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Dear Nick Clegg
Like most parents, I’m sure you love your child fervently, and want only the best for them. Like most parents, you like to think that the decisions you make are in your child’s best interests, now and in the future. And like most parents who delegate the care of their children to paid strangers, you choose to ignore several decades of psychology and neuroscience, which show quite clearly that the loving and nurturing environment and secure attachment experience provided by a mother cannot be replicated by a childcare worker of any quality.
Of course, like most parents, you’re quite sure your choice is the right one, and this wouldn’t necessarily matter quite so much, if you were ‘like most parents’. But you’re not: you’re the Deputy Prime Minister.
You recently announced your plans for childcare to be made the coalition government’s highest priority social policy, with a massive expansion in nursery places and the recruitment of 65000 new childcare workers. You shared your vision for ‘teaching’ children as young as two and preparing them for educational success, and, while you were at it, you pledged to take on those with the “sepia tinted 1950’s” view that mothers should not work.
I’m one of those women. I look after my children full time, and don’t plan to return to work until the youngest has started school. Far from being a 1950’s housewife (to me this implies little skill or ambition beyond bakery), I’ve studied at post-graduate level, and prior to becoming a mother, I practiced as a therapist, working with both adults and children who had experienced abuse. This gave me a lot of ‘hands on’ experience of the devastating impact this can have; a lifetime of difficulties such as addiction, self harm, the inability to sustain any meaningful relationships, and unbearable emotional pain.
Of course, this is the extreme end of a very long spectrum. Towards the other end, I met many of those people we might call the ‘Walking Wounded’, who live their lives fairly successfully, and don’t suffer any major mental health problems. But placed in a situation like therapy, in which they are invited to explore their deepest feelings, they will reveal all manner of childhood experiences that they wish had unfolded differently. A Walking Wounded person might cry a river of tears over the fact that their father went away for three days without explanation when they were six, or that their mother’s hugs were always slightly brittle and reluctant.
Every choice we make, big and small, accidental or with firm purpose, makes an impact on our children’s rapidly developing psychology. We might like to tell ourselves that small children don’t remember much, and that therefore what happens to them doesn’t really matter, as long as they are fed and warm. This is not the case. Babies are not pot plants, just sitting there growing as long as they get milk and a bit of sunlight. They are subtle and complex human beings, whose brains are developing at an alarming rate. Their experiences are forming the bedrock of their entire future emotional existence. Perhaps most crucially of all, they are learning about the meaning of relationship from the people who care for them; how to love, and be loved.
Mothers today often do not feel valued in their role, and a world which takes your view that they can be easily replaced by relatively low waged nursery workers only serves to reinforce this. Interestingly, I don’t feel particularly undervalued, and I put this down to my former job. As a therapist, I spent a lot of time playing, painting, reading stories, or just sitting quietly and attentively watching another person create. Of course it never occurred to me to worry that my work was not of value - I was being paid! As a mother now, my daily activity with my children is not so far removed from my former working life. I play, I witness, I create safe boundaries, I hold the space, and I help other people make sense of difficult emotions. My work as a therapist taught me first hand the enormous value of ‘just being there’.
Your policy plans imply that a child will develop in much the same way whether they spend their days with a mother or a paid worker, and that perhaps a child might even be better off in a nursery, where they can be ‘educated’. To see child development in this way is utterly ill-informed, and cannot be forgiven in a leading policy maker. Get your team of advisors to put you together a folder Nick. You are powerful. You may not remember the first years of your life, but I can assure you, they shape who you are every second of every day. Please help to create policy that acknowledges the vital importance of this early experience, and that puts love and nurture for small children – not ‘education’ - at its centre. And that values the work of a mother, not as faded and sepia tinted, but vibrant, sharp and fresh; a modern and newly informed reworking of an old classic.