Friday, 11 July 2008

Childcare blues

Since having kids, my partner and I have made use of a bunch of ad hoc childcare arrangements so I could go back to work. We've tried various home based carers, two creches and a kindergarten, as well as taking the kids to work - with various degrees of success. Home based carers' circumstances would change, and I'd find myself with nowhere to put my son on short notice. Creches were most reliable, but terribly expensive, and my daughter was unhappy in the cheap one, forcing us to move her to something more expensive. Kindy was great, but only went for half the day, so my partner had to pick up my daughter at the end of her morning at creche, drive around to kill time for half an hour, then drop her off at kindy. And taking the kids to work? Don't ask.

I've always had a sense that my childcare arrangements weren't quite under control, as I rushed from one less than adequate care situation to another. Often, I feel like both a crap mother and a crap worker. It seems that a great many women have similar problems. We call in our own mums to do pick-ups and drop-offs of our kids, and to fill in where we can't afford enough hours of care, or they simply aren't available to be bought. We have to work late from time to time, and hope our creches won't notice (and bill us extra) when we pick up the kids later than we should. We are forced to economise on care, or there's nothing left of our pay packets by the time we've paid the bills. It is, at times, a treadmill-like feeling.

And then, there are the woefully low-paid women who provide care for us. Quite rightly, they look disapprovingly at us when we drop kids with runny noses off at creches. Their disapproval adds to our guilt, and it's hard not to feel irritable with them. Of course, it's no fault of theirs (or ours) that we struggle to combine work commitments with childcare responsibilities. They, too, have kids and work-life balance problems, and dropping off our slightly sickly kids with them makes their workday a little harder.

In these lassaiz-faire times, the market is supposed to deliver we consumers what it is we want. The market has been found painfully wanting in the area of childcare provision. The answer is not to drive a harder bargain with the women who provide care, keeping their wages low and our costs down. Nor is the answer simply to lean more heavily on the unpaid work of family and friends, who we call on to compensate for the inadequacies of our childcare arrangements.

The problem, I believe, is that our society doesn't regard the care of children as a particularly important job (until, of course, something goes wrong, as in the Kahui case). We regard childcare as the responsibility of individual parents, often mothers, and turn a blind eye to the inadequate, stressful, ad hoc childcare arrangements that so many of us limp along with. The solution won't be found in the market, because the market doesn't value childcare work. Those who care for kids - whether paid or unpaid - need to create some solidarity amongst ourselves and insist that the work we do is important. Childcare is not simply a private responsibility which individuals ought to bear the whole burden of. Parents need the help of society - including financial help - to make our important task easier.


Hugh said...

Parents need the help of society - including financial help - to make our important task easier.

So in other words those who don't have kids need to subsidise those who do?

Anna McM said...

Just so. Everyone - both those with and without kids - benefits from the labour of those who reproduce the human race, and labour-intensive it surely is. The reason the birthrate it dropping in Western countries is that raising kids is increasingly expensive and hard. Besides, there are a lot of public health and welfare goals which are met by the provision of good childcare, eg education attainment.

stargazer said...

agree with you anna. i've had my share of childcare blues, even though i'm very lucky to have had family support to ease the burden. but for people who don't have that, school holidays are a real burden. and the preschool issues you mention are so familiar.

hugh, i'd also say that there needs to be some recognition for the work that parents put in, which does benefit society when they do it well and are well supported. although i usually hate cliches, it does take a village to raise a child.

but there are deeper issues here about the failure to recognise unpaid work that has traditionally mostly been done by women. also the difficulties for parents to maintain a career when they have children - again this is often a gender issue due to women being more likely to be the ones to take time off work when the kids are sick etc.

working for families and childcare subsidies should be helping to deal with these areas. but there is definitely more to be done!

jafapete said...

"The problem, I believe, is that our society doesn't regard the care of children as a particularly important job..."

Nor, judging by National's just released early childhood education policy (see The Standard), does National. Look forward to your views on that.

Great post. Great response to Hugh.

Hugh said...

Bear in mind that declining birthrates are not necessarily a bad thing.

I can accept that once a child is born it is in nobody's interests that the child isn't raised with the resources needed to turn out physically and mentally healthy.

Conversely, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the idea of poor, childless people subsidising wealthy people who've chosen to have children because they have ample resources with which to educate and provide for them. And yes, I'm aware that this may be an exceptional case, but in a way it's just the principle of the thing.

Similarly, while parents tend to be very receptive to the idea that the raising of children is something that the whole of society benefits from when the question of subsidies is in the air, they tend to become less receptive to the idea when the question is to what extent parents (particularly mothers) should be subject to advice (or, to put it more negatively, pressure) from outside their family regarding their parenting choices. For example, writers on this blog have spoken out previously about how it's inappropriate for women to be pressured to either breastfeed or not breastfeed.

You seem to be saying that the childless person's stake in the child's upbringing is enough for them to be obliged to provide for it financially, but not enough for them to have any legitimate say in the methods of that upbringing.

Anna McM said...

Thanks Pete. I haven't read the Nat's policy yet, but on the face of it, employing less qualified staff (and paying them less) doesn't seem like much of an idea. It sounds like another way of letting the market decide that childcare work isn't valuable. And I think it's unfair to leave inadequately trained staff in charge of kids - it's very stressful for staff and makes them vulnerable.

Interesting point, Hugh, about parents being willing to take the resources of society on one hand, but not accepting the input of society into their parenting on the other. I personally don't subscribe to that view - I think the world at large does have an interest in how we raise our kids. There is some specialist knowledge that parents have by virtue of spending the most time with kids - eg I have a pretty good idea what my kids' educational interests are - but the way I see it, I don't have the right to treat my kids like my own private property that I can do with as I wish. I'm entirely supportive of the ban on smacking for example - society's right to see my kids well-treated is way more important than my 'right' to hit them.

Violet said...

This is something I've thought about often too. I'm starting to believe that that, if we are to value childcare highly enough, then perhaps we ought to accept that sometimes it just won't be economic for the both parents to be working. When it comes to deciding whether the primary caregiver should get a job, maybe it should be enough for that he or she earn enough to cover the cost of childcare, if they don't want their kids to suffer low-quality care.

Julie said...

I think Hugh's error here is in thinking about tax as a clear cut transaction between tax payer and state. Ie I pay $x in tax and I receive y services for that. There are points through-out our lives where we don't obviously access certain things that the state provides, yet we benefit from them nonetheless. In an extreme example, we might be someone who doesn't leave the house, but we still benefit from the state funding of roads because then people can visit us, an ambulance can reach us when we are ill, etc.

The Oh Noes! Cross-subsidisation!!11!! argument seems to me to be one rooted in a market theory that ignores the fact that no one actually is bloody Ibiza, to quote a not-entirely bad Hugh Grant movie. Or perhaps I should get some tax back for subsidising prostate cancer research (can't get that), or meth rehab programmes (never going to try that)?

Since I had Wriggly I've been musing quite a bit on the huge number of people who are actually raising my child, along with me. First and foremost is of course his father, in our case, and then our families, but the circle goes much much wider than that, and the poor mite's only 6 months old. Might write a post on that at some point.

Tui said...

Hugh - meanwhile, poor healthy people pay to support wealthy ill people, right? Of course, these cases are exceptional, since people living in poverty are more likely to be ill by a significant margin, while people who are wealthy will often choose privatised healthcare. Just like less well-off people are more likely to have more children, more likely to need to have both parents working to support the family, and less likely to be able to afford good childcare. Uh-uh. Just like privatised healthcare, or education, privatised or unsubsidised childcare does more damage to the poor than to the wealthy. We demonstrate our concern for the exceptional cases because we tax people according to their income levels - but just like people who are healthy don't get tax exemptions, and people who send their kids to private schools don't get tax cuts, people who choose not to breed don't get a cookie.

I'm tsking at you in the corner for being a bad lefty right now...

feministblogproject said...


As a childfree person, I understand where you're coming from. But think about it in another way -- if we subsidize healthcare, that means that you won't have to deal with a child coming to your workplace. Furthermore, you're not going to have to cover for any parent who can't come into work to care for a sick child.

If it really does take a villiage to raise a child, I'd rather just put some money into the collective coffer rather than have to deal with the fallout of people having to miss work or have a child disrupt the office atmosphere. If there's no way for me to completely avoid any and all responsibilities related to children, those responsibilities might as well be financial.

(I don't mean for this to sound offensive to parents, really. I recognize that some kids can be incredibly well-behaved. But one disruptive child can mess up an entire workday.)

Hugh said...

The Oh Noes! Cross-subsidisation!!11!! argument seems to me to be one rooted in a market theory that ignores the fact that no one actually is bloody Ibiza, to quote a not-entirely bad Hugh Grant movie.

That's a straw man. You may be imagining me sitting here with a big bust of Adam Smith on top of my computer and a big stack of the greatest works of Milton Friedman at my elbow, but I'm comfortable with cross-subsidisation, provided it's not those in need subsidising those not in need - and that's something that unfortunately happens a lot in the welfare state. It could be argued that it's OK for it to happen a little bit if the benefit's broad - Tui's example of the wealthy sick person being subsidised by the poor but healthy person is a good example - but the childless / childfree divide runs across so many ethnic, social and wealth cleavages I'm hesitant.

I'm also aware that what I'm saying about subsidies bringing input could be interpreted as beneficiary-bashing. I'm not saying that a mother (or for that matter a father, although it's not likely) who chose to become a full-time parent and subsisted on state support would have to basically give up their right to make decisions. I'm merely saying that often the feminist perspective is highly resistant to input from outside the parenting relationship and tends to interpret it as pressure.

And Tui, apropos of not very much, chivalry prevents me from telling you how many times I've tsked at you for being, in my opinion, a bad leftist...

Tui said...

Charming as ever, Hugh!

You may be imagining me sitting here with a big bust of Adam Smith on top of my computer and a big stack of the greatest works of Milton Friedman at my elbow

Well, now I am... and it's really funny.

But seriously though: You have failed to convince me that childcare is any less of a broad issue than health or education. Indeed, pre-school child care is education, and to a degree it is health too. Why is childcare pre-school a concern for cross-subsidisation, but not once formal education begins? - unless you accept cross-subsidisation for health but not for education, which would be consistent but to my way of thinking thoroughly backward.

You say that being childfree is a choice that runs across ethnic and social divides - in my admittedly limited experience, that is quite untrue: people who choose to be childfree are usually educated (have finished high school or have higher education, or come from an educated family), employed beyond the service industries or expect to be later in life, and white. (They're also going to continue to be better-off, and live longer, than their counterparts with children. IMO the tax it takes to subsidise early childcare is far exceeded by the financial gain of not having children, but YMMV.)

Anna McM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna McM said...

That made no sense. Let's try again.

Hugh, I too love the image of you with your Adam Smith bust, but I'm not sure Milton Friedman's greatest works would amount to a big stack.

Wealthy folks tend to be nett contributors in a progressive tax system, and poor folks are nett receivers. Given that people with kids are likely to be poorer than those without, I think the poor-subsidising-rich argument may be overstated.

Besides - to use a market metaphor - welfare state services act as a kind of insurance. I might never use several of the services at might local hospital, despite paying for them, but I know that they're there if I do need them. And in the market, insurance has a cost, whether the event you're insured against happens or not.

You might say that babies are not unpredictable events of the sort you insure against, like car accidents and earthquakes. But in my experience they are!

Hugh said...

OK, for starters we need to distinguish between 'childfree' and 'childless'. A person might be lacking in children for many reasons, and being self-proclaimedly 'childfree' is only one of them, and not, I'd imagine, the major one.

So while I can accept that people who identify as 'childfree' might be on average more educated and wealthier than the average, I would want to see some statistics to show that people who have children are on average poorer than people who don't. Unfortunately a cursory scan of the Stats New Zealand website has not enlightened me. Anybody got anything?

Make Tea Not War said...

I don't know if on average parents are poorer but I do know that families with children are more likely to end up in poverty. I'm thinking of the 2004 Report on Poverty possibly by the Ministry of Economic Development(?). But keep in mind there are also lots of wealthy families with children and grandchildren who pay plenty of tax and more than pay their way who are probably subsidizing some of childfree. Or have in the past or will in the future. Contribution needs to be seen over a lifetime, IMO, and at any one time from each according to ability to each according to their need.

The poorest people in this country are children, 1/3 of who are living in poverty.
I'd be pretty happy if my taxes (which I pay lots and lots of) went to subsidizing those children and giving them a good start in life. They didn't get any choices in their parents financial circumstances. They can pay me back when their taxes subsidize my hip replacement when I'm elderly and frail.

Anonymous said...

but not enough for them to have any legitimate say in the methods of that upbringing.

Well except for the ever-increasing number of laws and social expectations, no. But wait, that's exactly it. We, as a society subsidise parents and also control what they can do with their kids. It's not a quid pro quo except in the very general sense that everyone in society both pays, gets paid, controls and is controlled. Even the filthy rich who pay little income tax pay GST and obey at least some of the laws.

I'm all for paying for stuff like decent childcare and plunket nurses and whathaveyou. Making decent kids to start with is so much easier than reforming criminals or reanimating dead kids.

So yeah, us childfree people have two forms of interest in raising kids well: the investment one of needing younger people round to look after us when we're old; and the protection one of preferring well-integrated members of society over dropouts and failures who are disproportionately likely to become criminals.


Hugh said...

But keep in mind there are also lots of wealthy families with children and grandchildren who pay plenty of tax and more than pay their way who are probably subsidizing some of childfree.

Yes, and to my mind this is an entirely different situation, since it's the wealthy subsidising the poor (if the childfree weren't poor, they wouldn't be being subsidised).

Moz, you're quite right that current laws and social expectations do indeed intrude into the parent-child (or more specifically, mother-child) relationship. The point is many people see this as undesirable, representing it as pressure, disempowering mothers, refusing to validate the role of the mother in society, etc etc. In other words I'm not arguing that the current system is wrong from this perspective, I'm arguing that it is difficult to object to this while also feeling more resources are needed.