Middle class feminism and the outsourcing of childcare

An elderly relative of mine was commenting a few week ago about how bright L was and also one of her cousins, my brother’s three-year old. She added that they’d benefited from having educated mothers who hadn’t rushed back to work as soon as they were born. In some ways it was a very old-fashioned pre-feminist comment; the problem is, I could also see her point.

The care of small children is the crunch-point for what I would call career-orientated feminism: the view that the principal aim of a woman should be to have as successful a career as possible. (Success in this view is generally taken to be judged by how well-paid and prestigious a job is, although not inevitably). This is by no means the only possible sort of feminism, but it’s one that is still a significant factor. One key argument by such women is that taking any substantial time out from work harms one’s career prospects (and is therefore a bad thing). The options for family life that tend to be presented in such cases are 1) not having children, 2) the new mother returning almost immediately to full-time work combined with full-time professional childcare, 3) ‘marrying down’ and having your husband/partner do the childcare.

Such women are depressingly right in their conclusion that any kind of career break is likely to harm their upward progress. The problem is that it’s very hard to adopt any of their suggested options and have what I would regard as a good quality of family life. 1) of course, eliminates family life altogether, which is a perfectly reasonable option, but one which many women (and men) would not be happy with. The problem with 2) is what kind of experience your child gets. I am not one of those mothers who believe that daycare is some kind of evil force that irreparably harms children and L has had part-time daycare from about 6 months. But a child in full-time daycare is likely to lose out in terms of individual attention. L would not get five books in a row read to her at daycare (or nursery school or primary school), even though that may be what she really wants. (Actually, she doesn’t always think five is enough, but that’s a different matter). And it’s quite hard to fit such ‘quality time’ around a 9-5 job (let alone a 8-7 job). Given that exposure to adult conversation and lots of books are two of the most effective ways towards early intellectual development that is an issue.

One alternative, for the really prosperous, is a nanny. There was a recent article about how parents were increasingly looking for nannies with educational skills such as languages and music (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,2079539,00.html). This may solve the problems of educating small children, but it still leaves a problem: imparting feminist values. This is the central dilemma for career-orientated feminists: if you want your child to be brought up believing that a career is crucial, you should not be entrusting most of their formative care to those whose preferred occupation is childcare. More socially conscious feminists are likely to be unhappy about too much outsourcing of childcare to often poorly paid and exploited female workers (some daycare is good, but some isn’t, and some au pairs and nannies are badly exploited). Even the expensive option of a professional nanny doesn’t solve the problem of who is a more effective role model for a small child: a mother working full-time or a nanny always there.

Trying to involve your husband/partner in childcare as much as possible (a modified option 3) is, on feminist grounds, a better idea anyhow, since it tackles the presumption that children are solely a woman’s responsibility. In practice, it’s twice as difficult to rearrange two jobs to include childcare responsibilities. There are also problems in the calculating approach of ‘marrying down’. Firstly, it is in danger of starting to treat a husband/partner in an instrumentalising way: as a means to an end not an end in himself. Secondly, extremely career-orientated women tend to have a wider problem in their approach to childcare. They often see it as intrinsically menial and demeaning and (by extension) those who do it as less valuable. Treating an employee in this way is corrosive enough: treating a husband in this way seems even more destructive. (In contrast, I have tried hard to remember that those caring for L have important professional skills, even if they don’t have my educational qualifications. The ability to be patient with a stroppy toddler (let alone several) is, arguably, a greater achievement than being able to translate medieval Latin).

I am left with a paradox: if I want my child to have a sound feminist upbringing, I have to forfeit some of my own career prospects. Most of the time that seems like a price worth paying, but not always. It would be nice to think that changing attitudes to the work-life balance will mean L doesn’t have to make such a choice, but I’m not optimistic.


3 thoughts on “Middle class feminism and the outsourcing of childcare

  1. I know this is an older post, but it was such a balm for me to read! I thought I was the only woman in the world trying to be an academic and a family person at the same time (I don’t have children yet, but am planning to soon). Your observations are spot-on re: the challenges we face as we attempt to juggle the twin responsibilities of career and motherhood.

    One thing I struggle with is the possibility that, if my husband does stay home to care for the children (which is a real possibility), we may not be able to afford to live a comfortable life, send our children to schools in which they can thrive (since they’ll be geniuses, of course!), etc. I’ll be starting graduate school in a little over a year, so paychecks from my end will be out of the question for a while.

    I wonder if you feel that the fact that you live in the UK, versus the U.S. where I’m living, takes some of the financial pressure off? Is parenthood there less daunting, with state-funded healthcare and schooling through college? I love the UK myself, and have seriously considered trying to teach there after I get my PhD.


    • Glad you enjoy the blog. I was planning at some point to write about choice of schools for a bright child, so it sounds like I ought to get on with that. My argument at the moment (which may change) is whether a parent should be satisfied with a ‘good-enough’ school, rather than the ‘best’ school.

      It is very hard to compare standards of living etc in UK and US. The costs of putting a child through university in England are going up substantially now (though they have not yet reached US levels), but the NHS is a big boon and there are a lot of other safety-nets, such as better employment rights, compulsory maternity pay etc. I suspect overall that the rich do better in the US, but the poor do better in the UK (and I think even the middle classes are more secure in the UK).

      However, there are two big issues you need to consider if you would like to teach in the UK. One is that there aren’t many jobs going. It depends a bit what your specialism is, but as an early medieval historian I am near to quitting looking for an academic job and I’ve had friends who are good historians who haven’t even tried. The second thing is that housing costs (particularly in the South-East and London) are horrendous, and most families need two salaries to pay their mortgage. (We are exceptional, in that I inherited money when my parents died, so can live on one or one and a bit salaries). If you do want to work in the UK, you do need to think hard about those aspects.


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