The march of women into the workforce is the greatest social revolution of our century. Suzanne Franks wonders why so little adequate research has been done on the effects this is having on childrenby Suzanne Franks / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Never mind whether or not feminism is dead. Who really cares? The burning question for the increasing number of women who work is what is happening to our children. Forget fathers. There is no term “working father,” for men still are their work. And conversely a man with no work is not really a man-and increasingly less desirable as a father. No, this is a woman’s problem. “Missing Mum,” the Panorama programme, drew inappropriate conclusions from some questionable data. But it is absurd that unpublished research about working class family life in Barking and Dagenham based on teenage diaries can provoke such hysteria. The response to the programme demonstrated once again what a volatile reaction is produced by the combination of motherhood and paid work. Like it or not-and there were many reasons for not liking it-the programme filled a vacuum. The uncomfortable fact is that there is virtually no research in Britain into the longterm effects of working parents on children’s educational achievement and emotional health. According to Ceridwen Roberts, of the Family Policy Studies Centre, we are currently living through a gigantic social experiment in “other care” and no substantial research is going on in Britain into the effect on children of two parents working on this scale. The gap is filled with rhetoric from all sides, like the best selling work of Amitai Etzioni, The Parenting Deficit. There are small and piecemeal studies from bodies such as the Thomas Coram Institute on the effects of different forms of childcare. The academic consensus from the bulk of these studies seems to be that consistent and high quality non-maternal care, when not used excessively, probably has no adverse effects. (The latest report from the British Household Survey at Essex University finds that a child of 14 with a working mother suffers no adverse educational effect.) But truly meaningful data would require a survey that observed family patterns, working parents and the progress of their children over several years, from early development to exam results. It would also have to account for a range of other factors, including socio-economic status, family background and the quality of care which the children received. The absence of such work in this field is puzzling. Might it be that there is a fear of finding the “wrong” answers? For feminists, after all, having children was generally a disagreeable activity, best avoided. Women who succumbed had only themselves to blame, especially those who had the misfortune to bear sons. Women’s studies courses across the country have devoured forests debating feminism and post-feminism, but have remarkably little to say on the conflicting feelings that many women experience about working and childcare. Even the new wave feminism of Naomi Wolf is only relevant to childless young women (although that may change now she is a mother). Susan Faludi, in an otherwise brilliant book, Backlash, has nothing useful to say on the question of children except to demand more day care, ideally in the form of 24 hour nurseries. Germaine Greer even argued that caring for children is not a real activity as they will in any case grow up by themselves, within the community. Clearly she has never spent time in the company of a toddler for whom even one pair of alert adult eyes is insufficient. Demos, the fashionable think tank which imported the genderquake to Britain, is full of the empowerment of women, but is also most interested in the young and childless. Its so-called “seven million generation” of the 18-35 age group are not unduly encumbered by children. The recent Demos conference on women had no cr?he. In the meantime women who do have children agonise about what happens in the real world. Whether because Betty Friedan told them to get a life; because family finances demand it; or because they wish to fulfil soaring educational expectations; or even because they just want to enjoy satisfying adult company, women are leaving home. They are repeating what men did during the industrial revolution. This is the greatest social revolution of the 20th century, the reordering of gender roles and the consequent march of women into the workforce. Yet at the heart of it there is a black hole. Gwyn Daniel, a family therapist at the Oxford Family Institute calls it the big taboo-the question of how children’s needs can be met if both parents work. She argues that “professional childcare can create the illusion that the workplace can be protected from the needs of families.” But as women leave home and enter the labour market they want to face up to the taboo and know the answer to the question: “How will this affect my children?” Children from the 1960s, whose mothers were warned by John Bowlby of the emotional effects of early separation, know that never to leave their offspring’s side is impractical. But how far can we go without any adverse effects? Taking part in a gigantic social experiment in which the results will not be known for another 20 years is unsettling. The research that we do have is about the quantity and type of childcare. The picture, taken partly from the UK National Child Development Survey, is a depressing one of good care available only to the richest. Only about 5 per cent of under fives are looked after by a nanny or au pair. About 10 per cent go to private or workplace nurseries, and another 10 per cent to childminders. For the majority, childcare in any meaningful sense is beyond their budget and more than 70 per cent of under fives are juggled about inside families. But in our nuclear families, granny is becoming less available (she is probably at work) and there is evidence to show that mothers, when they have the choice, prefer to opt for paid care, even a childminder. Fathers are more common as carers than grandparents. As most of the fathers are themselves working full time, this has led to “shift parenting” with the mother restricted to evening shift work. Public provision for pre-school children in Britain-which has the second highest female workforce in Europe-is almost negligible. It only really applies to the less than 1 per cent of deprived children admitted to local authority day nurseries. For all other children, unlike in the rest of Europe, the market rules. The government boasts that in Britain parents are invited to “choose from a selection of options” rather than having to suffer European style public subsidies, such as the French ?les maternelles. The catch is that, as in education, the actual choice is severely limited. A study by the Policy Studies Institute of the children of working parents aged between 5 and 10 found that only three quarters had any regular “care arrangements.” The figure dropped to less than half for 11-15 year olds. This begs the question of what those presumably “latchkey” children, estimated at 800,000 under12 years old, are actually doing. Raising a family is often treated as an extra curricular leisure activity-a lifestyle option, perhaps because that is how it affects most male politicians. Sometimes the debate hardly seems to have progressed beyond Patrick Jenkin, Margaret Thatcher’s secretary of state for social security who said: “If the good Lord had intended us all having equal rights to go out to work and to behave equally he really wouldn’t have created man and woman.” But whether or not one approves of the fact, women have now irrevocably joined the labour market. Any approach to childcare which is not built upon this assumption is utopian. The view of Patricia Morgan, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, that mothers should stay at home until affordable high quality care is available, misses the point. Just as the marriage bar is no longer imaginable we cannot conceivably exclude women with children from the workplace. The problem in Britain is that despite all the political rhetoric, childcare remains a completely private matter. It is tempting, when looking back through history, to conclude that so many different forms of child rearing have been practised-with and without mothers-that anxiety is misplaced: most children have an emotional elasticity that can accommodate a huge range of methods. This may be too sanguine. In the absence of the mother, children have -in past generations-usually had extended family networks to rely upon which provided consistent and willingly given care. Today that is no longer the case. Many children have neither a mother nor a semi-permanent extended family alternative for much of the day. We are entering new territory in which any hysterical half truth will easily substitute for real data. And the subject is fraught with such anxiety that one of the outcomes appears to be an ever increasing number of women (up to 30 per cent of those born in the 1960s) voting with their feet, or rather their wombs, and opting not to have children at all.