicefÂ’s assessment are those with the most social and gender equality – Sweden and Iceland. In the UK, the debate about whether to opt for paid childcare, in what form, and how much of it, takes place against a background of growing inequality, a winner-takes-all society where not to be constantly available on your BlackBerry is not to have a proper career. The rewards for work of often opaque value, certainly compared to raising a child, can be enormous. Extended parental leave, job security and part-time employment are for wimps.
Many women look at the pay gap, at their own inclination to balance, at the impossibility of two parents being distracted most of the time, and choose to work part-time, or at any rate with less zealotry. And most parents manage to cobble something together that more or less works. (The Unicef report is flawed in not taking into account informal, home-based, or neighbourhood childcare – grandparents, child minders, au pairs.)
Parents may feel guilty about how much of their children’s upbringing they delegate to others, but the dangerous experiment that Unicef implies we are embarked upon is actually being pursued for the most part with love and concern for the balance of everyone’s interests. Which is not to say that the circumstances in which the decisions are being made are remotely ideal.
It is those who aren’t in a position to make decisions with whom we should really be concerned. One reason Britain figured so poorly on Unicef’s rankings is that there are still three million children living in poverty here. Many are clustered in places where the notion of family itself seems to have collapsed. Here it is not a choice of whether both parents have serious jobs, because there’s only one parent and no work.
These families feature a desire to do the best by children, as do families everywhere, but have little ballast in terms of work or structure to lives. A child from the most disadvantaged five per cent of families is 100 times more likely to have multiple problems at the age of 15 than a child from the most affluent 50 per cent of families. Nursery care can be invaluable here. The Unicef report acknowledges that daycare can improve linguistic and social development and help break the cycle of deprivation.
If you wanted to design an ideal childcare strategy, you wouldn’t start from here. You’d have to go much further back, to gender parity and social equality, and an economy that was designed to serve those ideals, not ride roughshod over them.