I have just listened to Woman's Hour broadcasting from Sweden. The programme considered among other things, what it is about Swedish society that makes it a beacon for other societies looking to embrace more family friendly policies. What struck me listening to interviews about the wrap-around child care available to both parents in Sweden, are the unexpressed assumptions in the questions. I often get a feeling listening to Woman's Hour discussions is that 'everyone agrees' that going to work is preferable to staying at home with children.
Well, I'm not so sure about that. Maybe if you have a very exciting creative job, you won't be very content at home with a baby all day long but that raises two other issues; what about the baby? what does he or she prefer? I think the answer to that was given by the three parents who were interviewed as they dropped their children off at a day care facility. All said that their children cried every day on separating from their parents ....but 'they soon settled'. In one case the mother said that her child cried for the first six months but now she's fine. Yes, she seems fine now but what has happened in the six months that makes that child able to settle? The mother's view is that her infant has grown to like the nursery..but maybe her child has finally realised that however much she cries her mother won't take notice of her distress? Is that a good outcome for the emotional well-being of the baby?
My second point is that research shows over and over again that what parents want is the opportunity to be at home with their child and (with good available child care) to keep one foot in the labour market. They preferred working part-time to parenting part-time. The manager of the child care centre in Swedent implicity acknowledged this when she expressed her own disquiet about children who were left at the nursery for for eight hours or more.
On the positive side, the Swedish system involves fathers to a far greater degree than in the UK. The amount of parental leave is over 400 days which can be taken by either parent, so most parents are able to be at home with their children during the first year of the child's life. I believe that few babies under the age of one year are in childcare in Sweden. The assumption of the Swedish policies seems to be primarily aimed at building family relationships, by making it easy for both parents to be involved in their child's earliest years. This is a good thing for parents but especially for the baby. By comparison, I often sense that the assumption of Woman's Hour is getting women back to work as soon as possible, because 'working is more satisfying than being at home with your baby'.
What would be the working assumptions of a programme called "Baby's Hour'? Would it be that the sooner mums get back to work the better? or, -let's advocate an increase in nurseries where babies can be looked after all day from birth onwards? or maybe, - that the stimulation provided by other under-twos is preferable to playing with a caring involved adult?
No, I don't think so either!