At school, I’m working on a summer project about (arcane aspects of) publicly supported childcare. Consequently, I have some dry academic thinking about gender to articulate, and get out of my system.

Daycare receives surprisingly little in the way of governmental subsidies here, and is in dire straits in terms of availability and affordability. Everyone I meet seems to present a passionate argument for why publicly supporting childcare is so important. People with kids also describe whatever arrangement they’ve cobbled together for the care of their own children while they work. I have the honour of knowing personally a lot of amazing and committed fathers and mothers, including a few stay-at-home dads and moms and a few families who rely on full-time or part-time daycare.

The most frequent progression of arguments for supporting quality daycare has surprised me and taught me about current understandings of gender. There are two parts to the argument – I almost always hear the first, and sometimes the second:

  • It is economically necessary for most mothers to work; most women can’t afford to stay home with their kids. Furthermore, many women have careers and may not want to provide childcare full time.
  • Society is evolving and the new order, which should be embraced and supported, requires capacity for parents to both participate in the workforce and care for their families.

The first argument (which appears, unqualified, in all kinds of governmental reports and formal documents) strikes me as representative of an intermediate conception of gender that is almost at the end of its usefulness. It is progressive in its way, recognizing the economic necessity of dual-income families and women’s (equal?) entitlement to careers. However it implicitly asserts women’s role as primary caregivers (or assumes that this assumption exists and must be dealt with) even while acknowledging its impossibility. Situated as victims of economics, mothers cannot help but fail at these implicit duties to provide full-time childcare. Those mothers who choose participation in the paid workforce, full time or part time, are seen to leave behind a gap which is ostensibly to be filled by daycare. It’s not a very empowering position for women.

Meanwhile, fathers are left right out of this discussion. In all the reports I have read about childcare so far in my research, none have explicitly mentioned the importance of daycare to fathers. Fathers’ duties are presumed to be wholly economic – they are rarely recognized as childcare providers. Whatever may have been common in the past, the experience of my friends proves that many men are childcare providers, and that they may have even less support than women in this role.

I don’t mean, of course, to criticize the crux of the arguments described here – that public daycare is very important to parents. I only wish my work could make some small difference to make licensed daycare more available, affordable and flexible.

It just seems that our society is, or ought to be, moving forward from the first argument to the second. Parents, regardless of gender, family structure or whether they use public childcare, are responsible for their children’s care in addition to any roles they occupy in the paid workforce. Publically supported daycare is one essential support that can make it economically and personally feasible for parents to achieve a workable balance between their roles at home and in the paid workforce, and for children to grow up without their care being a subject of serious stress.