THERE was an Irish radio phone-in show, it must have been over 15 years ago, that has always stuck in my mind. The presenter was Gerry Ryan, a very popular presenter in Ireland who has since passed away. It was the first day of school, which is September 1. A mother had just dropped off her youngest child, a boy of about five, at primary school. I can’t remember how many kids she had in total but given that it was Ireland about 15 years ago it could have been her fourth or fifth. In any case, he was her last to go. She was now at home, alone.
I remember how sad the mother felt, and Gerry was doing a great job consoling her. The mother explained that her son ‘held my hand, and then he turned around and walked in. “You have to let me go, ma, I’m a big boy now”,’ the mother recounted, at this stage taking deep breaths. You’ll be ok, said Gerry to the mother. Just pour yourself a glass of something strong, you’ll be fine. But he was my youngest, Gerry, my youngest who I always had with me at home, and now he’s in big school.
I remember this conversation as it reminds of how far we have come, according to the feminists, or how much we have lost, if you ask me. It reminds me that, once upon a time, in a land not so far way, dropping your youngest child to school on his first day was a Big Deal. The first day at school was an Event. It was an Event because until then he was at home with you, his mother. This was the first time mother and child would be separated for a significant period of time and therefore it was an emotional wrench.
For the young child there might have been a playschool or a playgroup, but more likely there were cousins or the neighbour’s kid that your ma dropped into every day and played with. There definitely was a granny close by. But the point is, as a young child you were at home with your mother, every day, while she went about her daily routine. Mothers caring for their children was how things were; it was so natural that no comment was ever needed.
Now, how many families do you know, where the first day at primary school is also the first day the little ones have been away from their mothers for a notable period of time? Exactly. You know zero families like that. Zero.
When the change came, if we think about, it was swift. Nowadays you can place your 12-week-old baby to nursery if you want. Twelve weeks! What progress! What liberation! That baby has been on planet earth for 84 days (can that really be right?) and can be dropped off to a nursery at 7:30 am, and not picked up until ‘I don’t want to think about it too hard o’clock it’s so depressing’. And I tell you what, no one is weeping down the line to a local radio show about it either.
At least those babies are too young to know how they are being deprived of their maternal care – their birthright – a mere 84 days after being born. The older ones know what’s going on, you often see them stumbling in slightly bleary-eyed, another ten-hour day in front of them.
Pretty much everyone, these days, certainly all the politicians and everyone in the media, would have you think children in nursery and mothers out working is great news. It’s the way things ought to be. Women have adopted The Message. Infants in non-maternal care is progress indeed. Over at Mumsnet, I tell you most solemnly, no child can ever be too young or left at nursery too long. And they always, invariably, ‘love it’.
We have even lost the Daily Mail, who the other day had Jenni Murray clamouring for more childcare as it would get more mothers out to work, which is just what the economy needs right now. The Daily flipping Mail.
Jenni was upset that the current 30 hours of free childcare or early years education was not going to be extended to 50 hours. ‘Did it not occur to him (Rishi Sunak) that free childcare would enable women — and it is still primarily women who look after the kids — to go out to work, use the education for which the country has paid handsomely, pay tax and pour money back into the Treasury, while solving the country’s shortage of good, hard workers?’
First, I think your number is up if you are relying on the mothers of under-threes going out to work to boost your economy. This would have been seen as slightly unhinged even when Jenni was a young mother. Mothers working when the kids are in school is one thing – but under-threes, back in the time when sanity prevailed, were seen as better off with their mothers.
Second, it is deluded to think that this would be a net benefit for the exchequer. As Ryan Bourne helpfully pointed out in the Times, ‘research has found that rolling out universal childcare to three-year-olds in England only increased employment of mothers in (often part-time) work by 12,000, at a huge cost of £65,000 per job’.
Further, the reason there is a shortage of workers is the boomers checking out early and a huge rise in long-term sick. ‘Between June and August 2022, around 2.5million people reported long-term sickness as the main reason for economic inactivity, up from around 2million in 2019.’ It’s absurd to blame mothers of young children for the labour shortage – they are already labouring looking after the kids.
There may be many reasons for mothers to go back to work, such as financial necessity, just wanting to work, seeing people, but I tell you what, getting Rishi Sunak and the Tories out of a tight spot by paying more tax should not be one of them.
I understand that two incomes are now a necessity. When everyone gets a mortgage on two incomes, house prices rise and two incomes must be maintained. So, two full-time incomes creates a vicious circle: a lot of families are trapped. They have to use expensive childcare whether they like it or not. But let’s not pretend this is a win-win situation. Let’s not pretend that nothing has been lost in the great Revolution.
A lot is lost by pushing mothers of young children out to work. Not only do their children not get the care of a mother, which is unique, but it empties the private sphere. It hollows out extended families and communities. It makes life lonelier for those who do care for their children themselves and increases the pressure on those mothers to go to work too – another vicious circle.
In sum, there is something to be said for caring and raising your own children. There is something unnatural about dropping an infant to ‘nursery’ for hours on end. There is something to be said for caring for your own child in its first year of life. You might not like it, but it is your duty as a mother.
It’s certainly tough these days for young families – they’ve been stitched up good and proper by vested interests pushing up housing costs, food costs and pretty much everything else. But it wasn’t that long ago when most kids were at home with their mothers until they started school. The bond they had and time they spent together was special. Don’t ever let them tell you it was time wasted.