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Kathy Gyngell: It breaks my heart that Nick Clegg is so blind to what mothers really want

Kathy Gyngell is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 20.05.57Last week, Nick Clegg attacked what he defined as the outdated notion that men should go out to work while women stayed at home to look after the children.  He said the idea that the mother should be the primary carer – even straight after the birth of her child - was frankly absurd.
It is the absurd Mr Clegg who is out of date and out of touch.

Next week, a group of highly intelligent and educated young mothers will be lobbying politicians to change such gender-equality driven childcare policies before it is, frankly, too late. They are concerned about the damage already done to children’s psychological welfare and to the institution of the family itself by state-prescribed care in crèches and daycare centres.

They abhor the bias against stay-at-home mothers that politicians like Nick Clegg advance and deeply resent their exclusion from the family policy debate –and their marginalisation as unenlightened and old fashioned. They are neither. They are beleaguered. Understandably, they don’t want to upset working mothers. But they are right to insist that we can no longer ignore the evidence of large-scale studies in the United States and surveys from the UK and also Sweden, a country that has embraced daycare to such an extent that the mother’s right to stay at home has been virtually eliminated.  Sweden is on the brink of taking the family into state ownership.

In our feminist society, such mothers are treated as outcasts by the metropolitan progressive who dominate politics and the media.  As Dr Aric Sigman, an authority on the impact of daycare on young children, has said: “If women’s rights have been hard won, so too has the ability to publish and discuss openly the inconvenient potential effects of daycare on children.”

The damage done to young minds and hearts has become the new taboo. It is still not discussed at the policy table, because it makes for such uncomfortable reading. If it is uncomfortable for the mothers corralled into work too soon (whether for financial or career reasons), it is even more so for feminists who drive universal childcare policy and for the politicians who’ve pushed childcare as an equal lifestyle alternative to mothercare. It is not. I found that out when I went back to work eleven weeks after the birth of my first baby. I struggled for a year against my maternal instinct before I had the sense and the strength to give into it and to look after my baby myself. 

At that time, back in the late 1980s, I had to resist the reassurances of such child care luminaries as Claire Raynor and Penelope Leach, who I was at the time producing on TV-am. They said I must not feel guilty about my return to work. Yet these were women who understood far better than most the infant’s need for maternal ‘attachment’.  Such was the pressure of feminist thought even then.  They did though introduce me to a mass of child development literature, that gave me the confidence to make my mind up for myself and follow my heart.

Feminists said  that the post-war psychologist John Bowlby’s seminal works on attachment and maternal deprivation had been discredited.  I found them revelatory. I began to listen to my instincts, to understand that biological imperative for survival that my baby uniquely needed me.  Sacrificing children’s needs on the altar of feminism was short-sighted and not the route to fulfilment. So against the strongly feminist fashion of the time I opted to give up work become a stay-at-home mum. I was lucky to be able to afford to do so. Other mothers who later wrote to me at the time about their distress and anguish at having to go back to work were not so fortunate.

Since then the push for childcare has been relentless. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of  day nurseries, where children  as young as three months are parked for as many as nine hours a day,  leapt  from 87,500 to 285,100.  Today, thanks to Labour’s childcare subsidies (which now run into billions) and to the working and child tax credits they introduced (ones that discriminate against one-earner families) 57 per cent of 0-2s and 90 per cent of three to 3-4s  are now in some kind of formal childcare, ranging from childminders to day centres and nursery classes.

A disturbing 440,000 of 0-2s spend long hours in day centres – 17 per cent of that age group. Now the Coalition government plans to have 40 per cent of all two-year-olds in day care by 2014 – when they deem their ‘education’ should now start. Society must have an honest framework to review these policies – policies which ought  be based on choice not dogma.  Mothers at Home Matter are pushing for this at an event at the House of Commons this week. It will be attended by the Swedish sociologist Jonas Himmelstrand.

He warns that Sweden, where 95 per cent of 2-5 year olds are put in day care, has witnessed a severe decline in child development and school performance.  Sweden’s universal childcare is not a model for other countries. Psychological disorders, including anxiety, have tripled since the 1980s, when daycare centres first began to feature heavily in Swedish child development. The childcare economic equation has not added up; as the state is unable to sustain its cost, quality has deteriorated dramatically. Early exposure to large groups of peers has detrimentally effected the psychological maturation of children and young people, learning and the transference of culture between generations. “It is”, he says, “at the root of bullying, teenage gangs, promiscuity and the flat-lining of culture.”

We can already see frightening similarities here where even teachers of nursery classes are finding discipline a challenge. Leading UK child psychologist Oliver James explains: “Early care sets our emotional thermostat. Having a responsive mother who is there for the child in the early years is the best possible care…..Studies show that day care is less good for under three year-olds than child minders, who are less good than nannies, who are less good than close relatives, who are less good than parents.” He knows, as do other child psychologists and sociologists, that these findings are not unique to Sweden.

Professor Jay Belsky was involved for more than fifteen years with the most intensive investigation into the effects of childcare ever which followed some 1,000 American children growing up in 10 locations across the USA, from birth to age 15 (called the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development).  It revealed a clear and definitive association between early and extensive child care experience, especially center-care exposure, with what psychologists describe as ‘externalizing behaviour’ problems  including aggression, from two years old through to the child’s 11th year, regardless of family background or other factors.

He also reported the contagious effects of childcare later in the classroom: “The more children there were in kindergarten classrooms that had extensive histories of child care, especially in centers, the more aggressive and disobedient were all the children in the class. ...even children with limited child care experience could end up behaving more like children with lots of child care experience than like other children with limited child care experience if they were in classrooms made up of lots of children with early and extensive child care histories.”

Nor can the effects of childcare on behavior be put down to American culture.  In the UK too, children who spent more time in group care, mainly nursery care are more likely to have behavioural problems, particularly hyperactivity, than home cared children; and  that under-twos who spent long hours in day care were more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviour when they start school. These were the findings of the authoritative Family Children and Childcare Study.

All these findings make it clear that we disregard the feelings and the experiences of our infants at our peril. Nor is it just the children we need to watch out for, but mothers too, who are constantly pressured to relinquish responsibility for their nurturing role.  Swedish mothers who, like here, largely find themselves in low paid jobs often( ironically, looking after other women’s children) take more sick leave than in any other country in Europe, despite the generous 12 month maternity leave they are initially given. 

When asked why they opt for the highly subsidised state childcare they cite the punitive tax system where, like here, a single-earner family pays more in tax than its dual-earner equivalent, taking the childcare subsidy into account. They want to spend more time with their infants and children.

Yet Nick Clegg says; ‘It’s heartbreaking to watch women who feel forced to lower their ambitions for themselves. And it’s heartbreaking to see fathers missing out on being with their children.” What is heartbreaking is that he, like so many politicians today, is so blind to children’s real needs – and that his childcare policies are so dogmatically cast through the prism of adult sexual politics and women’s rights.


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