All Care...

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday April 29, 2000

Bettina Arndt

Cartoonists often offend, but it's rare that their subjects fight back. Michael Leunig is so convinced of the importance of maternal care for infants he's back in the eye of a storm. Bettina Arndt reports.

LEUNIG is at it again. Five years ago he ignited fierce debate with his cartoon featuring a forlorn baby berating itself for being so unattractive that its mother put it in a creche: ``Clearly I haven't got what it takes to keep her hanging on."

Letters flooded in. ``Working women lost a friend on Wednesday," wrote one woman describing it as a ``vicious, cruel attack on working mothers".

``The bastard! What does he want? All of us back in the home again? Typical guilty ramblings of a middle-aged second-time-around father," exclaimed Herald columnist Sally Loane.

In recent weeks, he's re-entered the fray. First the same sad infant reappeared, with fresh insight into its situation ``I'm a stay-at-creche baby so she doesn't have to be a stay-at-home mum." Next time the baby was silent, alone and forlorn.

This week he produced the ``Drive Thru Creche", with a line of cars dropping off babies at the convenient, McDonald's-type ticket booth.

Sure enough, his critics are now back denouncing the ``humourless misogynistic cartoonist who is well past his use-by date". Some have produced their own baby cartoons. ``I'm a stay-at-creche baby so my mum can earn some dough because my dad pissed off and refuses to pay maintenance," said one.

So what's Leunig up to? Well, the much-loved cartoonist says he's made a very deliberate decision to return to the theme. He's so firmly convinced of the importance of maternal care for infants that he's determined to keep the issue in the public eye. ``I feel it is one of the most important questions about what shapes our world."

He says it was the explosive reaction to his first cartoon that has really prompted his interest. ``I realised I'd stumbled onto something far deeper.

``It was intensely fascinating and interesting. I thought, `What's really going on here?"'

Michael Leunig listened to his critics the journalists, academics, child-care advocates who are mainly middle-class women convinced his aim was to undermine their right to work. Hence their attempt to silence him.

``Misogyny is a terrible smear. It's like saying a wife-beater, a racist, a pedophile. I think this type of accusation accounts for a lot of men being silenced about all sorts of things."

Leunig now feels open discussion on the needs of children is being stifled by child-care advocates imposing their agenda. ``There's a kind of touchiness here which is not just accidental. It's almost a sickness."

He is pursuing the issue because of the strong support he has received from many in the community who share his concern. He notes his original interest came from listening to women his aunties, grandmothers, sisters, neighbours talking around the kitchen table. ``They'd hold forth very strongly about the bond between a mother and child. It was the great issue, you see, always was."

He's been reading the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott who showed how important the first experiences of mother love were in giving children a stable, secure sense of self.

``There's something about the gaze between the mother and the child, this intensely sensitive gaze and the children's need to be known and recognised," Leunig said.

Even when the letters pages throbbed with attacks on his cartoon, Leunig would be stopped in the streets by women who worried about the effects on babies of suddenly being deprived of that gaze.

``A woman came up to me, shaking her head, saying: `It's terrible what's happening in our family.' She said her anxiety about what was happening to her grandchildren in child care had forced her to step in and offer to care for the children herself," Leunig reports.

What Leunig has been hearing from child-care workers, from parents, from ordinary folk are stories of neglected children, of indifferent care offered by underpaid, unskilled carers, the children who react very badly to being away from their mothers, stories of ``creched-out" attention-seeking children. ``There's all these statistics about showing how well children do in child care but everywhere I go I hear something quite different."

And he's now determined to draw attention to what he has heard.``One of my functions as a cartoonist is simply to say out loud, to give air to what people are whispering, what people are saying in their homes."

Professor Frank Oberklaid, director of the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, finds Leunig's new crusade infuriating. ``I react with a mixture of bemusement and anger. What a guilt trip for mothers," he says.

``There is no evidence that good quality child care is harmful in any way," he says, suggesting the whole debate has now moved on.

Oberklaid's view is that parents have the right to make choices. ``But in this country they have already made the choice," he says, noting that half a million kids are in some kind of child care.

``The debate shouldn't be about whether child care is good or bad. The debate should be about providing the best child-caring environment, whether that's at home or in a child-care setting."

Oberklaid gives no credence to assumptions that maternal care tends to be best for infants. ``There are many instances where care at home is sub-optimal." Yet his views are not shared by many of his colleagues. The British child psychologist Penelope Leach surveyed 450 infant mental health professionals from 56 countries. Most experts said it was very important for infants to be cared for by their mothers for their first year centre-based care was their last choice.

Despite acceptance of child care in Australia there is still considerable resistance to institutional care for infants. According to 1994 Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) data, only 5 per cent of Australian infants under one are in formal care, few full-time.

Surveys still show strong support for maternal care of young children.

A 1997 Australian Institute of Family Studies survey on Family values found 78 per cent of Australians still feel it's best for young children if mother is at home.

So there's a strong feeling in the community that infants usually do best with maternal care.

Oberklaid sees this as a sign of our backwardness. ``We are a very conservative country. We don't do well with cutting edge stuff. It's all those Johnny Howard values that mothers should be behind the white picket fence."

Yet the view persists even among those presumably well placed to judge the issue. A 1996 survey of Macquarie University early-child-care students with experience in day care found not a single student said they would put their own baby in a child-care centre.

So Leunig is right in perceiving a gap between the views of the broader community on infant care and the pro-child care stance which dominates in the media. In 1995 journalist Michael Duffy analysed press cuttings on child-care issues for an article in The Independent. He concluded the media ``seem to be prepared to portray child care with an almost hysterical enthusiasm".

Duffy also drew attention to distortions in the presentation of child-care research. When asked for information about infant care, June Wangmann, manager of the NSW Office for Childcare, issued the following statement, accompanied by the usual caveat about quality care: ``There is no evidence from any of the research that child care is detrimental for young children's development."

``That is simply untrue," says Melbourne writer Anne Manne, who has spent the past seven years collecting research on child care for a forthcoming book. ``The research is complex, with some positive findings, but I was startled by how much evidence there is of negative effects on children, such as anxiety, non-compliance, aggression and sometimes even depression, particularly with long hours and abrupt separations."

Recent findings on early brain development in infancy has led to growing concern about infants spending long hours in poor care.

For deprived children, Manne says, effective intervention programs generally combine short periods in high quality day care with support for parents. Leaving at-risk infants for long hours in lousy day care results in a double whammy of disadvantage.

Sally Loane's initial angry response to the Leunig cartoon led her to research the child-care industry for her book, Who Cares? which exploded the myth of ``good quality" care for infants. NSW and Victoria regulations allow a ratio of one carer to five infants, well above the one-to-three ratio international experts recommend.

Plus Loane discovered there's a caretaker turnover of 85 per cent over two years, undermining claims that infants receive the all-essential continuity of care.

``I found a lot of really bad centres, centres which should have been cause for great concern," said Loane, who came across a ``drive-thru" child-care centre on the Gold Coast which boasted parents could drop babies off without needing to get out of their cars.

``It makes no sense to say child care is fine provided it's good quality care when everyone knows most of our centre care for infants is nowhere near this standard." Loane was alarmed to meet young women who believed that early child care was essential for an infant's development a message Anne Manne finds throughout popular child-care literature.

The child psychiatrist Dr Peter Cook summarised research evidence on child care for his 1996 book Early Child Care and concluded the high quality care required for infants is simply not affordable even for affluent communities like Australia. His book presents a disturbing picture of the fudging of research findings by Australian child-care researchers and commentators.

Anne Manne agrees: ``People would be justly angry if, with a new baby formula or drug treatment, only positive findings were presented, negative evidence suppressed and people with doubts or anxieties pilloried. We'd assume parents have a right to know but with child care that just doesn't happen."

Yet whatever the merits of his case, Leunig attracted particular wrath because he was male. ``Thank you, Leunig, for your thoughts of a baby in child care," wrote one Age reader. ``You forgot to mention the good news. Daddy's improved his golf handicap."

The ABC Radio journalist Geraldine Doogue believes women of Leunig's age assumed ``the men beside them were with them on the issue. It gave them a shock to find out that Leunig saw it so differently." She feels ``we won't get anywhere until men take on the issue of child care as their problem, too".

Leunig thinks men can do a marvellous job taking care of children, even infants, if they are the primary carer. And he would ``never defend a dad who abdicates his responsibilities to his children".

But he's firm in his belief that mothers have unique gifts for children.

And as a male, he feels he has every right to speak out regarding children's welfare. ``I feel it's natural for a male to be protective of mothering. It's an act of fathering in the cultural sense, to be concerned about this. I think it is an entirely appropriate thing for a man to say."

© 2000 Sydney Morning Herald

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