If, like me, you have been watching season two of The Handmaid’s Tale with a knot in your stomach and sweat on your brow, may I suggest an antidote? Herland. Sorry, it’s not on Netflix. It’s a 100 year old feminist utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Let me explain how it made me feel better about the fact that I suck at craft.
When my eldest daughter reached the age of about two, I started feeling guilty. Strange, because I’d never really been a particular fan of guilt, despite being raised Catholic. I find it an unproductive emotion. As a social researcher I had observed countless discussion groups of mothers who spent a lot of time and energy talking about their “mother guilt”. I sympathised, but in truth I always thought that guilt made them unhappier people rather than better mothers.
And yet two years into motherhood I was hit with a bout of the guilts because I really, really didn’t like doing craft with my daughter. I found it a boring, messy activity that always produced something I was desperate to hide or throw away. I could do plenty of other stuff with my daughter with enthusiasm and regularity – cooking, reading books, and going to the park or the pool. But craft, I couldn’t do.
Enter Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who also had a daughter. History does not record whether they crafted happily together. I read Herland around the time I was in my “craft crisis”. Gilman’s novel tells the story of three men, adventurers who discover a secret society populated, ruled and designed for the happiness of women. In this society, the children are cared for in dedicated buildings to protect and stimulate the children’s appetite for learning overseen by professions who have all the qualities necessary for the task of raising the next generation. Gilman writes:
Every mother had her year of glory, living closely with her child. But after the baby-year the mother was not so constantly in attendance. The children found themselves mostly in an environment which was agreeable and interesting and before them stretched the years of learning and discovery, the fascinating, endless process of education. … It was all education but no schooling [supervised] by teachers born and trained.”
To the male adventurers this seems like a bizarre way to raise children. To the women in Herland is seems absolutely natural and beneficial to child and mother. The citizens of Herland who have the aptitude for looking after children at a young age for long stretches of time are identified early on. The development of children is so crucial to the happiness of Herland, taken so seriously, it is supervised by professionals who consider it a vocation and a calling.
Gilman’s novel helped me understand that it didn’t matter I didn’t like doing craft with my daughter. Three days a week she was in the care of highly qualified, dedicated women woman who excelled at craft. And what’s more, my partner really enjoyed craft and was always willing to do it (he is a construction engineer, and his cardboard houses would meet local council DA requirements). Why did I think being a mother meant doing everything with my child all the time?
This personal revelation was connected to a larger insight I was developing about the way in which we tend to view childcare or, as it should be better known as, early childhood learning and development. I’ve spent over a decade listening to parents, particularly mothers, talk about the care arrangements they make for their preschool children, and it’s clear it is viewed largely as a replacement for their own role as carers rather than an enhancement. It’s reflected in the comment I’ve heard time and again from mothers (not single mothers mind you), “if my salary doesn’t cover the costs of childcare, it’s not worth it”. It’s reflected in the anxiety mothers feel that their child in care won’t be given the kind of one on one attention and total focus they will at home. “What if he falls over and cries and no one notices?” Again, I understand why some women feel this way but the very idea of early learning and care is to foster the kinds of capabilities and qualities in children that are extremely difficult to develop in the home setting with one adult. Socialisation, collaboration, empathy, resilience – these are all qualities the futurist say we will need to have in spades if we are to continue to thrive in the era of robots and AI that is coming all too quickly.
If we took early learning and developing in children seriously, as seriously as they did in Herland, we would value and pay our early childhood workers better. We would provide better access to early learning for all those families we already know struggle to access quality care – those from lower incomes, in remote and regional areas, families where there are issues of language and disability. We would see these workers not as second class mums but first class educators. We would see them not as substitutes for parents but partners in the heady, complex and wonderful process of raising a human being. Happily, there is a generational shift in attitudes coming. The 2015 Essential Report showed that the younger you are the more likely you are to agree with the statement “all Australian children should have access to childcare and early learning”.
No one can love my children the way I do. No one can take my place. But that’s not what the dedicated women who have cared and taught my three daughters are trying to do. They are better than I am, not just at craft, but at how to teach my children many of the things they need to thrive in the future. I still suck at craft but I am a better parent because of them.
• Rebecca Huntley is the director of research at Essential Media
Rebecca Huntley will speak at The Motherload, together with Clementine Ford and Maxine Beneba Clarke, at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, 20 May 2018.