Moms and Babies Belong Together
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 20, 2006

Another Mother’s Day came and went but the Mommy Wars continue. Should Mom work? Should she stay home?

Twenty years have passed since Fredelle Maynard asked ‘what’s best for the child?’ Now - thanks to outspoken professionals knowledgeable about attachment theory some common sense is emerging from the din.

Attachment theory confirms that a caring committed adult, usually Mom, provides the secure base from which a baby can grow into responsible adulthood. The brainchild of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory resulted from work with children whose lives had been disrupted by World War II and then, in the case of Ainsley, studying how mothers and babies interrelate and respond to periods of separation (answer: not well).

Despite having undertaken historic work, Ainsworth and Bowlby failed to stem the rising sentiment that deemed childcare a prison for mothers. Women like Saskatchewan-born and Radcliffe-educated Fredelle Maynard in The Child Care Crisis –the real costs of daycare for you and your child navigated the controversy with facts and a sympathetic understanding of the challenges facing parents who worked outside the home. Others, like British novelist Margaret Drabble, concluded that women could only have two of the following: a husband, a career, or children.

Some would nonetheless try to have it all. Surrogate care seemed to be the answer to a salary for Mom and equality in the work-a-day world of consumption and production. By 2001, according to Statistics Canada, 53% of Canadian children 6 months to 5 years of age were in some form of care for an average of 27 hours a week. Of that 53%, a quarter, including babies and toddlers, were in daycare while 30% were in the care of relatives.

By these numbers, parents and relatives together still care for the majority of Canada’s children. Now, in an unprecedented reversal for a white hot economy where some families can finally live on one income, 2.9% of Alberta women have left the workforce since 1998 to stay home with their children, a trend that is perceptible elsewhere in the country.

As for other arrangements, controversy rages. In Quebec, where daycare use has skyrocketed due to a $7-a-day daycare system, pediatrician Jean-Francois Chicoine has taken up the baton for attachment theory. He predicts one in four daycare babies will suffer adverse effects, a concern echoed by Australian developmental psychologist Steve Biddulph.

But it is Vancouver psychologist Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Mate who bring attachment theory full circle. In their updated and revised Hold On To Your Kids - Why Parents Matter, they argue powerfully for parents to attach and then to re-attach to their children at all ages. Why? Because if children’s attachment needs aren’t met by parents , they will be met by the child’s peers. And peer orientation, they argue, breeds aggression and an unhealthy sexual precociousness, not to mention drug and gang activity.

“It is not both parents working that is so damaging,” they write. “The key problem is the lack of consideration we give attachment in making our child-care arrangements.” Their solution: parents must create a ‘village of attachments’ to compensate for often inaccessible or non-existent extended families.

By every measure then and with only rare exceptions, the answer to what is best for the child is parents in the infant and toddler years with a growing number of ‘attachees’ for three years and up. Why then are we defaulting to less optimal arrangements and, further, demanding government support for them?

If governments must be involved, extending parental leave entitlements and the public school system to include 3-6 year-olds makes more sense. They could also investigate the self-perpetuating roles played by dual incomes and immigration rates in spiralling housing and education costs. These affect how we raise our children and, indeed, whether we decide to have them in the first place. Are we producing and consuming ourselves into extinction?

For most of us, raising children is the most important thing we will ever do. In the great Mom and Dad tag team match that is modern parenting, this is no longer a life sentence for mothers, if it ever was. Increasing lifespans have also created time for children and other aspirations. For women, that means having it all, but not all at once. For children, it means having parents empowered to do a job only they can.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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