Dr Carla Pascoe is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at the University of Melbourne
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Australian governments have historically maintained a narrow view of their role in supporting the transition to motherhood. This has been highlighted anew in recent discussions of paid parental leave. Debates over so-called ‘double dipping’ – where women access both government and employer paid leave after having a baby – have brought parental leave back into the media spotlight. The very phrase ‘double dipping’ is imbued with moral condemnation, reminiscent of the implausible Howard-era allegation that Australian women would be motivated to give birth simply to take advantage of the lump-sum ‘baby bonus’.
But something else has emerged in these debates that is equally revealing. As well as uncovering a suspicion that women might sign up to motherhood for mercenary motivations, Social Services Minister Christian Porter has bluntly stated the major rationale for parental leave. It has little to do with maternal wellbeing. Parental leave is primarily intended to get mothers back into the workforce. This extraordinary disregard for the welfare of new mothers and newborn babies – two of the most vulnerable members of our society – requires some explanation.
There has been a strange taken-for-granted aspect to what mothers do throughout recent Australian history. Even the fact that so little has been written of the experiences and perspectives of Australian mothers over time suggests disinterest or amnesia concerning one of the largest cohorts of our population. I have received funding from the Australian Research Council under the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to help remedy this perplexing omission. A large part of the research is devoted to conducting 50 oral history interviews with Australian women about their experiences of becoming a mother for the first time. In focusing upon the period since 1945, the project is designed to roughly encapsulate living memory. Whilst the research centres upon individual experiences of mothering, such experiences always take place within a cultural, political and economic context. Changing government policies impact deeply upon experiences of mothering. Whilst a wide range of government policies originating in both state and commonwealth departments potentially intersect with the lives of mothers, I would argue that government policy has principally defined mothers in two ways: as medical subjects and as economic subjects.
One of the primary means by which mothers’ lives have intersected with government policies has been through our health systems. The broad trend across the twentieth century was for pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood to become more monitored and medicalised in an attempt to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Mothers giving birth in the 1950s and 1960s did so almost entirely in hospitals, often under analgesics, with partners not allowed to be present. Breastfeeding rates plummeted as babies were bottle-fed in a central nursery overnight and mothers were instructed to restrict breastfeeding to a four-hourly schedule. In response to such trends, the maternity reform movement of the 1970s and 1980s emphasised the need to give women more information about and control over their experience of birth. It was accompanied by a revitalisation of breastfeeding led by community organisations like the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia (later the Australian Breastfeeding Association). Community pressure began to force policy changes that supported women’s choices in healthcare. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a series of state government inquiries into maternity care, most of which recommended family-centred approaches.
Over the past forty years researchers have developed a solid evidence base that when women feel that they are in a safe environment with people they trust during labour, this results in fewer medical interventions, higher rates of successful breastfeeding and improved maternal and child health outcomes. Responses from public health systems have included: allowing partners to be present during labour; increasing information to prospective parents; encouraging drug-free pain relief during labour; the development of birthing centres at some hospitals; and limited access to programs which provide continuity of midwifery care. Yet despite attempts to humanise and de-medicalise birth, medical interventions have continued to grow, to the point where 32 per cent of Australian births are by caesarean (the World Health Organisation’s recommended rate is 10 to 15 per cent). Many contemporary women interviewed for this project report feeling disappointed with and sometimes traumatised by their first experience of birth. Most assert that their negative experience of birth impacts upon their early days of adjusting to motherhood.
The other sense in which government policy has interacted with the health of mothers to a limited extent is in relation to their emotional wellbeing. State health systems have revised their terminology from ‘infant welfare’ to ‘maternal and child health’, reflecting an increasing concern for the mother as well as the baby. Building on the success of community playgroups from the 1970s, maternal child health centres now foster peer support for mothers by establishing groups for new parents in local areas. Public discourse is increasingly recognising that becoming a mother can be psychologically challenging. The not-for-profit organisation Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia estimates that more than 1 in 7 mothers and up to 1 in 10 fathers experience postnatal anxiety or depression.
The line between mental health and mental illness for new mothers is often difficult to discern. Most contemporary mothers that I have interviewed felt that their experience of becoming a mother did not meet their expectations – that motherhood was both more rewarding and more challenging than they expected. Many did not feel that they had adequate support structures in place because of this gap between expectation and reality. Sociologists allege that motherhood has become harder in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to factors such as the rising age of first motherhood, the intensification and professionalisation of mothering, and the fact that more mothers are engaging in paid employment alongside their caring and domestic work. Some of these are cultural shifts with limited connection to the policy arena. But the question of mothers’ workloads is intimately linked to the kinds of economic and workplace policies adopted by Australian governments.
If successive Australian governments have framed motherhood through health policies, they have also influenced the experience of motherhood through economic policies. Economic policies have reflected and influenced a wider gender culture in Australia. In the mid-twentieth century there was a clearly gendered division of labour where men were seen as breadwinners and women as housekeepers and mothers. The Australian economy was structured around the assumption that every family was supported by a male breadwinner. Female wages were lower and many industries forced women to give up their jobs upon marriage. Institutional childcare was not readily available. Single mothers were rare in the 1950s and 1960s due to the difficulty of a woman financially supporting children on her own.
Second wave feminism disrupted these assumptions about male and female capacities in relation to paid employment and caring. Many women began trying to work and study alongside mothering. From the 1970s a series of measures increased the legal and economic freedom of mothers. Child care support was first introduced in 1972 and was gradually expanded over the following decades. In 1973 single mother benefits were established, with no-fault divorce introduced in 1975. In 1979 the federal government enshrined protection for unpaid parental leave, but it was not until 2011 that 18 weeks maternity leave at the minimum wage was introduced. In 2013 partners received two weeks of leave on the same terms.
It is now easier for mothers to come in and out of the workforce although there are well-recognised issues with the flexibility, affordability and availability of childcare. Nevertheless there are still two fundamental issues that are not being addressed by government policy: the economic penalties associated with motherhood and the desire of parents to spend time with their young children.
It is incontrovertible that women are economically disadvantaged by mothering. They are generally the parent who works part-time resulting in reduced opportunities for career progression, continuing gender disparity in salaries and significantly reduced superannuation. These motherhood penalties leave women financially dependent on men and are part of the reason that increasing numbers of women are choosing to delay or forgo motherhood.
Interviews with women who became mothers in the twenty-first century suggest that most mothers assume that they will return to paid work and that they will need to put their children into childcare. But many are deeply ambivalent about this and are surprised by the strength of their emotions when forced to leave their children. Other recent research has found that 85% of Australian fathers would like to spend more time caring for their children if they could afford it. My research suggests that contemporary Australian mothers feel torn between desiring time with their children and not wanting their career aspirations and financial stability to be compromised by motherhood.
The current federal government does not seem to view the wellbeing of mothers (or, presumably, children) as a policy priority. Its main priority is workforce participation and economic productivity. But this is a narrow understanding of productivity. Supporting maternal wellbeing in a holistic sense leads to mothers who are more equipped to raise healthy children and to participate fully in their community. Studying historical changes to the experience of becoming a mother reveals that negative interactions with health professionals during the perinatal period, insufficient practical and emotional support, financial and professional penalties for having children and disincentives for parents spending time with young children all make mothering much more difficult and unattractive. Understanding what has supported or undermined maternal wellbeing can lead to government policies that boost productivity in a long-term, meaningful sense of the word.
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Citation: Carla Pascoe, For Love or Money? Maternal Wellbeing and Government Policy. Australian Policy and History. December 2016.
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