Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dear Nick Clegg, Do You Know the Implications of Childcare?

I'm really excited that the Huffington Post has featured my first article for them on the front page of their UK edition today!

Click here to take a look, or read on below...


Dear Nick Clegg

Like most parents, I’m sure you love your child fervently, and want only the best for them. Like most parents, you like to think that the decisions you make are in your child’s best interests, now and in the future. And like most parents who delegate the care of their children to paid strangers, you choose to ignore several decades of psychology and neuroscience, which show quite clearly that the loving and nurturing environment and secure attachment experience provided by a mother cannot be replicated by a childcare worker of any quality.
Of course, like most parents, you’re quite sure your choice is the right one, and this wouldn’t necessarily matter quite so much, if you were ‘like most parents’. But you’re not: you’re the Deputy Prime Minister.

You recently announced your plans for childcare to be made the coalition government’s highest priority social policy, with a massive expansion in nursery places and the recruitment of 65000 new childcare workers. You shared your vision for ‘teaching’ children as young as two and preparing them for educational success, and, while you were at it, you pledged to take on those with the “sepia tinted 1950’s” view that mothers should not work.

I’m one of those women. I look after my children full time, and don’t plan to return to work until the youngest has started school. Far from being a 1950’s housewife (to me this implies little skill or ambition beyond bakery), I’ve studied at post-graduate level, and prior to becoming a mother, I practiced as a therapist, working with both adults and children who had experienced abuse. This gave me a lot of ‘hands on’ experience of the devastating impact this can have; a lifetime of difficulties such as addiction, self harm, the inability to sustain any meaningful relationships, and unbearable emotional pain.

Of course, this is the extreme end of a very long spectrum. Towards the other end, I met many of those people we might call the ‘Walking Wounded’, who live their lives fairly successfully, and don’t suffer any major mental health problems. But placed in a situation like therapy, in which they are invited to explore their deepest feelings, they will reveal all manner of childhood experiences that they wish had unfolded differently. A Walking Wounded person might cry a river of tears over the fact that their father went away for three days without explanation when they were six, or that their mother’s hugs were always slightly brittle and reluctant.

Every choice we make, big and small, accidental or with firm purpose, makes an impact on our children’s rapidly developing psychology. We might like to tell ourselves that small children don’t remember much, and that therefore what happens to them doesn’t really matter, as long as they are fed and warm. This is not the case. Babies are not pot plants, just sitting there growing as long as they get milk and a bit of sunlight. They are subtle and complex human beings, whose brains are developing at an alarming rate. Their experiences are forming the bedrock of their entire future emotional existence. Perhaps most crucially of all, they are learning about the meaning of relationship from the people who care for them; how to love, and be loved.

Mothers today often do not feel valued in their role, and a world which takes your view that they can be easily replaced by relatively low waged nursery workers only serves to reinforce this. Interestingly, I don’t feel particularly undervalued, and I put this down to my former job. As a therapist, I spent a lot of time playing, painting, reading stories, or just sitting quietly and attentively watching another person create. Of course it never occurred to me to worry that my work was not of value - I was being paid! As a mother now, my daily activity with my children is not so far removed from my former working life. I play, I witness, I create safe boundaries, I hold the space, and I help other people make sense of difficult emotions. My work as a therapist taught me first hand the enormous value of ‘just being there’.

Your policy plans imply that a child will develop in much the same way whether they spend their days with a mother or a paid worker, and that perhaps a child might even be better off in a nursery, where they can be ‘educated’. To see child development in this way is utterly ill-informed, and cannot be forgiven in a leading policy maker. Get your team of advisors to put you together a folder Nick. You are powerful. You may not remember the first years of your life, but I can assure you, they shape who you are every second of every day. Please help to create policy that acknowledges the vital importance of this early experience, and that puts love and nurture for small children – not ‘education’ - at its centre. And that values the work of a mother, not as faded and sepia tinted, but vibrant, sharp and fresh; a modern and newly informed reworking of an old classic.



23 comments:

  1. Wonderful piece! You are immensely talented and very eloquent without over complicating any of it. Love your work :)

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  2. I agree with you heartily and I love the way you put it! :) great post!

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  3. Dear Mule
    I am not remotely interested in applying outdated sexist stereotypes of stay-at-home motherhood to you. By the same token, please do not use language that implies that those of us who, either by choice or necessity, send our children to nurseries are not being "mothers". To suggest that the debate is about whether the stay-at-home mother's role is valued while implicitly attacking the decisions of others is unfair and hurtful. Right, off to feed my children, aka "the walking wounded". Hey, maybe I can pay you to give them therapy later!
    Yours
    Someone who is actually quite surprised that genuine women (as opposed to Daily Mail stereotypes) wish to participate in the "Mummy Wars"

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  4. This kind of post is bound to push buttons and make some people feel attacked in their choices. It's impossible to discuss these issues without doing so.
    If you read more of my blog I hope you will see that I aim to champion all women in their choices but that I do try to examine the cultural background that informs them, and that sometimes I do point the finger of blame at this, rather than at women themselves.
    We are all Walking Wounded. I am, and my children will be too. I do not aim to take the moral high ground here or claim that I am more of a mother or a better mother than someone who takes a different choice, either out of necessity or because, as some people on the Huff Post comments have said, they find time with their children boring and would rather be at work.
    I wish you all the best and hope that you can come to see that it is society and political decisions that are under attack here, not mothers.
    x

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    1. I'm sorry but I think it is possible to discuss these issues without making some people feel attacked in their choices. At least, I'm going to give it a try. I'm sorry you don't feel able to.
      The really sad thing is, women like me are on your side as well, but we too are capable of examining the cultural background in which our own choices are made, and it's simply patronizing to assume that we're not or we don't want to. So point your finger, yes, but please do so with a little more care.
      I am still actually very upset about what you wrote, largely because I do question my decisions about my children all the time. You may or may not choose to take that as an indication that deep down, I know I'm doing the wrong thing. But I do know I'm doing my best and that's all any of us can do.
      Must go, Walking Wounded No. 1 has got into the waste food bin...

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    2. I'm really sorry I've upset you :(
      I think part of the problem is that there is an awful lot of evidence and support from the psychology / psychotherapy world that too much childcare too early is not a great idea...
      but as soon as you start talking about 'evidence' that a parents choice is not the right one, then of course this will upset people who have made that choice, no matter how gently you might put the argument.
      I do agree with freedom of choice for women but I'm never sure if true freedom of choice is possible as we are bombarded with so many subtle messages (e.g. a few from Mr Clegg) which make it hard to separate out what it is that we actually really want, deep down.
      If you have given this all much thought and reading and you feel that deep down you have made the right choice then that is great. As I said, my piece was intended to attack Nick Clegg and other politicians who so rarely seem to acknowledge the importance of very early life in their policy making. The same week that Clegg announced this someone else was talking about a tax on sugar to tackle obesity. But no one joined the dots...WHY are some people eating and eating and eating long after they are full? They need to look to the early years for answers to many of these social problems....
      there is a nice site called what about the children which is worth looking around...
      http://www.whataboutthechildren.org.uk/professionals
      I've written a couple of other things about motherhood recently that you might like to read...
      http://mamamule.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/reclaiming-motherhood-when-staying-at.html
      http://mamamule.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/reclaiming-motherhood-what-is-value-of.html
      All the best to you x

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    3. Hello, I hope it is okay to interject into this conversation. I would love to add that I wholeheartedly agree with the point that so many social issues would simply not be around with some simple changes early on. Something that has always been missing from Western knowledge systems and from the Western intellectual world is the contribution of people who have lived real lives. Rich, white men with upper class education and who make a living being intellectuals are the people whom have written our history, and paved the way for our current policies and attitudes. I recently did some thinking on John Stuart Mill's "harm principle" - the idea that we should all be free to behave as we wish unless we are harming someone else. However, he neglected to consider children and early childhood in this idea that was supposed to support ultimate and absolute freedom. How, I ask, can one ever be truly free if we have been "harmed" - in whichever way this may be viewed- in our early lives? It seems ludicrous to assume we are all on equal footing as adults. Autonomous adults do not simply spring from the earth. It seems self defeating that someone would apply a principle to adulthood when it could be applied to childhood instead, and save all the trouble. Why be reactive as opposed to proactive?

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  5. Nick Clegg's identified a real problem. I don't agree with his solution either. Many mums/parents might benefit from a bit of support - which would then make a massive difference to their children. The charitable organisation Home Start has expertise in this area.
    http://www.home-start.org.uk/about/what_we_do

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  6. We are never going to get out of the Mummy wars if the main protagonists (the SAHM and the not-SAHM) are at each other's throats all the time.

    I was fairly offended by the tone of the post - non-post-graduate qualified mums who go to work (because they are the main breadwinner and the children's father is in a low-paid vocational job??) must be too stupid to know it's harmful? I'm afraid that's the underlying tone of the otherwise excellent article.

    The REAL issue that we ALL have to push everyone to accept is this: children have parents. And BOTH parents are responsible for making the decisions about what is best from their family, and not made to feel (intentionally or otherwise) that their choices (not all made from free-will) are "wrong".

    FWIW: I stayed home for the first 3 years of my children's lives, and their father for the next 18 months (we live in a country with forward-thinking parental leave provisions). That was what worked well for us. What works well for other people is different - and it is up to all of us to help people make an informed decision and not be pushed into things because other people think they are right.

    and that is why Nick Cleggs stupid idea about "education" for children from the age of 2 is wrong.

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    1. Hello Sho
      Sorry you were offended by the tone of the post but glad that in some ways we are in agreement!
      I'm not sure that I said or implied that anyone else was stupid. I just wanted to make the point that I did not fit Clegg's stereotype of a 1950's woman. (whatever that means in reality, is a debate for another day!)
      And as I said on the Huff Post comments: on reflection, I should have made it clear that by mother I meant 'primary care giver', and that this could be mother / father / grandparent / adoptive parent ... anyone who loves the child and is in it for love and the long haul... I guess I used the word mother as this is often, but of course not always, who this person tends to be. Also, I do think there IS something special about a 'mother' ... in our politically correct world we always seem to have to include everybody, nobody is allowed to be more special than the next person! But actually, as you say, a mother IS crucial in those first days, months, and I would argue that she offers something special throughout childhood, and life! But as I said, not very PC to say that sort of thing these days!
      Best to you and thanks for the comment x

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  7. Congrats on the huff post front page! I always enjoy reading your writing and have been immensely touched by your responses to my own blog - and your supportive kindness as I hope you know.

    I do, however, work and my children are therefore cared for by others regularly. You've read of my guilt and worries and fears perhaps - I am a woman stretched to see through in my attempt to contribute to the world and to the future happiness of my children under the constraints of a capitalist Western economy which offers limited choice to many people whose rent/mortgage is dependent on more than one income, and in my case, as my career/education/opportunities (all fought for) mean I am the larger earner, so even should we be able to afford for one parent to stop working that parent would not be me. It makes it hard for me to see myself reflected in the Mummy wars.

    As you point out it is a difficult area where many of us have to battle with our knowledge and consciousness and hope and faith in situations (often beyond our control) in making a call on how we bring up our children. I only have experience in the belly of the beast when it comes to therapy - sitting by the tissues, closest to the door. But I am interested and engaged in these links between future prospects and happiness and the very earliest years of life.

    I think perhaps the 'paid strangers' line is what I found smarted. My children are not cared for by paid strangers, they are cared for by highly trained early years specialists. Men and women who have chosen this vocation, been vetted in many many ways, and have between them decades of experience in creating a loving stimulating environment precisely designed to complement the (I hope) loving and stimulating and enriching and grounding and containing environment we offer our boys at home. They ceased to be strangers when they met my children, when they held them and soothed their brows and cajoled them and learned new things about them, witnessed milestones and lived with them. They never took on my role as parent; they don't decide on health or education, they don't fret over what consultant to see or which clothes to buy or how to fully prepare my sons for the adult world even before they could walk. I didn't abdicate that overarching role of mothering - but by the same token, they work with me and my husband as a team to offer my children the best possible combination of care and love and different voices and ways of thinking that can be offered to them within the very real, and cerebral and emotional no doubt, constraints we live within.

    I know you pick your words carefully, and am not criticising them - but certainly there felt like an emotional attack in those two which was, in my experience of decent (and exceptionally expensive, for decent child care is very expensive) child care, untrue.

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    1. Dear L
      I appreciate all that you say and feel dreadful in some ways that I have offended you and several others with this post (whilst it has also been received very positively by many too). But what's a girl to do? There is a lot of evidence to show that nursery care is not optimum for children. And when Nick Clegg talked about this policy, I felt saddened that he was so blinkered by his own personal choice that he was unwilling to consider this evidence. It's also worth pointing out perhaps that the post is a letter to Nick Clegg, NOT to working mothers. It is a retort to his own words in which he described my opinions as 'sepia tinted 1950's', and those who criticised his wife for her choices as 'weird as homophobes'. So if my words smarted you, I'm sorry, you got caught in the cross fire of a counter attack!
      Those of us who feel that things are going a bit wrong with the way children are treated and cared for at the moment, and the way mothers choices are being made so difficult, as you describe, have a dilemma. Do we keep solidarity with our 'sisters' and say, 'everyone should be free to make their choice', or do we speak up, and in doing so, 'break rank', and cause upset or even hurt to others.
      As you can see, I decided to say my piece.
      There is a good list of sound research on this link, especially further down.
      http://ftmuk.wordpress.com/childcare-research/
      Love to you L x
      Should

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    2. Don't worry. I wasn't offended, though I thought the 'paid strangers' line was inaccurate in my case, and therefore unnecessarily close to hyperbole. As noted I think my voice is not heard - Clegg speaks on the basis of his millionaire wife, none of the initiatives to help women work in terms of paid for childcare help me as a full time worker - a few hours of nursery here, child benefit and tax credit cuts there, a lack of state nursery provision, a lack of realistic maternity allowance/pay if you are a full time worker earning more than minimum wage. They are crass and unhelpful (and no account is ever taken of the extended lifetime percentage, say, of my earnings which support an infrastructure of social care and keeps in the balance a support for those of the sepia tinted 50s who chose not to work and to care for their children instead which was laudable but left them no pension provision, say, or similar).

      I can see why some would be offended, by the suggestion that the damage they do to their children by putting them in childcare will be lifelong, and exclusively for them (the mother) to accept blame for in the absence of any other factors which may also contribute to troubled adults.

      And I know what you mean about breaking rank. I sometimes feel like I am endlessly gagged by a sense of not wanting to be unfair and don't bring up many counterpoints I see to arguments in this arena. Mostly though I can't place an argument as my actions have been defined as bad so I have no place to talk.

      And as a feminist I'm pleased that there is an attempt to place value on mothering and motherhood, though I find it unfortunate and disappointing that the language of the debate focusses on bad mothering v good mothering (my mothering being de facto bad before there is any analysis of it). ie I think motherhood is undervalued. I think working mothers are not even allowed to ask to be valued in the debate. Choice is also an interesting word. There are choices, of course, but I think they are far less simple for lots of people.

      I'm also interested in Clegg, generally, as he is a man and a father speaking out. I dislike almost everything he stands for, but I do admire at least his focus on being a 'family man' which emphasises a need for fatherhood to be on the table. But still, as you note, a battle ground is being created and I find it exasperating frankly that it is only around women (so they, whatever their choices, are endlessly caught in the crossfire of criticism.

      I will read some more on the area, of course, because I want to know more. And as ever I'm grateful for the elegant debate.

      With love x

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  8. You. Are. Awesome.

    To have such an intelligently and accurately written piece about this is a gift to mothers, fathers, babies and society at large.

    I understand why it might be hard for others to read- I myself experience reading things that are painful for me because of the choices I have made. My heart, warmth and positive wishes go out to those feeling this way.

    It is tough, I agree. Ultimately though, I think we have to continue to speak these things as well as continuing to embrace those who feel badly because of such words.

    I also want to say "Congratulations" on the Huff Post! Nicely done.

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  9. Thank you so much Our Muddy Boots!
    I really appreciate your words. x

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  10. I am almost hesitant to reply, but I will. I am a SAHM, expecting darling #6. We homeschooling, as well. As far as income, I graduated college with honors, my husband has a vocational job, we don't make loads of money, but we don't need to. Our needs are met & desires are given their proper place. We have a simple 3 bed, 1 bath home. There are not many rooms in our home to escape each others company, and we do not have all of the electronic toys to distract us from each other. My children are happy and best friends with each other. In short, we have found that we don't need all of the "stuff" that the media says will make us happy & improve our living. We have a full life despite not having 2 incomes, and I am thankful that there are others who are acknowledging that being a SAHM is a priceless investment worthy of respect. We must each make our own decisions as parents & we often boldly defend our decision to others. Often that is because we have already experienced negative judgment for those decisions. Yes, we will all be "walking wounded" in one way or another, and it is usually Mom (and Dad) who carries the blame of the wound, so we choose our best, teach others what we have learned, and trust that we have truely done our best.

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  11. I quite agree with what you are saying. I have myself given up work and carrier to stay home, looking after our two children. In my case, longer than just the start of the school as I was following my husband from country to country, relocating for his job. Meanwhile, I studied, I worked part time or from home or as a self employed. However, I do regret that our society do not value mother's job. I do regret to be told that my CV should be read as a 'continuos' story but I cannot see how to fill in the gaps. I love working and I have always kept active. Like many mothers, I was the family dedicated PA, travel manager, driver, home tutor, etc... I had to deal with many school issues due to having bilingual children, school adaptations, etc... Today, I so wish I had listen to myself and never stopped work outside. I could have a CV, a career just like my husband. I do feel sad that our society does not recognise mother's work. Even schools don't always value our support. Only this year, I had teachers telling me if my kids were doing so well at school after years of struggle, I must have been well teaching them. Of course, a right balance should be find for socialisation and giving free time for kids as well as parents.

    If I fully agree with what you are saying about the benefits of parents working with own children, from the legal point of view, there is a big issue when comes a separation. Mothers who have given up work to follow husbands abroad and raise children. Best is to let you read my developments on my blog on the issue of forum shopping and Eurostar divorce becoming very popular with the current economic climate of executives loosing jobs and moving out. Yes, part of the new deal is to get rid of the old family to start a new life to live a happy mid life crisis.

    In short, I do agree with you that nothing replace the love and care of a mother. However, she needs to be able to keep active and not bored and most of all, they should be a recognition and support for these mothers. The benefit of the children should not mean a life sacrifice for mothers. http://clarinettesblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/abusive-institutions-or-abuse-of-institutions/

    Clarinette - Internet & Privacy Lawyer - LLM

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    1. Thanks for that interesting perspective. x

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  12. Show me the evidence that good quality childcare from an early age is damaging to babies. Show me the evidence that emotional eating is causally linked to childcare. Show me something to substantiate your conclusions, please.
    Given the strength of your convictions, I expect to see you cite recent, good quality, replicated, peer-reviewed publications and - if possible - evidence at systematic review level. Of course, such evidence must be epidemiological in nature. I'm ready to change my mind if you can do this. And, before anyone asks, I'm not an aggrieved, defensive anti-SAHM militant - I think both options are great for children when the quality of care is high.
    I've got a doctorate in psychology, I lecture in child development, I've got an MSc qualification in developmental psychopathology ... I have spent a good while studying this. And my conclusion? The evidence is very mixed, and there are no simple answers. Good quality childcare and good quality parenting seem to have equally good outcomes. Such outcomes are most likely in particular socioeconomic contexts, and can be influenced by multiple factors. The variables that potentiate child development and maintain specific pathways differ in nature and timescale to those that initiate the course or precipitate changes in direction (see Sroufe et al, 2005 if you're interested). Moreover, the child's motivation and developmental stage shapes their interpretation of events and their adaptation to settings. Sroufe, by the way, is a contemporary attachment theorist who has essentially ridden roughshod over some of the more deterministic aspects of Bowlby, Ainsworth et al. He's very much in keeping with Vygotskian principles of constructivist development.
    Should this make us careful in the care we provide to our children, particularly in terms of ensuring that it is responsive and nurturing? Certainly. Should this convince us that parental care (although you seem to place this responsibility squarely on mothers) is the gold standard? No. In my view there simply isn't the evidence to support that perspective. Children deserve good quality care. They often get it with a SAHM, but they often get it elsewhere too. I utterly support women's (and men's) right to work, whether they 'have to' or not, and I utterly support their right to stay at home too.

    Liz - an extended breastfeeding, cosleeping, attachment parenting 'WOHM' who wishes that all families, regardless of work arrangement or circumstances, received the support they needed for their children to develop optimally.

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    1. Hi Liz, thanks for your comment.
      There is a lot of evidence, as I think you must know, to support the idea that early childcare is not optimum for babies and small children. Of course, like all research, you can choose to agree or disagree and this is still fairly uncharted territory for the human race therefore we cannot be sure what the long term implications will be.
      I did not say in this article or anywhere else that emotional eating is linked to childcare. I think you are referring to a comment I made on the Analytical Armadillo discussion about this piece today, in which I wondered why policy makers never look to the early years for solutions to problems like obesity or violent crime. I did not say that nursery care caused these problems. I merely said that they were rooted in early childhood.
      The thrust of this article, which is not a Phd thesis, just a letter from a mother to Nick Clegg, is that the early years are important and that the emphasis on nursery care implies that childcare can be done by anyone, is not very important (it's just 'minding' them), and I feel that this undermines mothers and motherhood.
      Thanks for your thoughts x

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