It is early September. The sun is still very bright but the air is getting cool this far up in the northern hemisphere. Fall has begun, and with fall also schools and daycares. The park is full of children running around in yellow reflective vests. My 18-month-old son stares with amazement at them as they dig in the sand and climb the play structures.
Here we go again, I sigh. All summer we were able to play peacefully in the park, but now I will have to be on my guard. In the summer, the children came to the park with their parents. Now, however, they come “alone together”.
A little boy is sitting on a bench crying, his face buried in his hands. His caregiver tells me that he misses his sister who has left the daycare group and started school. He cries bitterly and it is impossible not to feel compassion for him. I try to focus on my son’s play but unpleasant feelings are stirring within me. Their source is not difficult to fathom.
When I was 13 months old, my well-meaning mother put me in the stroller, rolled me down the hill and “delivered” me to the nearest government-subsidized daycare center. From then on, I spent most of my waking hours with strangers. From then on, we spent only two or three hours as a family every evening. My mother tells me that my older sister was barely six months old when she met the same fate. But we were not a special family in this regard. The overwhelming majority of all Swedish children have been brought up this way for over four decades. Few other countries can boast such a record. My own experience has led me to ponder this whole phenomenon.
Daycare for young children is taken for granted in Sweden. Children are generally between 13 and 18 months old when they start. To put your child in daycare at two years old is universally considered late – a deviation from the norm.
The most outspoken critic of this system, Jonas Himmelstrand, is currently living in exile with his family on a Finnish island because he and his wife also insist on homeschooling their children, which is illegal in Sweden. But that has not stopped him from talking about the flaws in the Swedish system. Earlier this year he was speaking in Britain, where he described how academic performance in Swedish schools has plummeted since the 1980’s from among the best down to below average in, for instance, math. Discipline problems are now also among the worst in Europe. He ascribes this to early daycare because it fosters peer-orientation, which is detrimental to psychological maturation and learning. As a matter of fact, psychological problems among schoolgirls have tripled in the last 30 years. Could there be a connection?
My son settles down in the sandbox. The feel of the sand makes me remember a mom I met yesterday. Her twins were crawling all over the toys in the sand and she was struggling to manage both of them alone. They were 13 months old. Observing them, I tried to picture myself at their age, barely able to stand on my feet. “They’re a handful,” the mother acknowledged, “and they just started daycare.” I smiled, trying to conceal my true feelings. At least they have each other, I thought. “They’ve been waking up with nightmares lately, but hopefully they’ll soon settle in.” Frequent nightmares, isn’t that a sign of trauma?
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota measured the increase in salivary cortisol during the day in children in full-time daycare. At daycare, the majority of the children had increased levels of cortisol compared to levels at home, with 40 percent of children showing a stress response by afternoon. Girls generally displayed anxious, vigilant behavior, while boys tended to become angry and aggressive. There was no evidence in the study’s findings that care quality significantly affected the cortisol rise.
It would be logical to conclude that premature and long separation from the mother leads to stress, which in turn impedes learning. A small child cannot comfort itself in the sadness that separation creates and will spend their energy anxiously searching for security instead of learning from impressions. When the tears subside, the one-year-old might show calmness and “obedience”, but in reality they are frozen in fear or apathy. This is a result of weakened attachment to their primary caregiver.
Children, however, might not be the only ones who are negatively affected. Many times I have witnessed colleagues suffer from this separation, not being able to relax during the workday, carrying feelings of guilt and sadness within. I once heard a mother admit that “even though every bone in my body screamed, No, this is wrong! I still left her there.” Only ignorance and pressure to conform can make this possible.
In a recent BBC article the question of getting mothers back into the workforce was discussed, as well as different options for childcare. In Britain, they at least argue about the subject of daycare, unlike in my own country where it remains largely unquestioned. The few debates dealing with the daycare issue here are short but heated. Last year, when the question was raised by the media, psychologist Eva Rusz was blamed for burdening parents’ consciences. She dared to offer the informed opinion that daycare before two years of age could be damaging to children’s emotional health and attachment. with the risk of life-long consequences, such as low self-esteem, anxiety and heightened psychological vulnerability.
Parental guilt, economic factors and women’s rights seem to take precedence over honest and open discussions about what is best for children. Often when I am out with my son and start a conversation with another parent, the question of daycare comes up within the first minute. When they learn that I will be home with my son for a while longer, they get a perplexed look on their face and fall silent. Suddenly, the conversation has reached its end. Luckily, I already have friends.
My stomach is reminding me that it is lunchtime. I collect our things and my son, and start walking home. I wonder how it went for the woman I met in the elevator earlier this morning. As she nervously fidgeted with her cell phone and rushed out, pushing me aside, I excused her rudeness by telling myself she was probably late for work. She did appear somewhat distressed. Her work must be very important to her, I concluded. Later, my husband told me that he had seen her rush to the gates of a daycare nearby, where her one-year-old baby had been screaming for her at the top of his lungs in the arms of the daycare staff.
Swedish parents appear to suffer from tremendous guilt, of which one must not speak, because they fail to be there for their little ones when their need is greatest. Their reasons are sometimes of a financial nature, sometimes due to feminist ideals and sometimes mere convention. Whatever the excuse, don’t little children have a right to be cared for by their parents? Despite constant new findings, the media are careful not to wake the hibernating bear of guilt. Should he wake up, imagine the roar!
My son has fallen asleep in the baby carrier with his head resting on my chest. I shudder at the thought of leaving him at daycare, at so tender an age, in order to go back to work. As I enter our apartment building, I wonder that a matter of plain common sense has become such a taboo in this country. Could it be that the Swedish government has too large a stake in the success of daycare?
Mariola O’Brien has traded her classroom for a daily dosage of giggles and tantrums, in a country where the overwhelming majority of mothers of small children work full-time.