“Brown skin girl stay home and mind baby / I’m goin’ away, in a sailing boat, /And if I don’t come back, /Stay home and mind baby.”
Half a century ago, these stereotypes held fast in the Caribbean as elsewhere. Women’s work centred on the care of their children and their home. Men earned a living. Work outside the home and family earned money; work inside, didn’t. Female and male work belonged to separate spheres. Over time, however, some of these distinctions have blurred beyond recognition.
Women here have always borne the burden of childcare. In the past most could rely on a web of support, and a network of carers that stretched beyond the home and the extended family into the community.
Younger siblings, grandparents and an assortment of neighbourhood aunties all contributed. The whole community helped with child care and child rearing. If you grew up on a particular street, any number of relatives or neighbours could scold or discipline you for a childhood transgression.
Today that is no longer the case. Families and communities have fragmented through migration and other socio-economic upheaval. There is less consensus about how children should be treated and disciplined and many of the old relationships have been monetised.
A fair number of grandmothers and ‘aunties’ in North American suburbs currently earn a good income from child care. Skills and services that were part of the community have been commodified.
Nowadays, women are as likely as men to engage in paid work outside of the home. Meanwhile, traditional child care support has frayed. In this fragmentation of social roles we are no different from many Western countries. Working mothers everywhere must balance child care costs against potential earnings.
In Guyana, as elsewhere, it is the poorest (and often single) mothers who face the hardest choices. Low-wage earners typically work longer hours for a living wage. How does a single mother reconcile this with her parental responsibilities? Many, quite simply, can not.
We read horror stories about children serving as full-time, unsupervised carers for younger siblings, or reports about certain groups who fail to thrive and participate in social institutions such as schools.
The social cost of this situation is also evident in local rates of absenteeism, truancy and other forms of delinquency. Studies repeatedly show that, for society at large, the ‘costs’ of neglect or inadequate care in infancy and childhood are enormous.
What can a society do to address this ? There are several possibilities. Two have been tried and tested elsewhere and work best when implemented in tandem. One is the provision of professional, affordable, well-monitored child care for low wage earners.
In Guyana, the state has recognised this need and reacted, albeit rather slowly, with initiatives such as the Child Protection Agency and the Single Parent Fund. A handful of local employers and NGOs have set up crèches.
The market has also responded to a perceived demand by establishing daycare centres. But the need is still far greater than the supply and those in greatest need will never be able to afford child care provision in an open market.
In Denmark, where child care is state subsidised, community organised and local, 97 per cent of children aged 3 to 5 and 92 per cent of children aged one to two are in day care.
Families pay only 25 per cent of the cost of day care and those on low incomes or single parents pay nothing. The Danish government makes up the difference. Most women with children work in Denmark.
As their (female) prime minister remarked in a recent interview: “You need child care that is high quality with well-educated staff to look after the most precious thing you have.”
As a Danish nursery worker in a popular day care centre explained: “We have one adult to three children in the nursery, one to four in the kindergarten, and one to eight in the pre-school (ages 5 to 6). The children learn through play, they learn to be social and how to share. We give them three fresh meals a day. Sometimes the children don’t want to go home. There are 65 staff here, many with education degrees.”
Quality childcare is not just a stopgap for working parents: it is a critical foundation for early years education and the acquisition of key life skills.
By contrast, in the UK, child care costs are as high as mortgage or rent payments for nearly half of all families. The state provides only 15 hours a week of nursery education for three to four year olds (two year olds in poorer families).
Yet a study by a UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, recently suggested that universal child care could pay for itself in three years; every mother returning to work part-time would contribute more in tax to the Treasury than the cost of child care. Crucially, in Denmark, the state spends much of its money providing subsidised, well-run, high-quality services to families whereas in the UK the state focuses more on providing cash benefits to parents.
The second possibility is that employers need to take a long hard look at their employment policies. In many Nordic countries, parents have benefited hugely from more flexible working arrangements.
These include part-time work, job shares, the ability to work flexible hours, to work at home on certain days and to take extended parental leave.
In the Netherlands, for example, a shorter working week, usually of four days, is normal. The assumption is that any job can be shared. In the case of Guyana, where the state is weak and unable to initiate quality child care provision, the burden of care should be taken up by more employers.
They should routinely offer crèches at the place of work or fund places for children of their staff at private facilities nearby. Local employers should make a coherent and sustained effort to accommodate working parents.
It is easy to forget or ignore the role of the father in all of these arrangements. In our society fathers are expected to (financially) support rather than care for their children. Where they live apart from the mother, they have all but fallen out of the equation. This is unsustainable and undesirable.
Children, particularly young boys, benefit greatly from a strong male influence in their formative years. Fathers, whatever the circumstances, should have a role in their children’s upbringing. This cannot simply be mandated by the state (in the form of child support payments).
We need to initiate a societal adjustment so that fathers accept and embrace this responsibility and are allowed and encouraged to fulfil it.
Professor Rhoda Reddock made the point recently that, in the Caribbean, our welfare policies are still based on a eurocentric model of nuclear families and do not support Caribbean family forms. She noted that Nordic countries had successfully tailored their policies to support “a more equal distribution of bread winning and caring … forwarding a model of the citizen-parent, mothers and fathers who combine employment and child care.”
Being a parent should not be incompatible with being part of the social economy. However, for many low-wage female earners in this country, that is the case.
If we wish to engage mothers fully in the economy and fathers in child care, we need a coherent policy and plan of action. It will not happen by magic and current initiatives are piecemeal and provisional. Before we lurch forward we also need to consider, very carefully, the human dimension.
Young children benefit from an environment that is stable, secure and stimulating. Once upon a time, this was likely to be their home and their principal carer was likely to be their mother.
In seeking to supplement this relationship, we must be aware of the size and scope of the void to be filled and rise to the occasion accordingly. (Reprinted from Stabroek News)