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March 30th 2010 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Maternity leave and mother wars

Governments should not be in the business of showing partiality to one kind of mother over another. They should treat all mums fairly. This is not a call for special favours or rights for stay-at-home mums, simply equity and fairness.

A brand new survey of what women really want concerning paid maternity leave is most revealing. Contrary to the usual line that basically all women want a paid career, with perhaps family thrown in on the side, this new Galaxy poll finds overwhelming support for the importance of stay-at-home mothering.

Commissioned by the Australian Family Association, the poll asked over 1000 people whether government paid parental leave plans should go to stay-at- home mothers, as well as those in the paid workplace. Some sixty-four per cent said that both groups should be equally funded.

The poll also asked whether government childcare funding arrangements should be provided equally to both groups of mums. A strong sixty-seven per cent replied that childcare rebates should go to both groups. AFA spokesman Tim Rebbechi said, "Why should stay home mums be treated as second-class citizens, missing out on paid parental leave, when they also give up income in those early months?”

And Kids First Director Tempe Harvey said, “Let’s face it – all mums work, but not all mums are paid for what they do. Parenting payments should not discriminate on this basis.”

This survey simply confirms what Australian women have been saying about this issue for decades now. Earlier polls found quite similar results. For example, one survey of 4500 adults found that 69 per cent of respondents preferred that the mother stay home when she had pre-school children.

Australian National University research found that only 4 per cent of respondents felt that women with pre-school kids should work full time, while only 31 per cent thought they should be in the labour force part time. 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.

A major Australian study conducted in 2001 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.

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.

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.

Thus time and time again Australian women have spoken out about their preferences. Most really want to be with their small children in their first few years, and see motherhood as more important than getting straight back into the paid-workplace.

So why are political parties continuing to offer women only one choice here? Why do governments and opposition parties seem to think that all Australian women would rather be in the paid workplace instead of at home with their very young children?

Why are stay-at-home mums in effect penalised by governments, while non-stay-at-home mums are rewarded? Why should dual income families receive government subsidies for day care when single income families receive no or very little by way of subsidies? Why this discrimination? Governments should not be in the business of showing partiality to one kind of mother over another. They should treat all mums fairly. This is not a call for special favours or rights for stay-at-home mums, simply equity and fairness.

It seems that there are some groups with vested interests (eg., the feminist lobby) which are very eager to urge women into the paid work force. Indeed, these groups have made it clear what sort of agenda they are promoting here.

For example, in 1995 feminist Eva Cox rebuked women who chose to stay at home and said that all women should be in the market economy. Pamela Bone wrote back in 2001, “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.”

The various surveys and polls cited above of course give lie to such incredible claims. And just how exactly is being raised by strangers in the best interests of children? Talk about ideology trumping facts and evidence.

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

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” (Kate Millet).

No woman should be authorised to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have the choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one” (Simone de Beauvior).

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. . .” (Jesse Bernard).

“The heart of woman’s oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles” (Shulamith Firestone).

In order to raise children with equality, we must take them away from families and communally raise them” (Mary Jo Bane).

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” (Wilma Scott Heide).

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 an impact. Marian Sawer’s 1990 book, Sisters in Suits describes the success of the feminist bureaucracy in Canberra in achieving its goals. Child care has certainly been one of the big winners. As social analyst Michael Duffy has said, “Feminism in the form we have it today could not exist without childcare.”

It is clearly time that politicians of all stripes start actually listening to women – and to all women, not just the radicals who are pushing their own anti-family and anti-child agendas. This latest survey needs to be flashed in front of the eyes of both Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott. They ignore such surveys at their own peril.