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Sue Palmer: Caring for small children is regarded as ‘women’s work’. That’s why it is valued so little

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TCW interviews Sue Palmer, author of 21st Century Girls, How the Modern World is Damaging our Daughters and What we can do about it

This government has focused relentlessly on getting mothers of small children including under 2’s ‘back to work.’ What do you think of their policy of separating mothers from their infants?

In terms of children under two, it flies in the face of everything we know about the huge importance of early attachment. Babies and young toddlers thrive best when they receive constant, consistent, loving care, and the person who’s usually best placed to provide this care is the child’s mother — apart from anything else, she’s biologically-assisted!  Of course, if a mum can’t care for her child (because she’s ill, depressed, or incapable of caring for some other reason) or if she doesn’t want to stay at home with her child (because she’d really rather get back to work), then it would be necessary to make alternative arrangements. But in deciding on those arrangements the developmental needs of the child should come first.

The stated aim of this government is to get more mothers back to work ‘to increase GDP’. Do you think it is moral or ethical to place economic interests over the unique needs of infants?

I don’t think it’s moral, ethical or — in the long run — economically intelligent.  If children are deprived of close, loving relationships in their early years, it can have a long-term effect on their development.  That means poorer educational outcomes (the UK is not doing well in the international educational stakes) and more mental health problems (at present, mental health charities are talking about an ‘explosion’ of such problems among children and young people).  These long-term results have obvious economic implications in terms of an ill-equipped workforce, hours lost due to illness and the soaring cost of health provision.

But purely in terms of ethics and morals … children’s emotional and social development is shaped by early experiences — and that will affect their values and their relationships with others in adulthood.  For example, in a recent review of family relationship breakdown in European nations, the UK shamefully came top of the charts, while the country with the most stable adult relationships was Finland, where there’s a homecare allowance so that one parent can stay at home for the first three years.

Oh goodness, what am I doing ranting on about economics and research studies?  It’s a matter of simple humanity to give little children the best possible care!

Why is caring so undervalued by this society?

I think it’s because caring is traditionally ‘women’s work’ and has in the past been unpaid, unnoticed and massively undervalued in terms of its significance for society.  On the other hand, ‘men’s work’ has been highly valued, and the value was recognised in economic terms.  With gender equality, women began valuing their own achievements in economic terms too and the importance of care was forgotten.

Care is also very ‘hands-on’ work, and manual occupations have far less kudos in our culture than cerebral ones.  But I think we’re soon going to have to re-evaluate what care is all about.  The capacity to empathise with and care for others is a human talent, requiring a particular type of thinking skill — different from the systemised thinking taught at school, but just as important.

Why has become so difficult now for a family to live on a single income even for a few years while their children are pre-school?

The market of course!   Anyone who was around in the 1980s watched it happen.  As mums went back to work and dual-income families became the norm, people could afford to pay more for their homes.  So house prices rose. Then everyone got used to the idea of massive debt, banks offered bigger and bigger mortgages, and we got a house-price bubble.  Now no-one dares to prick the bubble because the whole fabric of our society would come tumbling down.

It’s a massive problem, compounded by the consumerist ethos of our society — most people now judge other people’s worth on the basis of their possessions and ‘lifestyle’, including their home.  Anyone opting to live on a smaller income so that one parent can stay at home with the children is up for social demotion.

Do you have hope for the future that motherhood will be valued again?

Yes.  It has to be.  If it isn’t, we’ll care less and less well for our children and the long-term impact on society will be disastrous.  I believe we’ll simply have to start valuing this particular aspect of traditional women’s work (and hopefully start interesting more men in pursuing it) or we’re goners!

Mind you, after three years writing 21st Century Girls, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sexual revolution was the most seismic social change in the history of our planet.  So far it’s been surprisingly bloodless, but it’s not surprising that it’s led to all sorts of confusion. However, we’re a very clever species, and I’m sure we’ll eventually come to our senses.

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Sue Palmer
Sue Palmer is a former primary headteacher in the Scottish Borders and is an independent writer and consultant on primary education, particularly literacy.

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