The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 9th, 2005

Mother care, muddle care and don’t care

A woman’s place is in the wrong, according to the old joke and indeed according to the book of Genesis. In fact, and it is no joke, it is a mother’s place that is in the wrong. That is one of the nastier, more immutable facts of life.

Mothers have been blamed at one time or another for almost everything. If they are too close they smother, they infantilise, they emasculate, they drive. If they are too distant then they neglect, they understimulate, they undermine.

Either way, mothers have been held responsible for almost all the ills that flesh is heir to: from mental illness to sexual dysfunction, from schizophrenia to cross dressing and underachievement, overachievement, attention deficit disorder, obesity and football hooliganism.

So it is hardly surprising that mothers are hypersensitive to criticism. And it is hardly surprising there were howls of anguish last week from working mothers — or at least from vociferous media mothers — in response to news that an academic childcare study by Penelope Leach and others suggests that a mother’s care is best for very young children.

The Families, Children and Childcare study for Oxford and London universities, which followed 1,200 children from three months until age four, concluded that those looked after by their mothers do significantly better in social and emotional development than those looked after by others, who are “definitely less good”.

A kind of pecking order emerged, with stay-at-home mothers on top, followed by nannies and childminders in a homely situation, then grandparents and other relatives, with day nurseries at the bottom as the least good. Young children in nursery daycare, the study found, tended to show higher levels of aggression or were inclined to become more withdrawn, compliant and sad.

Since 450,000 British children under three are in nursery care, and since, according to the chief executive of the National Day Nurseries’ Association, 78% of working mothers say a nursery is their ideal form of childcare, huge numbers of British mothers appear to be firmly in the wrong yet again. It puts the government clearly in the wrong as well because of its plans for a massive and hugely expensive explosion of free nursery care places for the very young, and for its enthusiasm for “wraparound educare” generally.

Evidence along these lines has been appearing for years, much though people try to ignore it. Leach herself has said similar things before.

In the mid-1990s a study by the National Children’s Bureau into nursery care for children under three found an alarming lack of personal contact between staff and children, which meant the child’s need for attachment was not being met. Toddlers were often frightened, neglected and withdrawn, as well they might be when put on the pot by one woman, wiped by another and dressed by a third, most of them underpaid, undertrained and inclined to disappear.

That’s still true 10 years on. Last month it emerged that a study done in Berlin by Professor Michael Lamb of Cambridge University and others showed that toddlers starting at daycare nurseries experienced high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their mothers, and showed continuing mild stress for as long as five months. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol doubled during the first nine days, though they appeared to have settled after five months.

Jill Kirby produced a ground-breaking pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies two years ago. She cited earlier research into non-maternal care by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that showed children whose mothers were employed full-time when the child was under five had reduced chances of obtaining qualifications, and were more likely to be unemployed and suffer psychological distress in early adulthood. So this kind of evidence has been around for quite a while to dismay the working mother, especially the poorer working mother.

I don’t say all this, in some spirit of censorious maternalist triumphalism. I am not trying to monster working mothers. I am a working mother myself, though part-time and from home.

But mothers are faced with a tragic conflict of interest that no amount of wishful thinking or social engineering or wilful blindness can resolve. A woman wants and needs to work and a baby wants and needs its mother. Whatever happens, sacrifices will have to be made one way or the other. If mothers are to work they will have to abandon their children, more or less. They will have to hand them over to someone else to bring up, and that upbringing may not be much good.

I don’t think there are any easy or universal solutions to these problems. Leach herself is irritated with people who think her study is proof that a woman’s place is in the home. What she advocates is greater choice and more childminding. That might be possible with a radical reform of tax and tax relief to give mothers and fathers a choice of how to spend their money, but that is hardly a new Labour approach.

All one can conclude from this research is that Labour’s childcare plans are not only hugely expensive and impracticable, but have demonstrated that — over this at least — the government’s place is in the wrong.