Is childcare a love market?

Carol Vincent and Stephen Ball, 2001, A market in love? Choosing pre-school childcare, British Educational Research Journal, 27, 5, 633-651

This is a bit of an old article, and one which is tentative in that it is a first attempt at looking at a small and limited sample of data, but I liked what they were trying to do here, especially in view of my angst in terms of looking for childcare, and also because of comments that this post sparked in terms of the role of the state in childcare provision. This article explores the way that a group of mainly white middle class women made choices on childcare, and how they ‘operated the market’, in the UK. Most of these women paid for childcare, instead or in addition of using informal arrangements.

What Vincent and Ball show us is that in spite of these women being very good at working the market, by searching different providers, looking for information, getting reviews, going to visit the places and so on, these women did not have much control of the market-based relations that developed, and had to negotiate different tensions and trade-offs between their work, childcare and domestic responsibilities.

What struck me about this article is that it underlines a prominent feature here in the UK, which the article describes as an Anglo-American phenomenon: that childcare for children younger than 4 is considered mainly a private matter, not a public responsibility. This is different from other countries, such as Scandinavia, France, Belgium, and Australia. Families have to cope in their own ways, and have to pay for whatever they can afford for care. The state does not provide, or provides minimally, for this age group. Since this article was written, the state has become a bit more involved, at least in terms of inspections, and offering childcare vouchers and so on, but not much in terms of provision of care. But even if, or because of, this area is left to the market, women find they have to compromise on what they would like for childcare, as they haven’t got the ability, or power to really ‘choose’ the care they want to.

A very interesting part of the article deals with the compromises that women make at the moment of making choices for childcare. Cost, geographies of choice (location and distance of travel, places available, times available, etc), women’s type of work hours and flexibility allowed, different types of care arrangements, are all elements in a giant and fuzzy puzzle that women juggle in their everyday lives. These authors show that there are two key issues that relate to this compromise. They show that even if women manage the market well, they still are forced to accept situations that are not ideal. And that the dissatisfaction is fuelled by their unease about negotiating market-based relationships in search of care.

Women did not have much choice of manoeuvre between one provider or another. They show how it was more of a ‘work with what there is, and what it is’, rather than, as other studies suggest, a continuum of care, or co-ordinated care. That is, the situation was more one in which mothers had to compromise their ideals, or to leave. And women compromised more or less than others, and on different things.

The authors argue that because of this unease with market relations, women attempt to personalise, and bring the affective dimension of care to the forefront. As they show, for these women professionalism is not enough and warm relationships are vital. This is a part of the article that bugs me a bit. In their analysis, the authors highlight how this really is about a financial exchange, and how the other elements are part of a ‘necessary fiction’ that women and providers use to cover this core issue.

This bugs me not because I don’t agree that there is an element of market exchange, and that this brings discomfort and a strategy to bring out the affective, but because it feels like they are saying that the women do not understand this and live in fiction, and thus, for me, it feels dismissive.Secondly, I think that market relations are complicated and more than financial exchanges in any case, and more so in this case.

In spite of this matters, I find that this poses interesting questions: would women be more at ease with their childcare decisions were it not a market exchange? Would public provision, for instance, change the forms of childcare at their core? And thus, what role should the state play in childcare provision? Probably the answer to that would be to see what kind of alternative care, public care or cooperative there was, and if the care relationship would be more prominent in this type of care. I would argue that this would probably not be so clear cut, as childcare providers and workers are mostly under-paid, and probably choose this job in some part because it is something they enjoy doing (this does not justify the low pay, which I think should be part of the struggle for better care). Even so, the questions are good ones, especially at this point in time in the UK, where conservatism and forms of privatisation are rampant.

The next thing that struck is how this is an area where women are the main responsables, in two senses, for worrying, juggling and searching, and also in the sense of being responsible for it to work well. Women are the ones juggling, searching, making compromises, and men are in the background, even though these are, as some of them described, involved in many other areas of care and household tasks. This area was theirs.

It is exactly my case too. I do question myself why is it that I am the one that seems to worry most about childcare, searches options, and thinks of the different ways to combine things. Even though my partner comes to visit places, and was there to interview our nanny, and we talk about childcare decisions, I feel this is my responsibility. As the women in the article also state, there are many reasons for that: my flexibility in terms of my work, the relative less pay, the inconvenience in terms of times and distance for ones who those not work from home, etc, but for me the thing at the heart of this is something else: as much I sometimes fume about this being seemingly my burden, I would not like it if it weren’t. Do I care more than him about childcare? Probably not. But somehow it seems like I am the one that is annoyingly picky about it. Why is this? Not sure. Of course he does other things I don’t do, but it seems peculiar that this is something marked not only in our relationship, but is common and has been the most usual way in which it happens: women keep this matter into their hands. It would be interesting to read more about why this is the case: why is it a mother’s matter more than a dad’s matter? Or a shared one? A good feminist question.

Finally, an interesting point is held, when these authors show the ways that women talk about this process. The women in this study compromised somehow in the range between what would be for them ideal and what would be a horror story. These authors show how this middle ground is then maintained through ‘legitimation talk’, that is, narratives that contain very complex justificatory accounts and schemas, which are also underpinned by the rejection of other options. These authors comment how sometimes it is difficult to tell ‘preference’ from ‘necessity’, as there is a lot of emotional work going on, as these women also explain these choices to themselves through this talk.

I find this to be true, and part of the constant questioning that motherhood and parenthood brings: is this the right thing? Is my son/daughter happy? Could it be better? But also, I found, that this is something that many of my friends do, and probably I do too. For instance, sometimes I am a bit taken aback when something that I was told was great, and worked perfectly well, somehow falls apart. It is only then than some start to talk about their doubts, fears and negative experiences. I know it is hard to admit, to oneself first, but also to others, that one is not doing the best thing, but one that is OK, and works for the moment. I think that this area is one in which a bit more insight or openness might do mothers some good. This is what loads of blogs are great for, so there is something brewing definitely, but the competitiveness and tribalism is also rampant, so it is good to keep talking about this.

One response to “Is childcare a love market?

  1. jumbleberryjam

    I, too, have been thinking a lot about childcare division of labor (whether it be in the home, or seeking help outside). Like you, I feel particularly territorial when it comes to the things I want to be responsible for. How/can, or should I relax and share the load with my partner more? Would I share it with the State even if it were within the realm of possibility here (US)? I have to wonder if I would be able to even if we lived in Scandinavia? Yes, good feminist questions today. Thank you!!

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