Is putting a baby into childcare a form of abuse?

If you have kids, you’ll know the name Mem Fox. She’s the author of some of Australia’s best and most famous kids’ books including Possum Magic and Where Is The Green Sheep (he’s asleep under a bush and I know this because I have read the book out loud, oh, 328 times).

This week she’s come out with her thoughts about putting babies into childcare. And a storm has predictably erupted.

Here is what she said:

PUTTING babies into child care is a form of child abuse, children’s author Mem Fox has claimed.

Ms Fox, author of Possum Magic,
said she believed that parents who planned to inflict long, stressful
hours of child care on their babies should question whether they should
have children.

"I just tremble," she said. "I don’t know why some people have children at all if they know that they can take only a few weeks off work.

"I know you want a child, and you have every right to want a child,
but does the child want you if you are going to put it in child care at
six weeks? I don’t think the child wants you, to tell the honest truth.

"I was talking to someone in child care in Queensland this year. She
said that we’re going to look back on this time from the late ’90s
onwards and wonder how we have allowed that child abuse to happen. It’s
awful for the mothers as well. It’s completely heartbreaking.

"You actually have to say to yourself, ‘if I have to work this hard
and if I’m never going to see my kid and if they are going to have a
tremendous stress in child care, should I be doing it?’ "

Fox, 62, who has a daughter, Chloe, 38, said parents were sometimes distracted by "the trappings" of having a baby.

"When they have the good house, the good car, the good job – we’re
talking about very advantaged people, the high flyers – they think,
‘now we need a baby we can dress up and make look perfect’.

"But do they realise that child needs love more than anything else
in the world? The child just wants to be held, it wants to have
attention, to be the centre of a universe."

Goodness. There are many people currently frothing at the mouth over her comments and I’m not surprised.

In the past, I would have been frothing too. Before I had kids, I was
angrily dismissive of anyone who dared raise the subject of any
potential negative impact on babies who are put into daycare at an
early age. As a feminist, I always believed it was the right of every
woman to ‘have it all’ – a career and kids. But it’s not that easy, is it?

Parents (particularly mums) who have to put their babies into care are – I imagine – already consumed by guilt. All mums are pretty much guilty – it kicks in straight after the placenta comes out…… Rubbing salt into the guilt wound is not something I’m keen to do.

But just because comments like Mem’s are hard to hear, doesn’t mean we should silence them. Or condemn those who raise the point that it’s not ideal for young babies to be in daycare. There is an interesting piece in the Fairfax papers today about some of the research into the effects of daycare on babies. You can read it here.

It’s not a choice I would make for my own kids but I have the luxury of not being forced into making that choice. When I went back to work, I was fortunate enough to be able to use a combination of one-on-one care at home with a nanny and also one-on-one care with grandmothers. I recognise how incredibly lucky I was to not have to make the difficult decision about daycare for my kids.

For many, many families, deciding when the mother returns to work is not a philosophical decision but a financial necessity.

And for this I blame successive governments who have refused to implement proper paid parental leave. This is a scandal and it is so tragic that most parents are so busy juggling our work/family balls, we don’t have time or energy to agitate politically for this most basic right.

There will always be people who believe daycare is bad for young children, people who believe it’s fine and those who have no choice if they want to put food on the table.

But instead of turning on each other, we should turn on the government and get angry about the fact that so many families have no choice but to put their babies into childcare. When will we join the rest of the western world (except the US) who have paid maternity leave? And why the hell is it taking so long.

Mr Rudd? Don’t disappoint us. So far, by refusing to even put this on the agenda, you have.