Tuesday, October 6, 2009

a question of childcare (4a) research - Peter Cook 's Mothering Denied and the ideology of childcare

You won't find a stronger opponent to childcare* than Dr Peter Cook! My friend sent me a link to his free online book Mothering Denied, and I read it with astonished fascination from first page to last.

He brings together five lines of evidence for what he calls a "natural, biologically-based, best-fit pattern of human mothering" (p.10):

1. the kind of mothering produced through natural selection

2. the benefits of breastfeeding for physical and emotional development

3. early 20th century studies on the importance of attachment

4. how mothers' and infants' brains are affected by the mother-child bond

5. studies comparing the effects of mother-care and daycare

You can see that he covers a lot more than childcare! He's really defending a particular approach to mothering - attachment parenting - where the mother carries and sleeps with her infant, feeds on demand, doesn't follow a routine, breastfeeds (when possible), and (more importantly!) forms a strong, affectionate, joyful relationship with her children, within the context of a supportive extended family.

I have some major issues with this book. Peter Cook's arguments often seem more speculative than scientific: his view of motherhood is based largely on theories about the evolutionary development of humans, the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, and comparisons with other mammals and how they care for their infants. But he also makes many valuable observations.

There are two main ideologies he sees as contributing to the undermining of natural mothering: Christianity (and restraint parenting) and feminism (and cultural determinism).

His view of Christianity is interesting, to say the least! He argues that the doctrine of original sin is responsible for harsh discipline and for treating babies' needs as impositions to be ignored. But his alternative - that if we satisfy infants' needs and gently encourage them to respect others, they will grow into self-regulating children who rarely (if ever!) need punishment - is naive (p.93). There has to be a place for a combination of loving attention and sensible discipline!

But he has some fantastic observations about feminism and its impact on how we think about motherhood. Equality feminists saw the differences between men and women as culturally determined, replaced the words 'mothering' and 'fathering' with words like 'parenting' and 'caregiver', and "engineered social policies that pressured women back into the 'workforce,' mostly against their real wishes, and as if rearing infants only involved 'work' when you are not the mother" (p.5).

It's scary to read Simone de Beauvoir's words about motherhood:

No, we don't believe that any women should have that choice. No woman should be authorized to stay home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. (p.66 my emphasis)

And this is the philosophy our society's views about motherhood are based on! The leaders of the feminist movement - Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer - all had second thoughts when they were older. Yet the "entrenched orthodoxy of equality feminism" (p. 67) has had an enormous impact on our society's policies on work and childcare.

Women feel strong internal and external pressure to return to work and put their children into childcare. As Peter Cook observes, it doesn't help that housing prices often require two incomes, or that the joy of motherhood is undermined by the isolation of modern urban life and the breakdown of the extended family.

As Christians, we'll take our view of motherhood from the Bible, not biology. We'll try to lovingly meet the needs of our babies, although not all of us will practise "attachment parenting" as Peter Cook recommends. But his observations about feminism and its impact on our view of motherhood are sobering. I guess it shows how important it is to be aware of the ideologies underlying our choices about childcare.

This post is already too long, so I'll save Peter Cook's observations about studies of childcare for another day!

* I'm using "childcare" to mean the care of children in a professional childcare centre.

image is from Playgroup Australia

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