June 20, 2009

Caught without child care, Australian senator Sarah Hanson-Young took her two-year-old daughter Kora to work with her on Thursday. She stayed with her daughter just outside the legislative chambers until the bells rang for a vote, at which point she brought her inside. Kora continued to play quietly until Senate president John Hogg ordered Hanson-Young to take the toddler outside.
We cannot allow children to be in here for a division.
- Australian Senate president John Hogg
This would have made her miss the vote on the bill introduced by her own leader, Bob Brown. Not surprisingly, Brown countermanded the order, suggesting that Hogg provide the necessary child minder. Hogg declined. A staff member from Brown's office arrived to take Kora out of the chamber -- at which point Kora started screaming.

Whether or not this turns out to be a publicity stunt -- as were so many of the early suffragette demonstrations -- it still illustrates a few interesting points.

In this episode of the continuing debate over whether the work and domestic spheres can continue to be rigidly divided, commentary ranges from the outraged (that there is no provision for breastfeeding mothers in Senate) to the differently outraged (that left-wing/Green mothers should expect the rules to change for them, or at all). While the first argument draws entirely upon demographics, the second pulls from a combination of occupational and even recreational "parallels" and slippery slope extrapolation. Leaving out all the "I don't have that so why should she?" taxpayer, and ad hominem comments, this is a representative sample: Comments against Hanson-Young's action outnumbered comments supporting her by nearly 3:1. Although more women than men supported Hanson-Young, the last two comments were very typical of many female commentators, some of whom self-identified as feminists. Yet I do wonder whether there is a point that is being missed by both sides.

Never mind whether or not there is actually any rule about children in the Australian chamber, as will be challenged on Monday. Never mind that the Australian parliament does have a crèche, but that the spaces are already full. Never mind even that strong adult involvement in a young child's development has been strongly linked to a higher intelligence quotient. These are questions that will be pursued by those researching factors deterring young female politicians -- at age 27, Hanson-Young remains the youngest person ever elected to the Australian Senate -- yet in all that research they will miss the essential point that the whole child care / flexible workplace issue is actually secondary: related, but a consequence rather than a cause.

What I find most ironic in all this is that not one politician and not one major news source suggested that in the absence of available child care, the father could equally well have been left in charge of the child. (He serves on the City of Mitcham council, and also ran for federal office in 2004 and 2006.) Yet at the same time, by emphasising so strongly the importance of her job while never mentioning his, all those involved imply just as strongly that his job is less important. Child care or no child care, the attitude remains that regardless of the job split, the primary responsibility for the child is naturally and self-evidently the mother's.

As in so many cases, the real story lies in what is not said.

The commentary suggests a deep parallel assumption that it is the mother's choice whether or not to have and prioritise children. If she chooses to have children and also to prioritise those children, then obviously she won't give her full attention to any high responsibility job: so it is inappropriate for her to seek one. At the same time, the male corollary always assumes that a young child is distracting at work: so others should deal with it.

Taken all together, precisely because in most cases the primary responsibility to deal somehow (regardless of the manner of that dealing) stubbornly refuses to latch to the father, this leaves a woman precisely four options.
  1. She can choose to stay at home with her child, while her husband represents her financial interests at the workplace.
  2. She can choose a low-intensity job where hours will never be unpredictable. These jobs are also low earning, low power, and low promotion.
  3. She can choose not to have children until she is established in her work. However, delaying children can result in not having children at all (due to sharply decreased fertility with age) -- not to mention that the risk of birth defects radically increases with age.
  4. She can choose not to have children at all.
If we truly are to be the equal opportunity society we imagine ourselves to be, perhaps there ought to be a few other options in there?

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