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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

Well - That is Sarah's point of view. I was forced as a single Mum to enter the workforce when my youngest entered Kindergarten at primary school. I wept. I could not be there to pick him up on the first few weeks. I could not attend tuckshop or sports carnivals or school Masses.

My daughter in law, who had a high flying job before her eldest was born chose not to work and is very involved in the school life as a parent of children. They Manage.

We cannot critise the couples of today. The cost of housing may mean many could not reside in Sydney. An appropriate positon may not be available in country areas. Or the cost of transport outweighs the cheaper housing repayments.

Mem perhaps has not stood in some others shoes. Such as those who cope as well as possible in a high priced world.

Bev Smith | 15 January 2009  

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