Mem Fox and the parable of the green sheep

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'Where is the green sheep?' by Mem Fox, cropped 300 by 300Here is the blue sheep. And here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep. And here is the bed sheep. But where is the green sheep?

Its lilting refrain, and the dream-like logic of sheep in the bath, riding a train, sunbaking, shooting from a canon, have made Mem Fox's Where is the Green Sheep? one of my daughter's most beloved books.

So often have my husband and I raised the surreal but somehow profound question — 'Where is the green sheep?' — while admiring Judy Horacek's delightful drawings of unexpected sheep activity, that its rhythm has permeated deep into our subconscious.

Looking for any lost shoe, or toy, or set of keys in the chaos a 16-month-old brings is now accompanied by a pleading chorus of, 'Where is that green sheep?'

Fox knows how to speak to children, but what about their parents? A week ago this author of wildly popular picture books (her Possum Magic is Australia's highest selling children's book ever) was reported as condemning long daycare for young babies. Newspapers and television stations across the nation funnelled her critique into the headline, 'Mem Fox Blasts Childcare', and the predictable storm followed.

Working mothers 'offended' and 'disgusted' by Mem's comments were quickly located and photographed. There was much complaint about mortgage stress and even some talk of destroying books.

On the other side of the 'mummy wars' fence, the ritual warriors assumed their customary postures, berating 'selfish mothers' and a society so sick with affluenza it put mortgages above maternal love.

But there was one word missing word from all of this brouhaha — 'fathers'.

As seems always to be the case, discussion on childcare becomes a dispute over maternal responsibility and maternal guilt. Even Mem Fox, a self-described 'ageing, raging 60s feminist', began her critique of long daycare for young babies with 'parents', but soon slid into the more comfortable 'mothers'.

But the decision to place a young baby into full-time care is most often made by two parents — a mother and a father. This is a shared responsibility. And not only that, but the alternative — staying home with your child, full- or part-time — must also be a choice both parents can make.

The feminist revolution has profoundly altered the way men and women have relationships. For women of my generation it was taken for granted that we would study, travel, and work. When love happened it was marked by the same equality and independence. What woman now abandons her career simply because she marries, as most of our mothers did?

But as many of us discover, motherhood magically transports us back to the 1950s — dad goes off to work, mum stays at home. Or, if baby goes into care, then it is mum's fault for going back to work, not dad's.

There is nothing inevitable about this. As a society we make it so. If many women find it challenging, under current legislation, to negotiate maternity leave and job flexibility when returning to work then how much more difficult for men to take parental leave of any meaningful length or to job-share so that they can be at home with their child?

In our family, I wanted to be at home during the first year of our daughter's life, and the reality of breastfeeding meant the easier option was for me to be the at-home parent. But in her second year, when I was interested in returning to work part-time and my husband was keen to share the day-to-day parenting, his employer refused.

Fox has defended her comments as arising from a concern for the best interests of babies. This is an important reorientation, and follows on from arguments made by Anne Manne and other maternal feminists. But as the example from our family reminds, the decisions parents make about childcare do not happen in a social or economic vacuum.

I am not arguing that mothers and fathers are the same, let alone that all families are the same. But as a society we still have an extraordinarily long way to go before men can translate all the changes that have happened in their relationships with women into their relationships with children.

A conversation about childcare and its consequences for children is one we need to be having. Thankfully this is something the government seems finally to be taking responsibility for with the Productivity Commission's current inquiry into paid parental leave, and the work being done by Maxine McKew as Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare.

But we need to turn this into a conversation about 'children' and 'parents', not merely 'children' and 'mothers'.

The way we care for our children is a shared responsibility as well as a shared joy. Changing the terms of discussion, and the legislation for leave arrangements, to better reflect this will help us escape the 'mummy wars' into something much more meaningful.

Otherwise our national debate is in danger of remaining like the green sheep, finally found at the end of the story, 'fast asleep'.


Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer with ABC Radio National.

 

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, mem fox, childcare, mummy wars, where is the green sheep, possum magic

 

 

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Existing comments

Here! Here! Let's add some more complexity to the mix, a more respectful way to approach this issue for our children.
Dan Donahoo | 10 September 2008


I could not agree more. Being a father of three young children my wife and I have spoken of my options of casual employment. I might just add the real fear that some parents may have but not voice "Could I do such a demanding job as well as my wife does it?" I think it is also sad that some members of our society don't have the extended family unity to work with. I am also not sure if enough energy is dedicated to the development of such positive relationships.
Bruce Carr | 10 September 2008


Sarah's response was so refreshing, and inclusive of my own circumstances. Due to a range of issues, I returned to full-time work when my child was 11 weeks old. My husband stayed home with her, and we also used the small creche at my workplace several days a week. This was particularly important as it (and my husband bringing her in) allowed me to breastfeed fully for six months, and then partially up until her first birthday. Parenting is a shared responsibility, and each family has to make the best of it's own circumstances. It is poor form by governments and journalists to put all of the responsibility (and the guilt) onto mothers. Thank you Sarah!
Sharon Hillcoat | 10 September 2008


I am glad to read something so positive about Mem! I understood what she meant when she made that statement. I fully support her opinion about babies being left to strangers so young. In the '70s I worked with a teacher who had decided, with her husband, to share their first born. So, She stayed home in the first year, then he stayed home in the second year. No problems, at least in South Australia. And the baby was never alone, and benefited from both parents.
I will certainly buy this book!
Nathalie | 10 September 2008


Thank you Sarah. Yes, let's say it again - fathers, fathers, fathers - where are they in this debate? Can we please start seriously discussing paid paternity leave? Until we have it, there is no REAL choice, no REAL shared responsibility, no equality of rights.
Melita Smilovic | 10 September 2008


It's not just decent leave provisions that are necessary, it is decent wages for women, especially in professions that are dominated by women, which are still under-paid compared to professions dominated by men. If there was true wage equality couples could make a real choice about who stays home, as now it is very frequently a case of the man continuing to work because he earns the most and the family can't survive on the woman's wage alone.
Colin Long | 10 September 2008


I couldn't agree more, Sarah. Language is, of course, incredibly powerful. The insistence by policy makers in making childcare a women's issue has effectively halted any chance of progress. The debate becomes sidetracked by judgements made about women's "choices", as if we all have free choice in the matter. The Child care debate should be about providing the most nurturing childhood experience possible for children,especially babies, and establishing strong parent, child and family bonds in the early years. This becomes the family 'glue' that helps the family stick together in later even more challenging times.
I'm not really that fussed if parents are offended. I am very concerned that we foist daily experiences on children that we would very much dislike ourselves.

A huge shift needs to occur in current thinking. Firstly, our Western society needs to really value children and honour childhood and secomdly, we all need to accept that becoming a parent will and should absolutely change the life experience of the adult.
And would it be too much to ask that the experience could be considered a good thing?

It is incredibly sad that this issue is so stuck and has been for so long. It can only be moved forward by brave souls like Mem.
Shelley Curry | 10 September 2008


My deepest disappointment as a feminist from way back is that we are still not seeing marriage as an equal partnership and the caring for children as a shared responsibility. Many men are far more suited to taking on the major caring role of children than their wives and children benefit immensely from the experience of being cared for by both genders. After all, we come together because we compliment each other and our children deserve to share in that experience.
Margaret McDonald | 10 September 2008


Such an emotive and complex issue which you've covered well. As a child and family therapist I am committed to creating real choice for parents but am aware of just how critical it is to put the needs of children firmly in the centre of discussion and decisions.
Francine | 11 September 2008


Marvellous Sarah. Until men acknowledge the need to reproduce, as a condition of our humanity and until this is reinforced in our social values, we are doomed to be a consumerist culture which puts fun before family, freedom before responsibility, responsibility particularly of men to women. We will die.
paul ormonde | 11 September 2008


Thank you Sarah for bringing to this debate what our society should truly be focusing on ... the best outcome for our children.

As a full-time working mother (our mortgage was lower than rent would have been and we lived simply, my wages put food on the table ... that simple) and a dedicated early childhood educator of over 30 years experience most of which was spent in long day care I can tell you that quality counts. The quality of an individual's life can be measured by the relationships they form.

For our children to form meaningful relationships with their parents and caregivers (whether this is extended family, friends, grandparents or early childhood educators) we need the support of our whole community to advocate for the rights of not only our children but those involved in their care. This means parents, grandparents, custodians and early childhood educators. Quality of life can be measured in the day to day events of our lives.

It is time Australia placed importance on the day to day lives of parents, educators and children. Better parenting leave options, more supportive family infrastructure, higher staff to child ratio's legislated in early childhood educational settings all these things count.
Kerri-Anne O'Donnell | 11 September 2008


I have just jokingly told a friend about my sense of underachievement in staying at home with my young daughter. Of course, it’s not true. I want to care for my daughter – it’s fulfilling. I’m also fortunate in that I can work from home (when time permits), although professionally I’m just treading water and that gets to me sometimes.

Anne Manne’s book Motherhood looks extensively at the complex issues concerning childcare, but in particular the impact of long stay care on babies and young children. I get the sense that in our society this is often where the problems and the sensitivities lie. Littlies that spend 5 days a week from 7am til 6pm in childcare are missing out on the intimate and loving care of parents. The way I see it, childcare centres cannot not replace the security and comfort of home, nor childcare workers replace a child’s parents (or similar guardians) as primary carers.

I hope that whatever is proposed by the Rudd government eases the pressure on parents and corrects the balance of care.

Clare Locke | 12 September 2008


I have just jokingly told a friend about my sense of underachievement in staying at home with my young daughter. Of course, it’s not true. I want to care for my daughter – it’s fulfilling. I’m also fortunate in that I can work from home (when time permits), although professionally I’m just treading water and that gets to me sometimes.
Anne Manne’s book ‘Motherhood’ looks extensively at the complex issues concerning childcare, but in particular the impact of long stay care on babies and young children. I get the sense that in our society this is often where the problems and the sensitivities lie. Littlies that spend 5 days a week from 7am til 6pm in childcare are missing out on the intimate and loving care of parents. The way I see it, childcare centres cannot not replace the security and comfort of home, nor childcare workers replace a child’s parents (or similar guardians) as primary carers. I hope that whatever is proposed by the Rudd government eases the pressure on parents and corrects the balance of care.

Clare Locke | 12 September 2008


Dear Sarah

Well said! I sit abjectly corrected.

I love this piece. Its contribution to the debate on the rearing of children should rattle many more cages.



It's enraging in 2008 that women alone are made to feel anguished over the care of children who have perfectly capable-of-caring fathers. Paid PARENTAL leave might put paid to that, to coin a phrase.

I could kick myself for not mentioning fathers more often, especially as the father in our house was the main parent/carer in the second two years of our daughter's life which has meant a wonderful bonding that's enriched both their lives, and mine, ever since.

As you know, a Crikey piece is limited to 350 words but I should have made more effort to force fathers to take a long hard look at themselves. It was an intensely tense week. Difficult to think straight at such a time. I now know what Leunig went through over his famous cartoon on the subject.

You have my real e-mail address. Forgive me for not using it in such a public domain.

Every best wish,

Mem Fox
Mem Fox | 16 September 2008


Women: Damned if you, damned if you don't.

I spent the first four years at home with my daughter - not by choice but it is something I would have chosen, had choice been an option.

My story is one that we could not get childcare after our daughter was born. Just before her 3rd birthday, we got one a week, and just before her 5th birthday, we got three days a week.

My (now-ex) husband had PND (yes men get it), was only working a few hours on the weekend, but became so self centred he would not look after our daughter for three hours one day a week so I could finish the last subject of my uni degree.

Working was impossible, as my family are abusive, and the last thing I could do was leave a child with a depressed man now using drugs, and without childcare, even part time work was not an option.

Yet everyone around me constantly put me down for being 'lazu' and not having a 'real job'.

My husband turned violent, we had to escape, my daughter at 7 is too old for me to receive a sole parent pension and we get no child support from my druggie ex - yet now the shoe is on the other foot - the family court has told me I'm selfish and don't love my daughter and obsessed with study and career because I study part time a few days a week, with the majority being during school hours (and repeatedly dropped subjects mid semester to be with my daughter).

Because according to family court 'professionals' (magistrate, family report psychologists, 'independent' children's lawyers), a woman who studies/works because their child is too old to recieve a sole parent payment and who receives no child support because their ex has found a way to worm out of it, is 'selfish' and 'not thinking of the child's welfare'.

How do these 'professionals' expect single mothers to keep a roof over their children's heads and food on their children's table when neither centrelink nor the father's will support the children in anyway?

Not all single mothers have slept around and been careless - some are hard working, upstanding women with high values and standards who have done everything right when it comes to marriage and children and sadly years and even decades later, their husbands turn out to be violent, druggies, cheats, sexual deviants (or all the above in my case).

Damned if you do, damned if you don't - if you stay at home with your kids, you are constantly attacked for being "lazy" and for "leeching" off a partner or society, but if you do work, even if it's part time and during school hours and purely because it's that or have no income and end up hungry and homeless, you are constantly told - even by family "professionals" like the family court" - that you are selfish and don't love your kids.

Our society needs to make up it's mind - if it's so damned awful that kids don't have a stay at home parent, then society should make a way for people to afford to stay at home - and take away the bias that says a dad loves his kid even when he cancels his shared custody to work while paying no child support at all, but a woman who is forced to work as there is no other income at all thanks to centrelink cutting off the pension when your child is 7 and getting no child support is a bad, unloving mother.

Yes, where are our fathers??? Oh that's right, they're off doing drugs with their junkie mates and mistresses, refusing to pay child support despite having good jobs and getting off scot free when it comes to not taking any responsibility for raising their children.
Julie | 05 October 2009


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