The nurturing instinct

It’s a rare book that combines intellect with sensibility, that acknowledges emotion but doesn’t rely on it to make its points. I can’t help admiring Anne Manne for treating motherhood as seriously as it deserves, for delving into every angle—personal and political—with remarkable intelligence and thoroughness. Manne writes about the downside of mothering as well as its joys, its social dimensions as well as its most personal, loving aspects.

If how we shape society through caring for our children is an important subject, arguably the most important, it is also one of the most contentious. Almost everyone’s in favour of motherhood, but who really knows what it means? Certainly not those fortunate enough to have experienced it, for with every new person entering the world it’s a seat-of-the-pants business all the way. Children are different, parents are different, situations vary. But every parent who reads this book will thank Manne for reminding us that being a ‘good-enough’ mother is the best kind to be. We all make mistakes, we all lose it now and then. What matters is the love we give our children, the love that will see them through all the vicissitudes that life has in store for them.

We might not thank Manne so readily for reinforcing the view that only a mother can give this love, or rather, conversely, that without it for lengthy periods of the day a child will be at risk.

I choose my words carefully here. Nowhere in the book does Manne actually say this; in fact, she says the reverse—that the ‘primary carer’ need not be a mother, and that fathers and grandparents and even child-care workers have significant roles to play. She is, in fact, scrupulously fair. Though for infants her preference is for longer parental leave and more generous ‘actively neutral’ allowances, she does support the kind of small-group, parent-controlled care we fought for back in the seventies.

Brave woman that she is, she even revisits the work of John Bowlby, the pioneer of attachment theory and once bête noire to feminists like myself. Yet to me, Manne’s recounting of his story forms one of the book’s most interesting and illuminating chapters. It seems that Bowlby had been misrepresented by both sides—those who in ignorance took hold of his theories to oppose child care and those of us who, knowing they’d been distorted, chose to vilify him nonetheless.

The trouble is that every book has a context. Indeed, without it the odds are that it won’t get published. The burning issue today is that there won’t be enough people in this country to support our ageing population, a problem that could be solved a number of ways other than encouraging women to reproduce and stay at home with their children, although this is what appears to be happening. A related concern is the complaint of many older, childless women that feminists pressured them to delay bearing children until after their education was finished and their careers were established, and now, having followed this advice, they feel betrayed, finding they’d left it too late. Though I don’t think the claim stands up, I can believe that this is the way feminism came to be understood—that it was all about individual women ‘succeeding’.

Like all social movements, feminism is a varied proposition, and what we who were involved in setting up a children’s services program wanted was a genuine choice for women and the best of care for children. Most of us were mothers and the program was developed at a time when, apart from resistance from family and preschool lobbies, such an objective was feasible. But times have changed radically since then, government support for all kinds of services has contracted, and children and women have suffered. Nothing could have been further from our minds than handing over taxpayers’ money to commercial centres, which were on the whole lamentable places even then.

Motherhood’s splendid antepenultimate chapter deals with what Manne calls the McDonaldisation of childhood. It is one of the strongest, most persuasive critiques of the market-driven society I have read anywhere, but as far as I know it hasn’t got the airing it should. The coverage has tended to favour Manne’s lyrical descriptions of motherhood instead. Naturally, these are the more printable bits, but it’s disquieting that this is so, for it has restricted the parameters of the debate.

Take the issue of part-time work, which forms a basis for Manne’s proposals. There was a huge demand for it in the sixties and seventies as the workforce participation rates of married women with children increased. Even those who disapproved of mothers working tended to grudgingly accept it if the work was part-time. But part-time employment is exceedingly problematic. The kind of job you might share with someone with equal qualifications is usually to be found in white-collar industries or among the self-employed. The establishment of pro rata wages and conditions, moreover, has been limited largely to the public sector, and even there the incidence isn’t widespread. And because part-time employment is often dead-end, even with pro rata entitlements in place, back in the seventies our preference was for a shorter working week.

Needless to say, we were pushing against the tide. As a consequence of economic rationalism and the anti-human policies that Manne quite rightly deplores, those in full-time work are working longer hours than ever, with the rest condemned to casualisation, to which non-professionals particularly are at risk. Yet Manne doesn’t state just what she means by part-time work, or allude to the difficulties attached to it.
This is odd, given Motherhood’s scope. Indeed, that scope is one of its real strengths. Just when you think, ah, but what about this, a discussion of that very topic will appear. But perhaps it’s a weakness too. In covering all the angles, she’s not as rigorous in some places as she is in others. The place where she’s most exacting is in her review of recent studies into stress levels in very young children attending child-care centres. The findings of these studies are disturbing, and more disturbing still is how they’ve been rejected out of hand. Yet even here there are interpretations of the data other than the one put forward. The aggressiveness and lack of social skills at school linked with early child-care attendance, for instance, can be attributed as much to poor infant-school teaching as it can to early child care, especially when the advanced cognitive development reported in these kids is taken into account. Often the most obstreperous child, in my experience, is a child who is bored.

So while Manne acknowledges that high-quality group care should be available to those who need it (and there will always be those who will), the overwhelming thrust of her thesis supports other options. Obviously a range of options is needed, but in the hard world of policymaking it’s too often either-or. The funds directed to one option will be siphoned off another, and that is exactly what has occurred.

These points are raised not because I don’t attach weight to Manne’s ideas but because I do. A decade ago I wrote a book myself to express the love I had for a baby and the wonderful life I had when he was young; how through his companionship, as other women have written, I harnessed my own creativity. It was a novel, but was based, as novels often are, on an incident that happened in real life, when my youngest child, the baby I had after I left the Public Service, contracted giardia in part-time care. It was an awful business, and I learned from the experience that there’s a world of difference between the rarefied atmosphere of policymaking and what happens on the ground. Manne is right when she says that the love we have for our children is something to be enjoyed and treasured. But what is equally true is that it’s one thing to have an idea, quite another to make it work.  

Motherhood: How should we care for our children? Anne Manne. Allen & Unwin, 2005. isbn 1 741 14379 9, rrp $29.95

Sara Dowse is a novelist and essayist. Under her leadership the first women’s affairs section of the Prime Minister’s Department, established in 1974, became the Office of Women’s Affairs, now the Office of the Status of Women. She lives in Sydney.



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