Buried deep inside the Productivity Commission's 900-page draft report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning is a little subtitle: “Mothers’ preferences.”
It’s in the chapter about Workforce Participation, in the section about drivers of the workforce participation of mothers, and heads a few paragraphs about how a mother’s preference for child care is probably the single most important factor determining her workforce participation.
It’s not the cost or availability of childcare, nor is it her age or education, nor even the availability of family-friendly workplace arrangements.
The simple fact is some women like staying home to look after their own children.
That there are women out there, and yes men too I’m guessing (but if you read the report it’s very mother-centric) who place a great importance on being there for their kids in their early years, being there for first steps, first words, for being the ones to soothe grazes and put them down for sleeps.
And then later being there to drive them to soccer training, listening to the day’s troubles, having dinner on the table and things organised for tomorrow. Being the one to do craft with them, helping with homework, reading stories.
I’m not suggesting that families where both parents are working full-time, and that’s about 57 per cent of families, do any less of a job, or place any less importance on those things, it just has to be easier if you’ve got more time out of the office and you’re there. You, not a childcare worker, or a nanny or an au pair or a soon to be Certificate III qualified grandparent. You, your child’s parent.
I’m one of the 58 per cent of employed mothers who work part-time. I’d love to be home full-time, but now the kids are older, it’s hard to justify my desire to be one of those women who bake and grow vegetables and sew clothes and keep an extraordinarily neat house, all the while making sure dinner’s on the set table with the ironed tablecloth preparing for evenings of scintillating conversation about everyone’s day at work, school and home. (Some people may say that about me anyway, but they’re my dear friends and we’ve usually had a few wines).
Every day I am extremely grateful to everyone who makes it possible for me to spend time with my kids. I don’t thank you enough. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’ve enabled me to find the compromise that works. On most days at least.
And if I’m honest I think I would truly miss this place, miss work, if I stopped working. Working, even without the monetary rewards, paltry as they are, is a good thing for me. I like what I do, I’m good at it, I like the people I work with. Work works.
The report recognises the benefits of women working: financial gain, engaging in the wider community, boosts in economic output, reduced risk of reliance on the welfare system, increased return on public expenditure on higher education for women … the list is quite extensive.
But, for as much as I skimmed through it (who has time to actually read anything that stretches to 900 pages, must get to that chapter about work/life balance), I couldn’t find anything that addressed the idea that maybe, just maybe, it’s a good thing if the primary carers and educators of children are their own parents and what could the government do to allow more families to act on that scenario if that’s what they thought best.
Maybe it’s just a little dream of mine.
The draft report throws up a lot of interesting material. We’re all thinking and talking about nannies and tax rebates and affordability, about standard of care, and better recognition of workers, and funding options and regulation of providers. There would be a different story every day until submissions close on September 5 if you were keen. And then some.
In the Workforce chapter that initially caught my eye was another little subtitle: “Flexible work and other family-friendly arrangements” and I wanted to shout - this is the most important thing - for given the years your children are in need of care, that is, their whole life, child care, as defined by the report, is a solution for only a terribly small proportion of your life as a family.
Yes, I know the scope of the report is early childhood, but the number of people I’ve spoken to who are only just starting to realise that the years their children are too old for formal care are the years they need their parents the most, is increasing.
I know of high-level workers, ones who have worked solidly through their child’s younger years, well-educated, well-trained, high-earning people, who are wondering now, how they can transition to less work, to be there for teenage children.
It’s interesting watching friends in all stages of their parenting lives deal with different stages of “childcare”. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and the good fortune of getting places with no real hassle in one of the best childcare centres I know, those years 0-5, before school were the easiest.
Primary school became more problematic. After school care didn’t work. My experience was poor, the kids hated it, a program that offered little and was largely unsupervised, I’m sure at different schools it works in different ways. But 8.30-6 is a long day for any 10 year old, regardless of whether they’re doing robotics or just running amok in the playground.
As high school looms, I can see how it might pan out, there’s more to get to, debating, swimming, study sessions, it might be easier to leave them to their own devices.
But these are the years when you want to make sure your children know you’re making them a priority, or you’ll lose them forever.
Until they need you to look after their own children at least.