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QUARTERLY ESSAY 29 Love and Money

 

Correspondence

Don Edgar

Anne Manne’s Love & Money is an interesting, but incomplete, analysis of the ways in which, she believes, dramatic shifts in the “gender bargain” and “new capitalism” have altered the culture and demand new policies of family support. 

Her proposals for reform, at the end of her essay, are hardly contestable – improved provisions for parental leave, job flexibility, child-care quality, community support services and universal pre-school. But there is a tone of fervour about motherhood that leads to overstatement and undermines her case. She is particularly concerned that attachment theory and separation anxiety need to be better understood, because we don’t want “a baby – at the height of separation anxiety – spending up to ten hours per day in child-care. Only a bureaucracy could have designed a policy so insensitive to infant needs.” 

There is no monolithic policy or system of child-care “designed” by bureaucrats. Most child-care is private or community-based and parents make such a “choice” out of necessity – they have a mortgage to pay off, there’s no one else to babysit, their employer demands a quick return to work, there’s inadequate maternity leave or absence from the office will stymie a career. 

Indeed, very few infants spend that sort of time in long day-care: 5 per cent of children aged below one, 21 per cent of children aged one to two (and not all of them are there for ten hours a day, every day). In fact, only 38 per cent of mothers with a baby under one are employed, mostly on a part-time basis. 

Anne Manne acknowledges all this, yet blames bureaucrats, feminists, the “work-centred commentariat,” “left-leaning progressives,” “the child-care lobby,” “an international network of activists determined to install the early child-care agenda,” and those “shaping the cultural script.” What a litany of culprits to explain why today’s mothers “neglect” their children in the early years and go to work in a hedonistic pursuit of consumerism instead of staying home for years (as Anne Manne apparently did) to ensure proper “attachment” and “attunement,” the basis of optimism and trust, “an emotional map of the world.” 

There is no study I know (and no study quoted in the essay) that shows children cared for full-time by mums (and for how long anyway: one, five or twenty years?) have a better “emotional map” than the majority who spend some time at least (not ten hours a day) in non-parental care. The main factor in children’s wellbeing is the mother’s satisfaction with her lot (whether working at home or in a paid job) and feeling that her partner does a fair share of the load. Few children throughout human history have had the luxury of full-time maternal care.

It is this evangelical tone that mars Manne’s essay. Her own work experience while she was a jillaroo in outback New South Wales for “Mr and Mrs Slavedriver” is almost Dickensian. Poor Anne had to muster cattle before eight, “red dust clogging our boots and coating our skins,” then feed slops to the cattle dogs, change nappies, cook every meal for the family and wash all the clothes. No wonder she stood “swaying, at the bottom of the hill,” as her “burnt fingertips” (from re-used matches) strained to carry the heavy buckets. This is her evidence against feminist rhetoric about “the liberation of work” and apparently why she spent so many years in domestic duties before developing a career (as a money-earning writer and part of the elite workforce she admonishes). 

I could embellish the description of my own widowed mother, swaying at the bottom of the hill as she started the walk to Fletcher Jones’ factory in Warrnambool at 7.30 a.m., and then walking back to a family of five in need of feeding at around 6 p.m. But I know she enjoyed that work because it paid the bills, gave her a friendship support group and freed her from domestic boredom, not to mention that we older kids bucked in and helped with much of the feeding and caring for our younger siblings, vegetable growing, clothes washing, shopping and housework. Not all work is with a slavedriver boss, not all women are forced into a job and not all mums do the caring work alone. Nor was our “emotional map of the world” damaged by our mother’s workplace focus and “neglect” of us during the long working days – in fact, we were caring for one another, at school, playing sport, as are most kids, not pining for more maternal comfort.

Along with a very selective use of sources, what is missing from Anne Manne’s analysis is a sense of history about family life, trends which the Australian Institute of Family Studies (along with others) has documented thoroughly since its inception in 1980. For example, her concern that the caring work of women is not counted in our national accounts as part of GDP has been repeatedly expressed by Duncan Ironmonger of Melbourne University. Recognition of the value of caring work and equal contributions to marriage were built into the Family Law Act 1975 provisions for property division and child maintenance. Various aspects of caring work have been costed by the Institute. 

The move of Australian women back into paid work was well underway by the 1950s and is not just a product of feminism or neo-capitalism. British researcher Catherine Hakim was not the first to discover women had diverse attitudes to paid employment. Indeed, Hakim’s research was more remarkable for the fact that it finally drew John Howard’s attention to the blatantly obvious – that women were diverse, not universally focused on home-making – not for its innovation. It made a trite and misleading distinction between just three “types” of women: work-centred, home-centred and “adaptive” women (the majority). Their “preferences” change as their circumstances do. Howard had refused to listen, until it became clear the workplace needed women and the majority wanted paid work but had trouble because the male-dominated workplace had failed to adapt. WorkChoices did not quite fit the bill.

The issue of diversity and the cultural shift away from a single model of marriage and family was central to the work of the Institute of Family Studies – well before Anthony Giddens’s work on the transformation of intimacy – and made a huge difference to social security and other policy areas. We were attacked by both Labor and Liberal parties for our AFIT (Australian Families Income Transfer) modelling of election tax promises to “help the family,” modelling which showed how diverse family structures, sizes and economic needs were, yet our findings were later taken into account in revised policy settings. 

Those arguing for better quality and more universal child-care were not motivated by wanting to push all mothers into paid work, but by the fact that mothers were returning to workplaces that refused to recognise their dual work and family responsibilities, and by the fact that child-care quality was not guaranteed. Reality, and the best interests of children who were in care, was the motivation. Far from being part of some monolithic child-care lobby, we fought with the ACTU over the failure of their maternity leave campaign to consider parental care. And we did major research on the impact of various forms of child-care on children’s wellbeing, showing that low socio-economic status, ethnicity and maternal satisfaction with job versus home “choices” were more important than child-care in explaining child outcomes. The Institute’s current longitudinal study of children will be of major interest in this regard.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies had also been calling for a more responsive workplace culture for years. Gradually we won over the Business Council of Australia, several major companies developed better work/family cultures and small businesses formed consortiums to cover work/family problems in less costly ways. 

Far from being an elite mouthpiece for a feminist agenda, the AIFS has been (during my tenure as director for fourteen years and since) an advocate for family support – not just child-care but every form of family care, including aged care, maternal and child health, family counselling and financial advisory services, more integrated children’s services, decent housing, adequate family payments, maternity and parental leave, a workplace culture more responsive to family responsibilities and family-law reforms to ensure adequate child maintenance and more sensible post-divorce parenting arrangements. 

Anne Manne calls for better family-support services, a more family-responsive workplace culture, an adequate parental leave system along the lines of Sweden or England (both of which found such leave was preferred by parents to placing their children too early in long day-care, even of high quality). I agree totally with all that, and with her correctly pointing out that the oft-quoted cost-benefit of $7 for every $1 spent in the Perry Pre-school Project cannot be generalised to all children in child-care. Most of us who use that figure use it as an illustration in support of better investment in early childhood services of every kind, without assuming it is the last word in research.

But her assertions about why women are working do not bear close examination. She fails to consider the key changes – couples who marry later have established career paths and/or economic needs; they have fewer children, so “time out” of the workplace decreases anyway (as opposed to her driving kids to school from the late 1980s to 2006, nearly twenty years); child-care is better linked now with other types of family-support services (as in Victoria’s Children’s Hubs); and, though belatedly, more workplaces have adapted to the family-related care responsibilities of employees they must competitively attract and retain. 

She makes a fleeting reference to the coming demands of an ageing population, which may alter the dependency ratio and increase health costs. But she does not mention the fact that Australians over sixty-five contribute almost $39 billion to the national economy in unpaid work, nor discuss how mothering (of fewer children, later in life) will alter the nature of aged care itself. In my 2006 book The War Over Work: The Future of Work and Family, I discuss this in detail within the framework of better policy recognition of “caring work” – proposing a Carer’s Wage, as opposed to narrowly targeted child-care payments and discrimination in favour of one type of family caring arrangement for children over another. 

Anne Manne sets up straw men (and women) to misrepresent views that in fact support the policy thrust of her argument. She seeks to convert people to her cause – a particular form of motherhood is her religion. Perhaps one day research will examine how well these highly mothered young people deal with the challenges of their lives. Meanwhile, for most women we need policies and critiques that deal realistically with the ways families change, and how new technology and unfettered consumerism have altered the place of children in society, not the purple prose of Anne Manne’s Quarterly Essay.

 

Don Edgar was the foundation director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies from 1980 to 1993. He is a member of the Victorian Children’s Council. His next book (co-authored with his wife, Dr Patricia Edgar) is The New Child: In Search of Smarter Grown-Ups

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 29, Love and Money. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks.


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