‘More than babysitting’: thinking about women’s work in early childhood

Jack is naughty, this is what the children tell me. They whisper it conspiratorially, up close, Jack is sooooo naughty. I watch him play with the other children. He knocks towers over, runs around as fast as his powerful little legs will carry him. He is a year younger than most of the other children in the room – three and a half instead of four and a half – a huge gap at this age. The older ones have learnt to push at the boundaries more covertly, cleverly. Sometimes they call Jack a baby. This makes him angry, then he cries. I felt his tears on my arms recently, while comforting him; they ran hot and fast. I was surprised by the intimacy of the moment.

Ariana and Sofia are twins, four years old. Recently Ariana has made friends with the cool, confident kids, the ones who have a degree of control over the playground. Sofia seems mostly happy playing on her own, but sometimes she asks Ari if she can play too. Ari says sorry Sofia, my friends are busy right now and they can’t play with you. Sofia cries inconsolably. I suggest a few alternatives. How about building a really big sandcastle? Coming on a special trip with me to the kitchen to fetch the apples for afternoon tea? Sofia doesn’t want anything but to play with Ariana and her friends. Sofia still wets her pants frequently, and her spoken language contains its own bumbly cadences and articulation, hard for me to understand. I wonder if this is part of the reason that Ariana has been accepted into the group but Sofia hasn’t. My body carries the memory of how rejection and isolation feels; dull, stultifying, heavy.

Mai is toilet training and proud of it. When I suggest she does a wee before bed she beams and runs to the toilet. As she hears the sound of her wee hitting the water she laughs, stands up and turns around to look into the bowl, confirming that it’s there. I did a wee in the toilet! she tells anyone who will listen. We help her wash her hands, and give her high fives and cuddles. Nice one Mai, that’s wonderful.


In recent years United Voice, the Australian Education Union, and the Independent Education Union have run equal pay campaigns, fighting for wage increases for qualified early childhood workers – 97 per cent of whom are women – who earn as little as twenty-one dollars an hour. On 6 February, the Equal Remuneration Order application of United Voice and the AEU, which had been before the Fair Work Commission since 2013, was rejected, on the grounds that the unions did not provide sufficient evidence that child-care work was of equal or comparable value to workers under the manufacturing Award. Five years of bureaucracy has us back at square one.

If you listen to early childhood activists speak, you will quickly pick up the take-home messages. Investing in our children is investing in the future of our nation. Neuroscience has proved that the first few years of life are of the utmost importance for cognitive and socioemotional development. Some educators get paid the same as cleaners! The devaluation of early childhood educators is an extension of the devaluation of women and their work in the home. Early childhood teachers are highly trained professionals who are required to perform similar work to primary school teachers, at 70 per cent of the wage and without the holidays. Educators are expert specialists with wide-ranging technical knowledge on early childhood development and pedagogy.

These arguments are strategic and truthful. Early childhood educators follow curriculum documents and plan lessons and document children’s learning and work within complex legal frameworks and generally have a sound understanding of child development as well as various pedagogical philosophies. This is what people might think of as the hard, cerebral work, the real education side of things. On the other hand, the work is deeply relational, embodied, emotional, and physically straining. It involves cuddles, ice packs, nappy changing, tickles, being spat at in the face, and the use of your body as a site of security and comfort. It involves relationships between children and adults who spend up to eight hours a day together, five days a week, relationships that run the gamut of human emotion. Perhaps this might be thought of as the womanly side of the job, the care part, the part that women have done forever.


Education versus care: a distinction as hardwired as it is inadequate. The head/heart distinction splits ad infinitum. It is more valued to be a university teacher than a high school teacher, highschool teacher than primary school, primary school than preschool, and preschool teacher than infant educator. The smallest humans, those whose bodies seem most salient in their daily being, have traditionally been thought to require care, rather than education. The people who look after these small humans undertake work that is readily located in the body. And the closer we are to the body, the further we are away from the mind.

Every day that I go to work I move through the repertoire of activities and motions that women have lived through the centuries, retracing and recreating their steps. This repetition of the work is what makes the work disappear … makes history disappear in the moment of its enactment. So says Sara Ahmed. The almighty effort that women have put into childrearing has had the effect of making the work invisible, rendering it simple and natural. In such circumstances it makes sense for activists to pull away from maternalistic discourses of early childhood education and care, to say look! What we do is real work!

But the crux is that this real work is pegged to a patriarchal notion of value, where bureaucratic and technical knowledge is judged to be worthy of better pay, but creating safe, stimulating, emotionally nourishing environments and relationships is not.

One of my favourite writers, Maggie Nelson, writes in The Argonauts of a rule of thumb: ‘when something needs to be willfully erased to get somewhere, there is usually a problem.’ This gets close to the heart of my concern; that in order to enhance our status as early childhood educators we direct attention away from the body and the heart in order to push ourselves up a masculinist hierarchy that values perceived intellectual endeavour over work that is intrinsically relational and embodied. I don’t mean to suggest that there is any essential female proclivity for care work. What I want to suggest is the need for a language that is capacious enough to encompass the idea that work can be at once embodied, emotional and nurturing as well as technical, professional and worthy of a fair living wage. And I don’t think that we should push cleaners down in order to raise ourselves up.


We distinguish ourselves by saying it’s much more than just babysitting! We argue: our training is just as rigorous as primary and high school teachers yet our conditions and pay are much worse. Why not instead argue that we are part of a sector of society who perform work on which all else rests, work that if withdrawn would cause the whole damn pyramid scheme to come tumbling to the ground. To borrow a phrase from Jason W. Moore, capitalism is a system that works because it doesn’t pay its bills, namely, the bills of women who birth and nurture the humans who become the labour force. And now, capitalism is also a system in which a two-wage household has become more a necessity than a hard-won choice. It is a compromised species of liberation.


Before I go to work, and most evenings when I come home from work, I spend time stretching out the day’s knots and strains. This usually amounts to somewhere between twenty and sixty minutes of stretching per day. Of course this is helpful for calming the mind, observing thought patterns, practising stillness. But it is also necessary for me to avoid pain and injury at work. It is unpaid labour that is fundamental to the viability and sustainability of my continued employment in the sector. Some of the youngest children in our care don’t yet walk; they require carrying to move from point a to point b, to have their nappy changed, to be lifted into their cot, to be seated at the table. No amount of core engagement and correct knee bend can make the repeated action of lifting a child into a tiny chair ergonomic.

Often there is a direct correlation between children’s enjoyment and the potential for worker injury. As an example, during music sessions, the youngest infants need to be carried and bounced if they are to experience the somatic joy of moving to a rhythm. If you have ever danced around carrying a non-walking child, you will recall the way their cheeks become taut from smiling, how their giggling ripples through the whole body. Dipping and twirling is good, throwing and catching the child to the beat better still. This is a big strain on our bodies for an almost priceless expression of happiness and wonderment from the infant.


Despite decades of troubling of the Cartesian mind-body duality and all its spin-offs (male-female, education-care, head-heart), our language keeps us bound to this way of thinking. It takes effort to accommodate a mode of being and acting that remains uncategorised as one or the other. The paucity of Cartesian language and thinking has never been clearer to me than now, working with young children in a feminised occupation. Instead of fitting the real education stuff around obligatory nappy changing, feeding, and sleeping, our pedagogy is embedded in these habitual exchanges. The back and forth infant-educator babble on the nappy change mat is a small lesson in reciprocity. When we drop down to a child’s eye-level to inform them that we need to change their nappy once they’ve finished their drawing (instead of scooping them up unawares mid-activity), we enact concepts of autonomy and power. In some contexts a spontaneous squeezy hug might let a child know that they are loved and cared for, in others it might suggest that they hold little power over their body, that others can do to it what they will. Each fleeting interaction is a small and slippery building block in the child’s ever-expanding patchwork of life experience. There are no absolute answers, but to be a good educator there is a necessary, constant process of self-reflection. It is the most important academic work I have done, and it is enacted through messy, skin-to-skin, back-breaking, heart-opening relationships.


Image: The Photographers Child Syndrome (PCS) / Willie Kers

Miriam Jones

Miriam Jones is an early childhood teacher, writer and musician living and working on Wangal land. Her work has been published in Overland, The Suburban Review and Sydney Review of Books, and she was the 2018 essay winner of Overland’s Fair Australia Prize./p>

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  1. Such a thoughtful and beautifully written article. This article should be in mainstream media.

  2. So good . I am an early childhood educator and have been in the industry 15 years. I am the minority as the turnover is normally 4-5 years due to the lack of recognition the shitty pay and the stress that we are under to meet the early years framework expectations . There needs to be a change.

  3. It”s great that these awards have come into being; hopefully, they”ll result in better facilities everywhere. I”ve lost count of the number of times I”ve had to change nappies on a toilet floor due to there being no provision for dads.

  4. A fantastic and much needed article!
    The younger humans are, the more integration of elements their care demands.
    When speaking of such integrated care, the nuances of the elements must be deftly drawn out in order to be recognised clearly and valued as the fundamental and essential priorities they are.

  5. What wonderfully articulate, thought-provoking article. Thank you. Here’s to our early childhood educators. You deserve much better.

  6. Mim, this was so beautiful it made me tear up. A life well-lived and a vital contribution to the lives of these children and their communities.

  7. Really enjoyed reading this. So nice to hear feelings I’ve felt but echoed in such an articulate way, and in a way that adds more meaning and understanding. So good! Thank you.

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