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National Observer Home > No. 56 - Autumn 2003 > Articles

Concerns About Child Care - Part Two

Bill Muehlenberg

III. Preference for home

Feminist commentators continue to insist that most women want to be in the paid workforce, and therefore we need to expand formal day care and related services. Pamela Bone is one such writer who regularly argues that there is no preference for home, and that we need to do more to get women into the paid workplace. She wrote recently, "The idea that women want to stay home is being pushed by a few very privileged, conservative women writers. If the welfare of children really were their main concern they would be pushing for better parental leave and family-friendly workplaces."1

The facts however point to just the opposite conclusion. A number of surveys have found that most mothers would prefer to be at home with their small children. Many feel they are conscripted into the paid workforce against their wishes, but tough economic times often compel them to do so. Yet a majority of mothers with young children have consistently said that they would rather be at home for the first year or two of their child. One survey of 4511 adults found that 69 per cent of respondents preferred that the mother stay home when she had pre-school children.2 Australian National University research found that only 4 per cent of respondents felt that women with pre-school children should work full time, while only 31 per cent thought they should be in the labour force part time.3 Another survey discovered that one-third of working women who put their infants in child care centres would prefer not to work if they had the choice.4

A comprehensive study undertaken in Britain has showed an overwhelming preference for home. The study found that 81 per cent of mothers would choose to stay home if they could afford to. Only 6 per cent said they wanted to continue working full-time.5 And a major Australian study has found very similar views. The 2001 study discovered that while only two per cent of mothers thought mothers should work full time when their children are of pre-school age, a large majority (71 per cent) thought it best to stay at home.6

A 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believe that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.7

The small percentage of Australians who actually use formal child care is testimony to this preference for home. Only 7.6 per cent of babies under one year are in formal care (centre or family day care), while 33.6 per cent use informal care (grandmothers, nannies). Most are cared for by their parents all the time.8

Moreover, it appears that the rush to the workforce by women has dropped off dramatically. While the overall percentage of women in the workforce increased from 15 per cent in 1955 to 61.5 per cent in 1990, since then the participation rate has grown by less than 0.5 per cent.9

Studies also show that the increased use of child care services is due to economic pressures on families, not to parental preference or any perceived benefit to the child. One survey found that 86 per cent of mothers agreed that the financial situation had forced many women into the paid workforce.10 A 1993 random survey by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association found that 72.4 per cent of female members said they worked for financial reasons.11

Indeed, the numbers bear this out: only around 14 per cent of families with children under five have both adults in the full-time workforce. 12, 13 A survey of 3000 women conducted by New Idea found that 70 per cent believed that raising children properly is the most important thing in life.14 Also, a study of 600 parents revealed that three-quarters of workers with children would consider refusing a job, promotion or transfer if it meant spending less time with their family.15 Another study of working mothers with preschool children found that two-thirds worked for the money.16

Furthermore, many parents put so much money into child care and related costs, that the financial gain of being in the paid workforce is minimal. One study for example found that some families even lose money overall, with child care costs exceeding the amount of income earned by the mother.17 Another study found that some women were effectively earning less that $2 an hour after child care costs, taxes and reductions in family payments were considered.18

Also, a number of economists have pointed out that work done in the home provides a great deal of value to society, even though it is not given recognition in the GDPAGE One study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1994 found this unpaid work to be worth $150 billion a year.19 Another study by Prof. Duncan Ironmonger put the figure at $340 billion a year.20

IV. Choice for women

This raises the question of equity. Why should mothers who choose to stay at home with their young children receive little or no financial support, while mothers who put their children into formal day care and return to the paid work force get various benefits, subsidies and financial assistance for doing so? Why are stay-at-home mums in effect penalised (e.g, via the taxation system), while non-stay-at-home mums are rewarded? Why should dual income families receive government subsidies for day care when single income families receive very little or nothing by way of subsidies? Why this discrimination? Governments should not be in the business of showing partiality to one kind of mother over another. It should treat all of them fairly. This is not a call for special favours or rights for stay at home mothers, simply equity and fairness.

It seems that there are some groups with vested interests in government and elsewhere (e.g., the feminist lobby) which are very eager to urge women into the paid work force. For example, in March 1995 feminist Eva Cox rebuked women who chose to stay at home and said that all women should be in the market economy.21 Governments should not allow feminists or any other special interest group to hijack family policy and resort to social engineering.

What agenda is being pushed by those calling for more and more day care? Why are some so intent in taking women out of the home, and so intent on institutionalising children? There are some radical feminists who have made it clear that this is their goal. The child care mentality is an integral part of feminist theory. Consider a few quotes: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27

"The care of the young is infinitely better left to trained professionals rather than to harried amateurs with little time nor taste for the education of young minds."

"No woman should be authorised to stay at home and raise her children . . . Women should not have the choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one."

"A variety of ways have been suggested for reducing [women's ] desire for babies. One commonly suggested proposal to achieve this goal is greater encouragement of labor-force participation by women. . . . [Perhaps girls could] be given an electric shock whenever they see a picture of an adorable baby until the very thought of motherhood becomes anathema to them. . ."

"The heart of woman's oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles."

"In order to raise children with equality, we must take them away from families and communally raise them."

"Unless women have, from the moment of birth, socialization for, expectations of, and preparation for a viable significant alternative to motherhood . . . women will continue to want and reproduce too many children."

Of course these are extremist positions, not held by the majority of women. But such thinking does have influence. The feminist agenda clearly has had some impact. Marian Sawer's 1990 book, Sisters in Suits, describes the success of the feminist bureaucracy in Canberra in achieving its goals.28 Child care has certainly been one of the big winners. As Michael Duffy has said, "feminism in the form we have it today could not exist without childcare."29

Anne Manne puts it even more forcefully:

"Feminism's political evolution has meant that in practice, if not in theory, it successfully delivers the family type most suited to survival in contemporary capitalism - the affluent, dual-income, high consumption family with self-fulfilment as the binding value, with functions once performed within the family contracted out. These are the new economic winners. Families with children, sole parents or with a single income, and certainly the unemployed, are far more likely to be in the ranks of the new poor - they are the economic losers".30

One has to ask why so much government policy seems intent on fulfilling the aspirations of some of these radical feminists. If the majority of young mothers with young children would rather be at home, why does government policy so often promote the opposite? Indeed, why the double jeopardy for these women? Why must stay-at-home mothers forego economic relief for child care while at the same time have to, through taxation, subsidise those who do? Says Patricia Morgan, "Whatever else might be said about families with a mother at home, they are every bit as deserving of relief as families with employed mothers".31

V. Recommendations

First, governments should not dictate to parents where and how they seek to raise their children. A system of child care subsidy should be established in which all parents receive benefits which they can choose to use as they wish. They could redeem it for care outside the home, or redeem it for cash if they choose to care for their own children at home. A child tax credit/benefit, as proposed by Barry Maley of the Centre for Independent Studies, might be one possibility.32 The system we are proposing includes these considerations:

• The policy should treat all families with young children equally; it should not discriminate against families where the mother makes an economic sacrifice to remain at home to care for her own children.

• The excessive tax burden placed on traditional (one-income) families should be reduced. Tax cuts should result in additional funds placed directly in the hands of parents, instead of bureaucrats and social service professionals.

• It should give the greatest support to low-income employed families with children.

• It should maximise choice; parents should be able to select day care from non-professional centres, from relatives, etc.

• It should not discriminate against religious day care centres.

• It should keep regulation localised. At best, it should be state-wide, not federally, controlled.

Such a deregulated, decentralised system would provide protection against the kind of silliness that was proposed in 1993 by the then Family Minister Senator Crowley. She issued a set of guidelines on child care with such gems as: no Christmas carols; no use of negative commands; books should only depict androgynous, gender-neutral role-modelling, etc.33, 34 It would also protect against an incident that took place in 1995, in which a private child care centre was reported to have had its accreditation downgraded by government officials because the children said grace before their lunch.35

Indeed, the call for regulation has even extended to informal care. Two N.S.W. researchers produced a study which purported to show that children actually suffer in informal care.36 They recommended that grandparents and other informal carers be accredited before allowed to look after children.37 The next step may be to call for parenting licenses. In fact, this has already been proposed in some circles.38

Secondly, the taxation system should be changed to allow for concessions for families depending on the number of children they have. The tax-free threshold should go up incrementally depending on the number of children in the family. Perhaps figures like $2,000 per preschool children and $1,500 for children aged 6 and up could be mooted.


The modern child care experiment is developing apace. But questions need to be asked - and answered - before we allow it to run out of control. The impact not only on children, but on society, needs to be carefully assessed. One Stanford University psychologist has remarked that with the mass exodus of children into day care, "we are altering the cultural fabric" of society.39

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted the radical shifts that must take place to break the mother-child bond: "The mother's nurturing tie to her child is apparently so deeply rooted in the actual biological conditions of conception and gestation, birth and suckling, that only fairly complicated social arrangements can break it down entirely . . . Women may be said to be mothers unless they are taught to deny their child-bearing qualities. Society must distort their sense of themselves, pervert their inherent growth-patterns, perpetuate a series of learning-outrages upon them, before they will cease to want to provide, at least for a few years, for the child they have already nourished for nine months within the safe circle of their own bodies."40

Such a massive social transformation cannot proceed without major repercussions. Some groups will applaud such changes, seeing them as a sign of progress. Others, however, may view such changes as retrograde and regressive. As social analyst Peter Drucker once put it, "We are busily unmaking one of the proudest social achievements in the nineteenth century, which was to take married women out of the work force so they could devote themselves to family and children."41

1. Pamela Bone, "After the revolution: what women really want", The Age, 8 December 2001, News Extra, page 7.

2. Vandenheuvel, Audrey, "Mothers with Young Children", Family Matters 30, December 1991, pages 47-49.

3. Grattan, Michelle, "Young mothers should stay home: poll", The Age, Student Update, 13 November 1995.

4. Milburn, Caroline, "Many working mothers anxious about separation from infants: study", The Age, 18 February 1993.

5. Cited in Helen McCabe, "Mums say home's where the heart is", Herald Sun, 7 April 2000, page 25.

6. Evans, M.D.R. and Jonathan Kelley, "Employment for mothers of pre-school children: Evidence from Australia and 23 other nations", People and Place, vol. 9, no. 3, 2001, pages 28-40.

7. Cited in Michelle Pountney, "Working mums out of favor", Herald Sun, 15 December 1997, page 10.

8. Sherry, Cathy, "Women awake to life", The Age, 30 April 1998, page 15.

9. Taken from figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as cited in Bettina Arndt, "Fewer women work full-time", The Age, 21 April 1998, page 5.

10. Family Circle, May 1991, cited in Susan Bastick, "Majority support financial recognition for housewives: Newspoll", News Weekly, 9 May 1992, page 9.

11. De Bruyn, Joe, "Not in working order", Herald Sun, April 1993.

12. Manne, 1994, ibid.

13. Duffy, Michael, "Is Childcare Bad For Kids?", The Independent Monthly, October 1995, pages 36-42.

14. Cited in Sunday Times, 25 April 1993.

15. Cited in The Age, 19 February 1993.

16. Ochiltree, Gay, Effects of Child Care on Young Children: Forty Years of Research. Melbourne: Institute of Family Studies, 1994, page 3.

17. Kurdek, Lawrence, et. al., "School Adjustment in Sixth Graders: Parenting Transitions, Family Climate and Peer Norm Effects", Child Development 66, 1995, pages 432-443.

18. Tasker, Gill and Don Siemon, Is Child Care Affordable: Pressures on Families and their Use of Formal Long Day Care, The Brotherhood of St Lawrence and Community Child Care, as cited in Sally Heath, "Costs of child care hit hard", The Age, 8 April 1998, page 7.

19. Horin, Adele, "Women's unpaid work valued at $150bn a year", The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1994, page 5.

20. Ironmonger, Duncan, "The Domestic Economy", in Bill Muehlenberg, et. al., eds., The Family: There is No Other Way. Melbourne: The Australian Family Association, 1996, pages 132-146.

21. Glascott, Katherine, "Feminist rebukes ‘stay at homes’", The Weekend Australian, 11-12 March 1995, page 10.

22. Millet, Kate, cited in Karl Zinsmeister, letter to the editor, Policy Review, Summer 1988.

23. de Beauvior, Simone, author of The Second Sex.

24. Feminist sociologist Jesse Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, 1974, cited in Maggie Gallagher, Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution is Killing Family, Marriage and Sex and What We Can Do About It. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989.

25. Firestone, Shulamith, cited in Donald De Marco, Biotechnology and the Assault on Parenthood. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991, page 72.

26. Bane, Mary Jo, Wellesley College professor, in National Organisation of Women, National N.O.W. Times, January 1988.

27. Wilma Scott Heide, former chairman of the board of directors, National Organisation of Women, cited in Allan Carlson, Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1988, page 8.

28. Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990.

29. Duffy, Ibid.

30. Manne, Anne, "Children in the New World Order", Quadrant, June 1995, pages 29-39.

31. Morgan, ibid., page 124.

32. Maley, Barry, Marriage, Divorce and Family Justice. Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1993.

33. Gross, Michael, "The childcare dictators", Herald Sun, 25 November 1993, page 15.

34. Hawes, Rachel, "Childcare centres get guarantee on Christmas carols", The Weekend Australian, 27-28 November 1993.

35. "Grace under fire for childcare", Herald Sun, 17 September 1995.

36. Gunn, Michelle, "Informal childcare harms development", The Australian, 2 May 2000, page 1.

37. Naidoo, Manika, "Outrage greets child care study", The Age, 3 May 2000, page 3.

38. Lykken, David, et. al., "Symposium: Licensing Parents", Society, vol. 34, no. 1, pages 29-64.

39. Quoted in Brenda Hunter, "Attachment and Infant Daycare", in Phyllis Schlafly, ed., Who Will Rock the Cradle? Washington: Eagle Forum, 1988, pages 55-68.

40. Mead, Margaret, Male and Female. New York: Dell, 1949, 1968. page 197.

41. Quoted in George Gilder, Men and Marriage. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1986, page 138.

National Observer No. 56 - Autumn 2003