The gender of child care

In the context of an international project on child care, the Dutch family council recently published a report in which they expressed their concern over the fact that in Dutch families, the emancipation process seems to stagger to a halt as soon as a family has children. Child care is still mainly considered the mother’s task, it concludes, and it is therefore usually the mother who holds a parttime job, rather than the father. One of the solutions offered by the council is to offer men a longer paternity leave, so that parents can share the experience of child care from the very beginning – and once men get used to it, they will want to share in the care also after their leave. Also, the government should start a TV-campaign to change the attitudes of boys and young men towards childcare, the council writes.

Now, the Dutch government is to introduce a new scheme next year, entitled the course of life scheme, in which employees can set aside parts of their gross salary in order to take longer periods of time off from work: for child care, to care for an elderly family member, or to have a sabattical year off. This would seem the perfect opportunity for young fathers to get more involved in the care for their child. Yet, the first TV-commercial I have seen about the scheme seems to confirm traditional gender roles, rather than to support the family council in their plans.

The commercial by insurance company Achmea features a young man abseiling from a church in a small Dutch town. A reporter interviews him, and it turns out he is practising for a mountaneering stint in Nepal, facilitated by the course of life scheme, of course. Then a woman appears in the street down below. I think she is even wearing an apron. “Are you coming in, dear,” she shouts to her husband, “dinner is ready!”. This confirms gender roles as it is, but the best part is yet to come. The reporter asks the man whether his wife is coming to Nepal, too. No, is the answer, the scheme will enable her to extend her maternity leave!


4 thoughts on “The gender of child care

  1. I guess I see a couple of issues here.

    The first is that the equality associated with the post-natal period. That needs strong laws and govt. advertizing/education to ensure that all boys/girls have equal support/rights/money/opportunity — no question at all about that.

    But to me, the greater issue here is not, as the council seems to think, that advertizing is going to have any effect (leaving aside the stereotyped images you mention that they portray) to any large degree on the adult population,. But rather they should be (or did they) examining what elements of maturation in society lead its members to divide up child raising along ‘the old party lines’. ie. it sounds like they are looking to cure the disease after it has become apparent.

    I suspect that in the long run, a more effective opportunity based equality would be engendered if education and baby care centre experience (and in fact I would stick in here nursing home experience with the elderly) for school students became mandatory. [I’d think this is particularly useful these days as most families only have 1 or 2 children, so kids as they grow don’t have as much experience looking after younger children and it is generally less familiar to people these days than it was say 50 years ago]

    Now I’m a boy and I realize that I’m speaking to someone doing a PhD in gender revenge, so I’m not going to be overtly assertive in this realm of thought but I also wonder if it isn’t ok in many situations that the mother assumes the major burden of child care. I’m not sure that a 50:50 outcome is necessarily going to reflect a better or more caring society.

    I am a sensitive boy, although not married, and I trained as a Nurse when I left school and would be over the moon in a relationship if I was able to be the main carer. But my fellow men – them I’m not altogether sure about. If there was all this societal and advertizing pressures put on them I wonder how they’d cope. I wonder if the standard of care might not itself suffer in the bigger picture because of resentments.

    There is also the fact that a woman carries the child for 9 months and then often breast feeds. Those 2 facts are almost conclusive influences in any statistical debate. They will, more often than not, dictate a primary care role by the mother’s choice.

    I’m not trying to support anachronistic gender inequality here, nor am I, in my opinion of course, trying to promote silent sexism — the hidden support structure for a patriarchy. I am very very very aware of ‘womens issues’ and would do anything or try to change my way of thinking if it were shown that an innocent thought of mine was actually an ignorant sexist belief. But I’m a little skeptical on this one for the reasons stated above — I’m wondering if a 50-50 state of post-birth child care isn’t erroneous as the primary aim (if in fact it is — obviously I haven’t seen the study).

    Aaaaaaaaaannyway….heh…thanks for the linky, but you should not have me under ‘academic’. I just like pretty pictures. And sometimes I try to put some story to the pictures. That does not (in most cases) an academic make!

    When you reply, perhaps email me to tell me your comment is here. In the meantime I’ll go do a self defense course and put on some padded clothes.

    Good luck with your weblog. It’s starting off quite well from my view of things.

  2. Are you all padded and ready for attack? Here goes. I agree with you, and I think the council would too, that you cannot change reluctant men’s attitutes to child care overnight. That is why they also suggested a whole range of other ideas less tuned towards gender roles, but more towards much more practical issues such as the availibility of child care facilities. The council also suggest that attempts should be made to change the gender roles of child care, including an advertising campaign. The commercial I mentioned, by the way, is not theirs – its from an insurance company. I think that your idea of a kind of social national service in caring would contribute to such a change in gender roles in the long run.

    But I have to disagree with your statement that since the mother is the one who conceives the baby, that dictates that she should be the primary carer. Perhaps it works out that way statistically now, precisely because of those gender roles. Why should not the mother’s work in breastfeeding be equalled by the father’s work in changing nappies, for example? Is it biologically determined that mothers should do the nappies, too? I think it is a good thing that the council draws attention to these things again, because there is so much pressure on young mothers: they have a job and in many cases take on the major burden of child care, as this research shows once again. Even if an advertising campaign didn’t change those friends of yours, at least it would perhaps make them think about their role as a father?

    OK, you can take the protective clothing off now. I just want to add that I love your blog, and changed the category from Academic blogs to Favourite blogs, just so I could keep you in there!

  3. Heh. Thanks. I would happily have let you keep me there but I felt it was a little under false pretences. (I have been to Uni. but that does not qualify one as an academic….semantics).

    Now, I fully agree that there’s no reason why Dad can’t change nappies while Mum feeds the child. I understand that what I said could be misconstrued which is why I went to some length to soften its impact by being defensively open about my own thoughts.

    But I’ll rephrase. What I suggest is that there is an inherent bond from bearing the child. I believe that this is different from a bond from the father. I mean, they both experience her pregnancy but the physical dimensions are to my way of thinking in a class of their own. So at birth, there is likely to be a statistically greater likelihood that a mother will want to spend more time with that child, in the circumstance where all else is equal. Meaning that either of them could and that social services/work etc are amenable to this.

    If a mother breast feeds, not only is it just plain simpler and obvious for the mother to take the greater burden for care (in the situation where there is a trade off, as in normal relationships, in so far as one partner usually must work longer hours than the other), there is likely to be a lower threshold for her to want this because of the physical bond of pregnancy I mentioned above.

    The upshot is that there are 2 strong influences at play. I don’t believe it’s fair under such statistically significant circumstances, to fashion social policy so as to achieve 50:50 division in child care.

    If the aim is to make men more umm amenable to child care, to make them both more willing and able, then that is a worthy aim and gawd knows there are enough men (and I don’t regard them as friends just because we share a gender!) who need socializing and nurturing skills out there.

    I somehow think in essence we don’t probably disagree much. It may sound like I’m suggesting that women should take on a greater share of burden but I’m not. I absolutely agree that, where possible it should be 50:50. But that’s a lucky and somewhat rare household where say Mum can feed for half an hour and then palm of the child for 4 hours to Dad. In a practical sense it doesn’t often work out in such tolerable circumstances. That’s why I keep rabbitting on about having policy focussed on socialization and instilling care skills rather than particularly focussing on forcing one sex or the other to take on a specific role of carer or worker (as the division usually is).

    And now I have talked tooooo long and am probably just confusing myself if not you.
    Me? I’m still looking for the right gurl. Heh. After that, she an I can argue about lots of things, including who gets the (best) job of looking after junior for the majority of the time.

    ;- )

  4. I’ve been living in Amsterdam for 2 years, ( my partner is Dutch so i’m here by necessity rather than choice, so perhaps this affects my objectivity) but I feel can say with some confidence that, from my own observations, despite its much-vaunted liberal and feminist image, that the Netherlands is deeply mysoginistic and paternal. The concept of ‘Normen en Waarden’, or cultural norms and values by which all must abide, are embeddded in all public discourse. Tto overstep the bounds, especially as a woman, is to attract negative attention and open criticism.

    To be a woman here, and a middle-aged foreign woman at that, is to be invisible in political terms.

    Most schools are religious, many political parties are religiously based, as are tv stations and broadcasting companies. Without the embedded patriarchy the country would collapse.

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