1. The Context for Child Care
This ought to be the best time to become a parent that there has ever been. The stream of scientific information about fetal, infant, and child development is at an all-time high and still rising. There’s more government and media interest in families, parenting, and small- child-related issues than ever before, and parents and stepparents— grandparents, too—are increasingly thoughtful about what and how they are doing.
Not everyone is interested in becoming a parent, of course, but not everyone has to. This millennium-spanning generation of women has an unprecedented amount of control over its childbearing. An active sex life and no children is socially acceptable and physiologically possible in most of the developed world, and many people opt for it. Low fertility (or no male partner) and children is not quite so easy, but assisted conception is now available in most of the Western world (though whether as a right or a big business depends on where you live) and is astonishingly widely used, often by individuals who would not have seen themselves as prospective parents a generation ago, including women past menopause and gay couples.
Throughout the postindustrial world, however, women are having fewer babies than ever before, and while mondially falling birth rates may do something to slow the overpopulation of the planet, falling birth rates in developed areas mean “aging populations” and, thirty years into the future, a real threat to economies. The 2006 Canadian census shows that the number of people over age sixty-five has gone up by almost 12 percent since 2001, while the number under age fifteen has dropped more than 2 percent in the same period. An aging population, better described as a shortage of young people, not only means that a larger proportion of the population will be retired and dependent on pensions and care arrangements that a smaller proportion of people of working age are going to have to finance; it also means fewer young people acquiring and disseminating the new skills on which employment will increasingly depend. So, in the long term, we need our populations to produce the next generation of workers, and countries that do—such as the United States, which saw a fractional increase from 64 infants per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 1996 to 66.3 in 2004—will be at an enormous advantage if it is maintained. The assumption that countries with very low birth rates can turn to migrants instead ignores the real math. If a country such as Italy continued with its current fertility rate of about 1.3 (instead of the 2.0 that would replace each couple with two offspring) for more than a generation, its labor supply would drop by about 10 million workers. It is inconceivable that Italy, or indeed any nation, could attract such a large number of employable immigrants or absorb them.
It is difficult to see a future shortage of labor as an urgent problem in countries where unemployment rates are high, as they have been, for example, in Germany and Spain. However, it is now generally realized that current unemployment comes about less because there are too many workers than because too few of the available workers have the requisite skills. Indeed, if the birth rate stayed so low that there was a catastrophic shortage of labor in thirty years, there would probably still be a high rate of unemployment among inadequately skilled workers, many of them approaching retirement age, who were no longer employable in the jobs available.
What do birth rates now and labor supplies in the future have to do with child care? The link is women’s participation in the labor market. A generation ago, the women who didn’t work outside their homes were the ones who had the most children, and that is still the case in some parts of the world. In most countries, though, that situation has now reversed so that it is countries with high rates of female employment that have higher fertility rates. In Iceland, for example, 90 percent of women are employed, and it has the highest birth rate in Europe—two children per woman. Countries that have lower rates of female employment have low fertility rates because the governments do not make it possible for mothers to work. Germany, which has a low birth rate and fewer women working, is addressing the issue with new tax breaks and state-funded welfare programs. France has instigated even more direct incentives to childbearing: not only well-paid maternity leave and some paternity leave but monetary benefits up to a child’s third birthday and a presidential medal for parents of several children!
More and more countries are announcing direct financial incentives for having an “extra” child. In Australia, there is a baby bonus of $4,133 per child, and there is soon to be a “bumper baby bonus” of $10,000 on the birth of a third or subsequent child. The governor of the Russian province of Ulyanovsky went even further, suggesting September 12 be designated a public holiday on which to conceive a baby. It was announced that on June 12, 2008, a refrigerator or television would be awarded to anyone giving birth on that day— exactly nine months later. It is not clear if this actually happened, but in Russia as a whole, Putin’s government gave vouchers worth about $8,500 (£10,500) to any woman having a second or third child.
While about 20 percent of women do not want children and 20 percent want to have children and not work outside the home, 60 percent of women want to combine the two. For individual women making decisions about their personal fertility, the key issue is often the difficulty of reconciling roles and associated images of self as a mother or as a working woman rather than the monetary cost of having a child—wages lost during time away from work and costs of caring for another family member. In a national poll of U.K. adults in 2006, 63 percent said that career pressures that made it difficult to have children were the main reason for the low birth rate, while in 2008, Harriet Harman, then deputy leader of the Labour Party in power, stressed that it is not only middle-class “career women” who feel torn between work and home: “This is a particular problem for women who are in low- paid, low-status jobs. If you’re the boss or in senior management you have choices. You don’t if you’re in a cleaning job or on a production line.”
Individual decisions are often affected, therefore, by the extent to which national policies make it possible for women who are mothers to stay connected to their workplaces, through paid maternity leave, good-quality child care, and part-time and flexible working arrangements. The long-term effect on a country’s fertility is very limited, however, because even the most mother-friendly employment package is not going to induce a woman to have children if she is one of the 20 percent who don’t want any. Nevertheless, such measures do have marginal effects on fertility, and the margins are critical, as demographer Peter McDonald explains:
It’s really about people who, at the margin, make a decision not to have an extra child. The difference between a fertility rate of 1.65 and 1.4 (per couple) is 25 per cent of women having one child (rather than two) so we’re talking affecting fertility rates at the margin. And it does seem that the policies that have been introduced in the northern European countries, and in France and the Netherlands, actually do that. They provide enough incentive for enough women to have that one extra child.
If there are more women than ever before who opt to remain childless and regard themselves as child free, there are also many people who want children and have them but find themselves unable to revel in being parents. Most parents devote to their children a huge proportion of whatever energy, efforts, and resources they may have, yet many of them still don’t feel like good-enough parents with happy- enough (and perhaps “good-enough”) children.
All Western countries are aware of a multiplicity of parents’ problems —selected and colorful versions of which fill hours of prime TV viewing time with sitcoms and “reality TV”—and make at least token attempts to address them. “Help” programs sprout like seedlings in a hothouse. There are preparation-for-parenthood courses as well as physical preparation for birth; parent support groups for coping with everything from newborn crying through toddler tantrums to adolescent challenges. There are networks of interventions concerned with making sure parents bond with newborns, stimulate the brains of babies, read books with toddlers, and take (very) early years education seriously. Some educational groups for parents are even sometimes made compulsory. But many seedling initiatives damp-off and die at an early stage, and even those that grow from project status into the real world don’t always get the funding they need to keep them sustainable. Most of these efforts are welcomed by some parents, but, so far at least, few have made major impacts on overall outcomes.
It sometimes seems that we are having such trouble with children, child care, and family life because children have changed. Parents and grandparents say, with considerable truth, that they would never have behaved as disrespectfully, aggressively, greedily, or heedlessly as the children they love. However, children are part of the same puzzle as the rest of us, so of course their behavior and their expectations have changed in line with what they see other people do and have, and adults don’t like that. Adults’ images of childhood often reflect their own experiences a generation before more closely than they reflect their own children’s lives, and the differences—often as trivial as they are dramatic—always evoke nostalgia for some lost innocence. We don’t want children to do as we do; we want them to do as we say and as we feel we used to do. We long for them to espouse values that have become almost old-fashioned in adult lives—rigorous personal honesty, for instance. We wish they would eschew behaviors that have become almost universal, such as using “bad” language, casually and almost continually, and join us in whatever position we happen to take on current ethical confusions. So what if we drink alcohol, hunt animals, and insist on citizens’ right to carry guns? We still want our children to believe that we are against drugs and violence, and to act as if we really are.
Changes in generations of children are almost always more apparent than real. What has changed most for this generation, and is still changing rapidly, is the jigsaw puzzle of family, community, and society in which they are included. Children seem different because they take up differently shaped pieces of the overall picture. And the most differently shaped piece of all is their daily, hourly, minute-by-minute care.
The immediate context for our acute concern with child care, then, is extraordinarily rapid social change affecting women and Western economies directly and children only indirectly. A crucial and often- ignored part of that change is that the advent of oral contraception not only increased the reliability of birth control but put it into the hands of women for the first time. That is background to the fact that the economic survival of commercially active nations now depends as much on women’s as on men’s lifelong labor and resulting earnings, taxes, and spending, while children’s survival still depends on somebody taking care of them every minute of every twenty-four hours for at least a decade. So who is going to do that? Mothers tend to answer “me”; a lot of fathers answer “us.” But when most able adults are in paid work, much of the day-to-day hands-on care of children has to be paid work. Questions about how much time which children spend in whose care for how much money from what source are basic to modern life. It is a pity that not every nation or community recognizes that resolving those questions is not just a familial responsibility but a social one that crosses both gender and generation boundaries.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Child Care Today by Penelope Leach. Copyright © 2009 by Penelope Leach. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.