Mutual aid in childcare is the means, not the end: Fighting for socialized childcare as the ultimate goal
Letter to the Editor – 22 December 2013
Thanks Vanessa Alexander for the article “Unlicensed Childcare: The Problem or the Solution?”, and thanks to BASICS for delving into an issue that’s central to the economic and social life of working class women, families and communities. As parents of three children we have relied on institutional and regulated daycares, unregulated home daycares, and many informal childcare arrangements over seventeen years.
The social reproduction of human beings in our society, and the smaller subset of ‘childcare’, is heavily based on the exploitation and super-exploitation of working class women. The basic contradiction of our society is that it is based on highly socialized production, we mostly produce things together, as part of a social project that’s larger than any individual; but the surplus of what is produced is expropriated by a small capitalist class who monopolize that surplus and the power that comes with it. The (re)productive labour in our society is largely rendered invisible in the capitalist economy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t central to the functioning of the system. The (re)production of the working class becomes an added burden of exploitation – super-exploitation – shouldered overwhelmingly by working class women. Even though working class people spend our lives integrated in social production, we are told that the labour and cost of taking care of and bringing up children should be borne, privately, by the women who give birth to them. Working class women and families get just enough in wage and social wage to be able to survive and continue to work! And each new generation of workers available for exploitation in the capitalist economy is a ‘commodity’ that working class women and communities produce for the capitalists basically for ‘free’. This added burden of exploitation is compounded with added layers of oppression for Native women, poor women, especially poor racialized women, women who use(d) drugs, and women with a ‘mental illness’ all of whom face additional stigma and discrimination which puts them regularly into contact with the punitive arm of the State: social workers, welfare ‘fraud’ investigations, child apprehension, and cops.
Because the capitalists have created an economic system in which almost every working class person has to work a job to survive economically, but will not use the social surplus to provide high quality childcare for working class parents, we rely on all kinds of arrangements to try to ensure that our kids are in a caring, stimulating and supportive social environment when we are not with them. Vanessa Alexander points out that these arrangements often demonstrate the strength, beauty and resilience of working class communities. Mutual aid, neighbourhood social networks, and extended families – these are all things that are woefully undervalued in our society.
She also does a great job of condemning a government policy that could be used to undermine and even criminalize the childcare arrangements that working class women and families make by necessity, in the absence of a universal childcare program.
There are two things that we would like to add, however, that we don’t think are adequately addressed in her piece.
Although Vanessa Alexander points to the fact that many informal childcare arrangements are borne out of lack of affordable options, we must be careful not to valourize these arrangements: The strain on relationships when you are relying on an aging grandmother or auntie or an older child to provide unpaid childcare; the stress of leaving your kid in a less than desirable childcare arrangement because you have no other choice; the developmental and mental health impact of kids isolated and watching TV or playing video games (for example while both parents are at work on a ‘professional day’); the strain on relationships between parents when every minute of childcare is used to cover work and they never get a minute alone together. While defending our right to survive the childcare crisis in whatever ways we can and deem to be necessary, we must be cautious not to embellish the means we take to survive. That said, the Little Lemurs Parenting Coop that Vanessa is part of organizing seems to be creating the best possible option for parents and their kids in order to avoid the worst of the informal childcare arrangements.
The second is a closer look at the current childcare set-up in Canada. As of right now, the Live-in-Caregiver program is the de facto national childcare program for more affluent Canadians. This program, set to double its number next year to 17,500, brings mostly Filipino women to Canada to work for less than minimum wage providing childcare and domestic labour for children and elderly in affluent Canadian homes while facing separation from their own families and a difficult uphill struggle to ‘achieve’ Canadian citizenship. The program is functional for capitalism and imperialism on many different levels: taking advantage of the underdevelopment and oppression of the Philippines and propping up the labour-export economic strategy of the reactionary Philippine state; providing the rich with access to childcare which is high quality, flexible and completely under their control; and maintaining the myth of childcare and reproduction as a private responsibility of individual families.
We need to analyze the burden of our oppression and exploitation, and organize to fight for a brighter future. We need to organize around demands that expose the exploitative and oppressive nature of the current system and that reflect the needs and aspirations of our working class communities. The demand for a universal childcare system is a key starting point for this demand because it is so obviously needed and enjoys support of the majority of people who live in Canada. But it’s not the end point. Licensed daycare that currently exists may not reflect the full aspirations of our families for the social development of our children and we must radically improve the working conditions of our dedicated and skilled childcare workers; democratic community control of childcare centers and secure, adequate state funding will help address our concerns.
While we celebrate the strength and qualities in our communities that allow us to adapt and survive in a hostile capitalist world, we should not make the mistake of thinking that our liberation lies in these survival strategies and mutual aid programs. Our bright future includes a world where the work of (re)production is valued and honoured, where childcare is socialized, and the social alienation families and children is overcome.
Martha Roberts and Aiyanas Ormond