As announced in Part 1, I will elaborate in this blog on my objections to an approach that argues that caring for very young children does not necessarily have to be done by women, because men can do it just as well. In other words, I will discuss the difference between equality and equity.
I talked to two people about the booklet ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’. One of them said this about it: “In all those social discussions about men and women, rich and poor, practically and academically trained, as far as I am concerned, the distinction between equality and equity falls seriously short. Equality is simply not an issue in many cases, and the pursuit of it in my view threatens to jeopardize the unique value of everyone. In this case it has to do with femininity, not the feminine qualities that men can just as well possess, but just the female body, which entails a certain role, in this case aimed at those little kiddies.”
The other said this: “What I do miss in her book is your question: what does the child want?” Put more specifically, my question usually is: “What does the child need?” That is an essential difference, but I know the questioner well and I know that is what is meant.
The content of these comments was exactly what I too had concerns about while reading: again it is about what men and women *want* and hardly about what the immature child *needs*. I wholeheartedly share Berger’s statement that ‘capitalism parasitizes on unpaid care labour’ (p. 65). In addition, however, as a society we are all parasitizing on the current and future well-being of children and on their health now and in the future, if once again we forget, in this welcome and important discussion, to speak about what their needs are, based on the biological blueprint and the evolutionary legacy. We really need to face those needs; the evidence is overwhelming.
I watched the aforementioned film ‘In Utero’ as part of the lunch webinar of ‘Alles is Gezondheid’ (‘All is Health’), which took place on 16th May 2023 and in which, based on the film, Tessa Roseboom and Anna Verwaal talked about the influence of prenatal conditions on adult life (see also here). It that conversation, it was again made clear how much the mother’s body plays an incomparable role and cannot simply be equated with what a father has to offer a newborn baby. If we want to guide a healthy new generation to adulthood, we will really have to take into account what our children need. They certainly ‘benefit from a rich variety of role models, parenting styles and caregivers’ (p. 71) and it is also sadly true that ‘many families are not a safe, warm, or loving place to grow up in at all’ (ibid.) . That is precisely why it is indeed ‘a collective responsibility’ (ibid.) to organise society in such a way that children do not grow up with toxic stress. However, the question is whether ‘childcare (…) as a basic provision’ is a place where ‘every child gets the chance to develop to the best of his ability’ (p. 74). For some children, daycare will indeed be a better place than home. If so, that is very sad. This requires, with great urgency, dedicated care for the parents, so that they can increase their skills. This often requires trauma healing. For many other children, especially in the early, vulnerable years when the child is still so small and immature, the very best place will be home, especially when parents are stable and well-regulated and don’t have to be constantly stressed about the most basic issues in life, such as a decently paid job, an affordable home, and utilities that don’t go at the expense of the weekly healthy groceries.
When we look at the division of labour from such a perspective, at the struggle between paid and unpaid work, at the call for financial and social recognition for care work in the home environment, we see that health and division of labour have a strong political character and are not only an individual responsibility. It is therefore time to no longer depoliticize health by pretending it is an exclusively personal responsibility. It is a pity that on the one hand this booklet so clearly and so rightly shows the link between policy influences and the division of labour, while on the other hand it seems to overlook the fact that not everything can be redistributed, that some tasks can really be better done by mothers and that it has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with equity. True emancipation and true resistance to exploitation by the capitalist system require us to recognise that not everything can be expressed in money. Moreover, true resistance to discrimination exists by the grace of recognising differences. After all, if everyone is equal, ‘discriminare’ (the Latin word for ‘to make a distinction’) is not possible.
To begin with, all this requires that we develop an awareness of the fact that something does not only have value if you can put a price tag on it. Moreover, true emancipation requires recognition of the value of inequality, without compromising equity. On the contrary, there is an intrinsic value in the diversity of tasks and skills, because it ensures that everything that is necessary for the proper functioning of a family, a local community or a nation, gets done. Can we see those unique contributions, without judgment, without jealousy of what the other can or does? Can we shift our appreciation from ‘ego’ to ‘eco’, from ‘what do I want?’ to ‘what does the child need?’ Certainly, that is a challenge, but if we succeed, then we will really see what ‘works’. And if that is a triggering thought, then there is personal inner ‘work’ to do. The fear we experience when someone else can possibly do something better than ourselves is not innate. That fear was learned in a social dynamic in which those differences were not warmly welcomed. That means we can also unlearn that.
In 3. Berger gives five suggestions for ‘a rich, full and caring existence’ (p. 64):
- Change the working week (and make it shorter or organise it differently).
- Improve leave for all parents (and not just mothers).
- Make childcare a basic provision for children (with free, high-quality care).
- Take better care of informal carers (so that they can also take good care of themselves and the value of their efforts becomes clear, literally and figuratively).
- Change your view on care (and speak up to relatives and colleagues about arrangements that contribute to this, since ‘performance’ is not only about ‘getting the best out of yourself’, but also about ‘contributing something for someone else’ ( p.80)).
All this is necessary, Berger argues, because ‘people, families, households, communities, entire societies are nowhere without the endless work that maintains, repairs, and sustains them’ (p. 82), without the ‘work that makes all other work possible’ (p. 14). That is a conclusion I drew decades ago. Also in my work I usually make a comment about it when mothers say that they ‘stopped working’ after the birth of a child. I then propose an alternative wording, namely that they have given up their paid job outside the home because they are working at home. In that context, I would like to add a sixth suggestion:
- Choose the child’s perspective and as you organise your daily life, ask yourself, ‘if I were my child, what would I need to feel safe and seen?’
That is where it starts, with self-reflection, with acknowledgment, too, of the pain that we as adults often still carry with us in our own inner child. As the awareness grows that much of what we do is linked to unmet needs from our own childhood, it becomes easier to see that many behaviours and the need for recognition from others stem from survival strategies. That may be an ‘uncomfortable truth’, as mentioned in ‘In Utero’, but growth is often accompanied by discomfort. However, let us not pass that discomfort on to our growing children, but let us face it in an adult way and take it on our adult shoulders. And if that load is too heavy for the carrying capacity, we can ask for help. That, too, is an extremely mature attitude, one that leads to us becoming better equipped for any job, paid or unpaid!