New Internationalist

Liberating the family

Issue 090

The fight for good day care - state-funded and controlled by parents, children and staff - has been an important rallying point for women over the last decade. Genevieve Leslie argues that day care is a prerequisite for women’s equality and an important step towards a world where all human beings are responsible for each other.

MANY people are uncomfortable with the idea of day care because they feel childrearing is a private responsibility that belongs to individual parents alone. This feeling is supported by the value which we place on privacy. We cherish our relationships with our children and our right to raise them the way we think best. Day care appears to threaten this right and to swallow up one of the few remaining areas of personal life that offers some freedom and creativity of expression. Nevertheless more and more people are beginning to feel that childrearing is something in which society as a whole should play a part. Without abdicating their interest in how their children should be raised parents are beginning to see day care as a legitimate right, as a social responsibility that should be supported on the same basis as health care and public education.

Photo: Margaret Murray
Photo: Margaret Murray

If we look at the transformation of the family during the past century it seems the concept of private responsibility is rooted in a family structure which doesn’t exist. The average family is no longer a self-sufficient and self-governing unit which is well equipped to provide for its children and supervise their development - if it ever was. Today, the typical Western family lives in a town or city and depends on a wage earned outside the home for its survival. The usual economic unit is not the individual farm family, but a factory, mine or office that employs large numbers of people. Families are smaller because children have become a financial burden rather than an asset and in the search for jobs families have become scattered across cities or even continents. ‘Normal’ contact between the generations may consist only of an occasional Sunday dinner or an annual Christmas visit. Women have taken on new jobs outside the home, but they have not been relieved of their former tasks. Despite these changes the modern family is expected to live up to the image of the past and fulfil its childrearing role with very little external support. Parents have almost total responsibility for their children until they are four or five years old. At that point the school system, takes on part of the childrearing, but until children are much older working parents must continue to arrange alternative care for those times when work and school fail to coincide - before and after school, during illness and vacations.

Photo: Sally Greenhill
Children playing together in the company of a trained day care worker. For women who need to work and for women who want to work, good day care should be provided on the the same basis as universal education and public health care. Photo: Sally Greenhill

People need day care for a multitude of reasons, but the most visible and important force behind the expansion of need has been women’s large-scale entrance into the work force. A woman’s decision to take on another job is usually dictated by economic necessity. Single parents must work and two-parent families increasingly rely on a mother’s earnings to meet their basic needs. Inflation has drastically reduced the buying power of a single wage, and the quality of housing in particular is dependent on the family’s, second salary’. For other women the real choice is either to accept a double work load or to stay at home and adapt to a subsistence standard of living. Low-income parents are doubly penalized; they must work to live, but most often cannot afford to purchase high quality care for their children. Subsidized day care is provided by the government in some circumstances, but it is geared to the very poor. Domestic responsibilities also hinder women’s full participation in the work force. Many mothers cannot take jobs which require them to work overtime or travel out of town and they must interrupt their employment with long absences for childbirth and infant care. Employers use these handicaps to justify lower pay and other forms of discrimination. Because a woman often needs to fit her job around her primary role as mother she is particularly vulnerable to exploitation as a temporary or part-time worker. As the women’s liberation movement has illustrated, many women are unwilling to remain second-class workers because of their domestic role, or to sacrifice the experience of parenthood to the demands of the marketplace.

Parents are finding it very difficult to live up to their traditional role and this is one reason they are demanding day care support. But in their demand for day care they express changed expectations and a new consciousness of political rights.

Parents want their children to begin life with a full and equal opportunity for social and intellectual development. They also feel that they should have more control over their own lives and that they have the democratic right to attempt to change the society in which they live.

The question has become not only whether the family can cope with childrearing on its own, but whether it is reasonable or even desirable to expect it to do so.

In part, this questioning is a reaction to the obvious strain on the nuclear family; we read daily newspaper accounts of alcoholism, wife-beating and child abuse. A mother who is isolated with her small child in an urban high-rise no longer has the community or family support she could rely on in the past. As she spends day after day in a tiny apartment, seldom away from her child and pinched by financial constraint, she develops a desperate sense that her child’s well-being depends on her in every way. It is a solitary task. Because of the lack of outside supports, the struggle to provide a better life for one’s child becomes allconsuming. Responsibility for the family replaces community responsibility.

Wide-ranging system

People who are involved in the day care movement feel that good day care could help to alleviate many of these pressures, but they do not see day care merely as a way of patching up the ailing nuclear family. Though they believe that day care should be available as a support to parents who wish to play a traditional parenting role, they also see it as a positive alternative to home care. In place of the minimal and piecemeal services now offered by government and social agencies, they envision a wide-ranging and comprehensive system of services that could make childbearing a rewarding experience for all parents.

At the centre of this child care system would be a variety of day care services from which parents could freely choose. Group care might appeal to parents who want their child to receive the benefits of contact with other children and the resources of a good centre; private home care might be most suitable for afterschool care; workplace day care might be a convenient solution to transportation problems for some parents. A range of facilities would be necessary to fill all the different needs which parents and children experience over the years. Above all, day care should be universally accessible. Publicly funded on a broad scale, it should be available twenty-four hours a day; it should provide a high quality of care; and it should be flexible enough to adapt to the changing requirements of its consumers.

Good child care also requires related services that can help to integrate the different aspects of childbearing and childbearing in our society: prenatal care; in-home help; information and referral centres for both parents and prospective caregivers; babysitting exchanges; lending libraries and toy depots; organized activities in which both parents and children could participate. The thrust of these auxiliary services would be to bring responsibility for childbearing back to the community at large. It would also allow many people who are now excluded to participate. Adults who have chosen not to have children, teenagers and senior citizens could volunteer to work in a day care centre.

Shared responsibility

These proposals do not represent utopian fantasies, but concrete pilot projects and community services which have already been initiated by day care groups across North America. The Children’s Storefront in Toronto, for example, is a drop-in centre which provides a comprehensive range of services for children and their parents. Such projects are also a strong indication of expressed need. Parents are reacting against the isolation and fragmentation of personal life and demanding a re-integration of the family with the surrounding community. Socialised child care implies a society in which all human beings are responsible for each other.

At one time health care, education and care of the aged were all family responsibilities; now these tasks have been institutionalized and are government funded. The most frequent objection to taking the same step with day care is that its cost would be prohibitive. However, it is not essential that the price of such services be borne by personal income tax. It makes sense to charge the cost of day care to the corporate sector, which will eventually benefit from our children’s work when they become productive adults. One hundred years ago children’s labour returned to the family itself, which was also the fundamental economic unit of society. Today the basic economic unit is the large corporation. Since it will reap the financial return of our reproductive labours it should also pay the cost. This argument, too, has a historical precedent in the public debate over universal education. Because business was at that time seen to have a strong interest in children’s educational training, it was felt that business profits should be taxed to finance public education.

Day care activists do not wish child care services to become ‘socialized’ in the sense of being institutionalized or centrally controlled. One of their greatest fears is that day care will follow the route of public education and become another monolithic structure that individual parents cannot hope to influence.

Day care must be controlled by the parents, workers and children who use it. It must be community based, so that a close collaboration between consumers and providers can ensure good, consistent care for the children it serves. Public education offers not only a precedent for socialized child care but a warning of the dangers of ‘institutionalized’ social services. Unless day care is responsive to the changing priorities of its users it will represent just another incursion of the state into private life.

Good day care if provided as a community service would have a liberating effect on family and personal life. As a concrete support it would allow parents to leave their children in a safe, beneficial environment over which they have some control. For many women it would make the choice of working outside the home a real one. Good day care would also allow children and their parents to spend some time apart from each other, so that they could return to the relationship stimulated and eager to report on outside experiences. It would relieve an overloaded unit of society from impossible expectations and free many women from the guilt and anxiety they feel when they use alternative care. The social value of such a service should not be measured solely in terms of its benefits to the individual but in terms of its benefits to the community as a whole. And the creation of this service is a responsibility we must all share.

Excerpted from Good Day Care, Fighting for it, Getting it, Keeping it, published by The Women's Press, 281 Bloor St. West, Toronto, Canada. $6.95 / £3.5.0.

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