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Why have kids if you don't look after them?

The Age (Melbourne)
15 November 2008

Why have kids if you don't look after them?
By Tracee Hutchison

As someone without children, I am under no illusion that my right to talk about certain issues is somewhat compromised. Unlike mothers, who according to the prevailing notion that prefacing ruminations on pretty much anything with "as a mother, I" is an instant getting of wisdom, we non-mothers must be careful to know our place on certain topics, particularly those concerning children.

So I suspect my views on what I see as an obsession with putting children into child care might infuriate some mothers and alienate a whole lot of others. It's just that I really can't remember a time when child care carried such a huge chunk of political and social sway.

I'm even more mystified as to why the first thing so many people seem to do when they become pregnant isn't to organise the birthing location, it's to put the child's (potential) name down at the local child-care centre. Why have children if you don't want to look after them?

One minute we're hearing about how hard it is for older women to fall pregnant. Then we hear the child-care sector is buckling under the weight of people wanting to offload their kids to the care of someone else.

So this $22 million Federal Government bail-out of ABC Learning has really got me scratching my head, particularly when it's coupled with other figures such as the $2 billion the Government spends on child-care subsidies each year. Add to that Commonwealth child-care benefits and child-care tax rebates.

Time and again we hear from parents (usually the mother, it has to be said) complaining about how much money child care costs and that in dual-income households the additional money earned by a new mother going back to work is pretty much consumed by child-care fees.

Even in situations where there's no job to go to the kid is bundled off to day care for the so-called "socialisation" benefits. I've always wondered how these oft-cited "socialisation" benefits played off against the idea of children being looked after from extremely young ages by people who  despite all care and good intention  are actually strangers.

This child-care obsession has undermined the value of one parent (usually the mother) staying home with a preschool child. Certainly many who choose that option are frequently regarded in the most disparaging ways.

Maybe the extraordinary proliferation of the child-care sector really is just an attempt to replicate diminished extended family structures and the idea that a neighbourhood was a village that brought with it playmates and less formal babysitting options. Or maybe it's just another sad reality of a world that got too fast for itself  the product of a "have-it-all" culture that's just had the financial bottom fall out of it.

This current "where-to-now?" discussion about child care has had me thinking wistfully about my own childhood. And it's looking increasingly idyllic.

Sure, the world is a very different place now, but I think these are precisely the times that such recollections are instructive. I remember a childhood where an afternoon would happily and effortlessly disappear in the quest for tadpoles or mushrooms or riding skiffle boards with my brother and sister at the beach. A childhood where home-made billycarts offered entertainment  and healthy competition  with the other kids in our street.

A childhood where we used our imagination and played cowboys and Indians and, yes, doctors and nurses. A childhood that sometimes meant going to work with mum and quietly losing myself in a colouring book for a few hours so as not to disturb the adults. A childhood where the idea of going for a drive in the EH Holden on a Sunday afternoon was the best thing since sliced bread.

Increasingly, I think these very simple pleasures of childhood have been lost, consumed by consumption and the inexplicable notion that kids have to be in constant care  often by people who aren't their parents.

Despite the precarious nature of my non-mother perspective, I don't think it's time for more or cheaper child care. I think it's time for less. The stranglehold on parenting that putting kids into child care has created needs to be broken.

I think it's time to get back to basics and to reinstate the value of raising our own children.

Tracee Hutchison is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster.

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