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Feminism, Childcare, and Family Mental Health Have Women Been Misled by Equality Feminism?

Equality or liberation?

Have feminists, in their quest for equality rather than liberation, led women out of the frying pan into the fire, with adverse repercussions for themselves, their families, and social well-being? If so, as plans affecting the family develop, it is important to diagnose correctly the causes of stress, dissatisfaction and overwork experienced by many mothers today. Some, claiming to represent the interests of women and children, call for ever more childcare - usually without stating the age range of children involved. But for young children this can be a complicated prescription, with side-effects and risks, especially if these places are for infants under one or two years, centre-based, and for more than a few hours a week. This alleged "need" for more childcare is a symptom, and the risks for the social and emotional development of very young girls and boys are seldom acknowledged, let alone the possible consequences when they grow up to become the next generation of women and their partners.

Pointers to a better diagnosis are offered in The Miseducation of Women (2002) by James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle-on-Tyne. He adopts the distinction between equality feminism and liberation feminism, made by Germaine Greer in The Whole Woman (1999). She suggests that "equality is a poor substitute for liberation". Equality feminism relies on the (largely misconceived) dogma that gender differences are social constructs, and it prescribes equal treatment for girls and boys in education, careers and domestic situations. But Tooley summarises evidence that some female/male differences, such as certain abilities, interests, and mate-selection choices, appear to be biologically-based, conferring special benefits on the human species. So assumptions that they should be "corrected" may be misguided and difficult to implement.

Liberation feminism (a related concept is "maternal feminism") takes it for granted that there should be equality of opportunity and remuneration, but regards biologically-based differences as important, especially in cognitive abilities, mating interests, and mothering - a term which equality feminism repudiated in favour of "parenting".

Feminist icons recant

Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), set women on paths to careers and equality, avoiding motherhood - only to be reproached later by disillusioned followers who pointed out that, unlike them, she already had a husband and children when she urged this life pattern. But her recantations in The Second Stage (1981) were ignored, as equality feminists continued to implement her earlier prescriptions. Yet she wrote: "The equality we fought for isn't liveable, isn't workable, isn't comfortable in the terms that structured our battle."

Germaine Greer, too, had a belated and poignant rethink. Having inspired a generation of women not to want motherhood, she now "mourns for her unborn babies", and confessed "I still have pregnancy dreams, waiting with vast joy and confidence for something that will never happen." In The Whole Woman she says: "In The Female Eunuch I argued that motherhood should not be treated as a substitute career: now I would argue that motherhood should be regarded as a genuine career option?". She says the "immense rewardingness of children is the best kept secret in the western world".

Some unintended consequences of equality feminism

Unfortunately, the working mothers/childcare juggernaut, once set in motion, develops a momentum of its own. In buying homes, two incomes outbid one and prices rise accordingly. Something is very wrong when many women in some of the world's most affluent societies cannot afford to breast­feed and mother their own babies. The "economy" is said to require their labour, and the childcare "industry" has many powerful "players", and for some it has become very profitable. But who has a greater claim on a mother's presence than her own baby? We were all babies once. That breast­feeding is of far-reaching health significance, and involves a foundational love relationship, not just a tank-filling exercise, is largely disregarded. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends breast­feeding for a year or more, and WHO/UNICEF urge at least two years. Danish adults who had been breastfed for nine months averaged six points higher IQ than those breastfed for less than a month, as reported in a rigorous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002. Research consistently shows the greatest positive effects are on the competence of the immune system and on health, in ways that have major long-term cost implications for any modern society.

Ideology masquerading as science

Discussion of childcare is not meaningful without stating whether it is early childcare for infants in the first two to three years, or for preschoolers, or for children after school, since the implications are very different. We must acknowledge that there are risks in early childcare, and that professionals regard staff stability, with one carer per three (not five) infants under two years, as a preliminary requirement for infant daycare to be considered of "high quality". This is inherently costly. Yet rather than promoting social settings which support healthy, more natural mothering of small children, many women gaining power in the social sciences, the bureaucracies and politics call for still more non-parental childcare, ignoring or downplaying the accumulating evidence of risks in their early childcare prescriptions. In his editorial in The Wall Street Journal of July 16, 2003, Professor Jay Belsky described this bias as "ideology masquerading as science".

Maternal care and family mental health

Summarising evidence from much research, including the multimillion dollar US study into the effects of childcare by the Early Child Care Network of the National Institute for Child Health and Development (NICHD), of which he is a founding member, Belsky observed that, regardless of the type and quality of daycare, research shows that the more time children spend in any kind of non-maternal daycare before they are 4 1/2 years old, the more truly aggressive and disobedient they are - not just more assertive or independent. This has adverse implications for parents, as well as for teachers and fellow-pupils, who are all disadvantaged by the disruption to learning which such children can cause in the classroom.

The security of an infant's attachment to his or her mother can be reliably assessed at around 15 to 18 months, and an insecure attachment in the first half of the second year is associated with a higher risk of adverse outcomes in later development, especially when the child confronts risks and challenges to his or her development. The NICHD study showed that risk of insecure attachment is increased for boys with more than 30 hours per week in non-maternal childcare, regardless of the quality of the care or other factors. Risk is also increased when a number of risk factors, such as low quality care, changes in care, and relatively insensitive mothering, occur together. For example, more than just 10 hours a week increases risk of insecure attachment if mothering is relatively insensitive, even if all other factors, such as quality of childcare, are favourable. Also, the more time children spend in childcare, irrespective of its quality, the less sensitive is the mother's mothering through the first 36 months of the child's life. An extended outline of this NICHD study may be found in my Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk (1997).

The Minnesota Longitudinal Studies show that, while peer and family experiences appear to make distinctive contributions to future close relationships, the quality of early attachment experiences have particular importance with regard to the intimacy, trust, and other emotional aspects of both teenage and adult relationships, and the capacity for successful partnerships in adult life. Moreover, children and teens with secure attachment histories excel in social and emotional health, leadership skills, morality, social behavior, self-reliance, self-control and resiliency, as appropriate in each stage of development.

The risk-benefit situation may be different where young children are at risk for social reasons, such as an impoverished home environment, especially when exposed to indisputably good quality day care, and here good quality day care may offer intellectual-developmental benefits. But these may be a special case which should not be generalised to argue for early childcare as a healthy norm for most young children in society - even though it is politically fashionable to do so.

The private opinions of mental health professionals

Penelope Leach (1997) reported that, when asked what care they considered likely to be best from birth to 36 months, most infant mental health professionals privately believed that from the infant's point of view it is "very important" for babies to have their mothers available to them "through most of each 24 hours" for more than a year (mean age 15 months), and "ideal" for infants to be cared for "principally by their mothers" for durations averaging 27 months. These were the opinions of the 450 respondents (from 56 countries) of the 902 members of the World Association for Infant Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, who answered a confidential, anonymous survey. Leach concluded: "Those findings suggest that there are many professionals in infant mental health who believe that children's best interests would be served by patterns of early child care diametrically opposed to those politicians promise, policy-makers aspire to provide and parents strive to find".


The fruits of good mothering and early nurture are among the greatest blessings a person can have in life. In offering these to their babies, mothers and fathers are setting patterns of relationships which can be creative, mutually rewarding and last for the rest of their lives.

Fathers are certainly important, and share with mothers in being playmates, partners, parents, protectors and providers. But in all mammals, the roles of the two parents are different. In the natural breast­feeding period the role of mother is always primary. In primates this includes carrying and co-sleeping, which promote secure attachment. Programs which pressure young mothers into the workforce and promote early daycare carry long-term risks for community well-being. Our society needs to recognise the far-reaching developmental importance of breast­feeding and close, responsive mother-infant relationships in the early years, along with the close involvement of fathers, and aim to create social settings which facilitate and support them. If we are going to pay for quality infant care, why not support mothers to do it? Infancy cannot be re-run later.

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Professor Jay Belsky and Professor B. Egeland for communicating with me on some of this material, but responsibility for the text is mine.

Dr. Peter S. Cook is a retired Sydney, Australia child and family psychiatrist, who writes on preventive child and family mental health. He is the author of Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk (Melbourne: News Weekly Books, 1997).

Copyright © Peter S. Cook, Sydney, 2004. This article may be freely reproduced in whole or in part, with acknowledgement.

Extended references and bibliography