Too young for daycare?

Mia Freedman wonders if we're too quick to shout down anyone who says things about parenting that we don't want to hear.

Where is the green sheep? If you can answer this question then the name Mem Fox was familiar to you way before she blasted into the news recently with her comments about babies being put into long day-care.

As arguably Australia's most famous children's author, Mem holds an affectionate place in the heart of many parents - even if we sometimes silently curse her while reading Possum Magic out loud FOR THE FORTY SEVENTH NIGHT IN A ROW.

But it was a different kind of cursing that erupted this month. One with far more vitriol behind it. Feeling attacked and betrayed, many working mothers spat venom at Mem Fox via the pages of newspapers and the airwaves of talkback radio.

First, let's recap what she actually said:

The reaction was swift and fierce. “How dare you make us feel guiltier than we already do?” railed working mothers.

"I don't know why some people have children at all if they know that they can take only a few weeks off work.

"I know you want a child, and you have every right to want a child, but does the child want you if you are going to put it in child care at six weeks? I don't think the child wants you, to tell the honest truth.
...do they realise that child needs love more than anything else in the world? The child just wants to be held, it wants to have attention, to be the centre of a universe."

Her comments were widely reported, repeated, misreported and misinterpreted (it certainly didn't help that she compared leaving a small baby in long day-care with child abuse, an unfortunate choice of words which many people understandably found offensive).

The reaction was swift and fierce. "How dare you make us feel guiltier than we already do?" railed working mothers. "Are our lives not hard enough logistically and emotionally without you rubbing our noses in the fact that we might be damaging our kids?"

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In 1995, legendary Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig published a virtually identical criticism of working mothers in the form of a devastating newspaper cartoon. It was called "Thoughts Of A Baby Lying In A Child Care Centre" and it articulated the imagined bewilderment and despair of a baby left in care.

While the cartoon baby struggled desperately to understand why it had been abandoned by the person it loved most in the world (its mother), it loyally refused to think badly of her.

It was poignant and heart breaking. And it put into words the nightmare of every parent who has left their child to go to work.

Its publication sparked an explosion of anger from feminists and working mothers who felt vilified and betrayed by someone they had considered - like Fox - to be an ideological ally.

At home, breast-feeding my new baby, I watched quietly from the sidelines as the Mem Fox controversy erupted. And I was surprised to note how different my reaction was from what it might have been a few years ago.

Back then, I was working full-time, my child went to day-care several days a week and I'd have come out swinging aggressively at any perceived criticism of working parents.

But now? Now in a different phase of my working life, I was able to take in what Mem Fox was saying without feeling defensive and I couldn't help but agree with her fundamental point.

Strip away the hysteria and Fox was simply stating the obvious: that it's not in the best interests of a baby to be put into long day-care a few weeks after birth.

Is that such a shocking thing to say? Yes, of course there are many worse things - like actual child abuse and starvation and neglect. But it's impossible to argue that long day-care is an ideal experience for a six week old baby.

Is there a mother alive who believes otherwise? If so, she's kidding herself. Sure, there are sometimes reasons for it. Sometimes a parent may have no choice and that certainly doesn't make them a bad person.

But please, when it comes to newborn babies, let's not pretend formal group care (no matter how high the quality) is better than one-on-one care by a regular primary care giver at home.

So why the outrage? Why the venom aimed at Mem Fox and Michael Leunig for pointing out the obvious? Is it simply that if someone dares hold a mirror up to our choices and we don't like what we see, we lash out at them? Is it easier to cast them as the villain instead of questioning our own actions?

Is it that we're allowed to whip ourselves mercilessly with guilt but if someone else pricks that guilt bubble, we vilify them for it because it's just to painful?

Many of the arguments against Fox this month have referred to the many benefits of day-care such as improved social skills etc. This misses the point.

Neither Fox nor Leunig were talking about the basic concept of childcare for older babies and children nor the rights of parents to work. They were simply saying, 'If you're going to have a baby and put it immediately into care, is that in your baby's best interests?'

As feminists and working mothers, surely we shouldn't find that question so threatening that we angrily demand it never be asked.

The key point of course is that for some, putting a baby into long daycare is a financial necessity, not a philosophical decision. Without paid parental leave, many parents have no choice but to return to work.

This point is vital and valid. What baffles me is why we insist on getting angry at each other and at anyone who dares criticise working parents instead of directing our anger towards yet another government who has recklessly refused to address this issue.

Why are we shouting down Mem Fox for pointing out the obvious? Why aren't we shouting at Kevin Rudd for not even putting paid parental leave on his political agenda?

One of the first - and best - things the Rudd government did was say sorry to the stolen generation.

But what of the babies whose first weeks and months are 'stolen' (and I use this term loosely and without any disrespect intended to those indigenous Australians who were actually stolen) from parents who had to return to work prematurely to feed their family and pay the rent?

Will a future prime minister be forced to apologise to them? Will we look back on Australia's appalling inability to implement a paid parental leave scheme with shame and embarrassment?

And will our children and grandchildren ask us why we didn't shout louder - not at each other but at the politicians and business leaders who could make it happen?

What did you think about Mem Fox's comments? How young is too young for day-care?

Chat about child care and long day care here