An elderly relative of mine was commenting a few week ago about how bright L was and also one of her cousins, my brothers three-year old. She added that theyd benefited from having educated mothers who hadnt 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 its one that is still a significant factor. One key argument by such women is that taking any substantial time out from work harms ones 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 its 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 doesnt always think five is enough, but thats a different matter). And its 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 isnt, and some au pairs and nannies are badly exploited). Even the expensive option of a professional nanny doesnt 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 womans responsibility. In practice, its 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 dont 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 doesnt have to make such a choice, but Im not optimistic.