When I speak to people about the parental guilt and the heartbreak of leaving children in the care of a stranger at a young age, I often hear “but they need to learn that”. I hear this from both parents and non-parents. I never openly disagree but I do wonder what the sentence means exactly.
Who are the “they” referred to in this sentence? Surely it should refer to children of a certain age? Or are all children from the day they are born included in this “they”? And what to “they” “need to learn”? That their parents are not always there for them? That they can leave them in the arms of strangers even if they are scared?
I can literally hear the eyes of many parents and non-parents roll at my “über mother” statements right now… I can hear them go “oh my god, you are not abandoning them, you are putting them into the care of professionals” or as my partner once put it when I wanted to pick up our daughter early “you know it’s daycare, not a torture chamber right?” Both parents and non-parents feel that daycare is not only necessary but also not harmful. Why?
Because a) we have been conditioned to believe this as modern life puts demands on us that we cannot meet without professional daycare options and b) the parents amongst us would be unable to live with the guilt if we considered the option that this was not so. Yet, research shows that stress levels in young children starting daycare are significantly raised and will not return to “normal” for as long as five months after their first day.
So, what am I saying? Parents should stay at home and look after their children? How is that going to work, both financially and in terms of career-fulfillment? Am I saying parents (let’s face it, with the gender pay-gap still in place, this will end up being women, rather than all parents) should stay at home and neglect their careers? No. Anyone who even remotely knows me will know that that is not what I am saying. For those of you who do not know me: global gender equality always has been and still is one of the goals that strongly motivates all of my thoughts and actions. Probably even more so since I have become a parent. What I am saying is: what we have today doesn’t give us the options we need. We need to rethink daycare options and how we combine looking after children with our careers. The only option cannot be that we have to leave our children in the care of strangers while we go off to work.
Human babies are amazingly underdeveloped when they are born. Compared with most other animals, they are completely helpless. Most other mammal babies can walk, communicate and feed by the time they are born. Human babies are not even aware that they are a being separate from their mother. Research shows that human babies are able to fend for themselves in a similar manner as most other mammals can do right after birth only at the age of three. Separating them from their parents before seems unnecessarily cruel and is dictated by modern life’s lack of options.
So I think when people say “but they need to learn that”, they should consider the age of the “they” in that sentence. Also, again following research and comparison with other mammals, if we talk about children 3 years of age and older it is unlikely that they need to be forced to “learn” to be separated from their parents. Instead, it is likely that they become less dependent on them gradually and naturally, without being pushed.