Children’s wellbeing or perpetuating handmaids?

A guest post by Eileen Joy 

From the moment Jacinda Ardern took office she made it clear that the wellbeing of children was one of her key priorities.  Ardern established the Ministry for Child Poverty Reduction and underscored its importance by naming herself as the Minister responsible. One of the key tasks of this Ministry, alongside the Ministry for Children, was to create a ‘Child Wellbeing Strategy’. A strategy that is described as “an opportunity to significantly improve the lives of New Zealand’s children” and it aims to do this by “set[ting] out the actions the Government intends to take to improve the wellbeing of all New Zealand children.” All of this sounds like ‘common sense’, surely no one would argue with the idea that we need to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty and that we need to improve the wellbeing of the nation’s children?

However as Liz Beddoe and I argue in a forthcoming piece, ‘common sense’ is not as simple as it sounds (Joy & Beddoe, forthcoming).  Citing Hall and O’Shea (2013) we discussed the idea that ‘common sense’ is simplistic and does not require critical thinking, rather it seems to spring from experience, thus shunting aside the views of researchers and experts. It is this ‘common sense’ framing that permeates ideas about child wellbeing and poverty reduction, and thus prevents deep and necessary critical reflection of the underlying messages. Indeed, as Ian Hyslop has recently noted , this ‘new’ concept of ‘wellbeing’ may simply be a case of ‘soft neoliberalism’. Could this therefore be simply a case of re-branding, neoliberalism ‘lite’?

It is, as Ian Hyslop says in the aforementioned piece, “always instructive to consider what is left out of the narrative”. To look beneath the surface, to see what is missing, immediately troubles the idea that something is ‘common sense’. It is interesting to note that the Child Wellbeing Strategy chooses to focus on children, specifically, as if children somehow exist outside of families, communities, and extended networks of care. It is as if we can consider their wellbeing without considering the wellbeing of their parents and caregivers. However, what good is it to consider child wellbeing, when parental wellbeing is not an equally important priority? The two are, after all, intimately and inextricably connected.

To that end, Liz Beddoe and I (as part of a submission to the Strategy) commented on a troubling silencing of negative implications based on gender in the documentation that surrounds the Wellbeing Strategy. We noted that in the ‘Child Wellbeing Strategy work Programme and Budget Implications’ report to the Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee there is a section on implications for gender. However, we questioned the notion that “efforts to improve child wellbeing are likely to have positive benefits for many women, who are likely to be the primary caregivers for children and young people” (p. 14). Ostensibly, yes, efforts to improve child wellbeing can indeed help women, however this is not always the case, and this certainly depends on the types of efforts that are being implemented.

Elsewhere in the aforementioned document, and indeed in the Science Advisors report (contained as an appendix to the end of the ‘Scope and Public Engagement Process’ report ), there are multiple mentions of the importance of the early years, critical pathways, and the first 1000 days of a child’s life. There is even mention, in the ‘Child Wellbeing Strategy – Scope and Public Engagement Process’ document of defining children as “including, where appropriate, the development of children in utero” (p. 8). We find this slippage in language concerning, fetuses are not children, and increased surveillance of pregnant women and their behaviours can bring about unforeseen consequences. For example, Mansfield (2012) notes that advisory warnings to women to not eat certain fish responsibilise women and allow businesses who are responsible for contaminating our oceans to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Mansfield also observes that, in the example of the fish, such advisories have a differential impact on poor women, and particularly women of colour (in the United States) for whom these fish were a staple part of their diet. Thus such innocuous sounding advisories can have differential impacts dependent on things like class and ethnicity.  Health advisories that exhort women to ‘not eat certain fish’ make women the centre of responsibility for issues that are not of their making. Waggonner (2017) warns that policies that aim to ‘protect’ fetuses have the knock on effect of rendering women perpetually pregnant. Women are told to not undertake certain behaviours in case they are pregnant. Given that many pregnancies are unplanned, many health promoters argue that this is the only rational response. However, this renders all menstruating women potentially pregnant and results in increased surveillance and policing of women’s bodies.

Further, once pregnant, we know that women are experiencing increased surveillance with regard to their weight and the ‘potential’ impacts on their offspring (Parker, 2014; Warin, Zivkovic, Moore & Davies, 2012). Parker notes that “heightened concern with maternal weight, and the direction of policy responses to it, frames fat women as bad mothers and failed citizens, and could easily devolve into “a new form of eugenics” in terms of who should, and who shouldn’t reproduce – with indigenous women, women from other ethnic minority groups, and poor women positioned to bear the brunt.” (p.112). Further, research from Warin and colleagues (2012), noted that in analysing media reports about obesity and pregnancy, mothers are demonised with structural larger societal issues and paternal influences being ignored. Policy around these sort of matters would need to be handled extremely carefully and without a wider lens of ‘familial wellbeing’ a focus on only child wellbeing would render the pregnant body merely an environment to be optimised. The ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ may seem far-fetched, but policy that treats women as nothing more than uteri has its heart in a Gileadean philosophy.

Our concern about the impact on women in the proposed strategy was not restricted to the potential for increased surveillance of all pregnant and menstruating people. As highlighted by the note about gender implications, women tend to be the main caregivers in families, thus any child wellbeing policy that has, as part of its focus, a focus on parenting, will, by default, be a policy that focuses on women who parent. The result of this is that women’s parenting practices will be under an increased spotlight, without any corresponding attention to their needs as adult women or related resources. This trend of speaking about ‘parenting’ and rendering policy gender neutral has been noted in the UK as problematic and despite this seeming neutrality, these instances serve to essentialise motherhood (Gillies, Edwards and Horsley, 2016).  If the government is prepared to acknowledge that women are the primary caregivers, then this must be given careful consideration, and an analysis of the impact of increased focus on parenting, and thus women, must be undertaken. Gillies Edwards and Horsley (2017) observe, in speaking about similar policies in the UK that:

“The notion of being able to invest and intervene in parenting so as to shape a baby’s brain development to ensure better life chances for the young child and for the future of the nation feels constructive and positive.  All that is required in this view is for experts to explain and demonstrate to mothers how to bring their children up for best effect, and for mothers to listen, learn and step up to fulfil the responsibility to take good care of their children’s brain development.  The complex web of relationships between adults and children in families and communities, and the accompanying array of childhood interactions, are scaled down to the level of the relationship between a baby and what is referred to as their ‘primary caregiver’.  It is mothers who are positioned as, and overwhelmingly are, ‘primary carers’.” (p.131)

We also noted that a gender only analysis would be inadequate. Analyses must consider the differing ways that things like racism, sexism, migration status and class interact.  For example, given Aotearoa has an increasing migrant population consideration must be given to the specific challenges faced by Pacific and Asian women, and not simply by using the catch all buckets of ‘Pacific’ or ‘Asian’ – such bucketing hides specific oppressions. Thus we recommended that an approach such as that taken by Canadian policy advisors  is used before any policy relating to this strategy (or indeed any strategy) is rolled out. Given that previous policies have been found to have a particular impact on Māori women and their parenting (Ware, Breheny & Forster, 2016), this is especially critical.

The ‘common sense’ approach then in a child wellbeing strategy can be seen to be deeply flawed. We have to ask, whose wellbeing is being considered, who do we want to be ‘well’ and who are we leaving out? The simplistic idea that women would benefit through children’s wellbeing, as noted in the report to the Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee renders women nothing more than uteri and mothers, denying us our own wellbeing and handing us handmaid cloaks. This denial ultimately serves no one, least of all children.

Image credit: Garrett Ziegler



Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2016). Brave new brains: Sociology, family and the politics of knowledge. The Sociological Review, 64(2), 219-237.

Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Bristol, United Kingdom: Policy Press.

Hall, S., & O’Shea, A. (2013) ‘Common-sense neoliberalism’. Soundings, 55(1), 8-24.

Joy, E. & Beddoe, L. (Forthcoming). ACEs, cultural considerations and ‘common sense’ in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Policy and Society.

Mansfield, B. (2012). Gendered biopolitics of public health: Regulation and discipline in seafood consumption advisories. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30(4), 588-602.

Parker, G. (2014). Mothers at large: Responsibilizing the pregnant self for the “obesity epidemic”. Fat Studies, 3(2), 101-118.

Waggoner, M. R. (2017). The zero trimester: Pre-pregnancy care and the politics of reproductive risk. California, United States: University of California Press.

Ware, F., Breheny, M., & Forster, M. (2016). The politics of government ‘support’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Reinforcing and reproducing the poor citizenship of young Māori parents. Critical Social Policy, 1-21.

Warin, M., Zivkovic, T., Moore, V., & Davies, M. (2012). Mothers as smoking guns: Fetal overnutrition and the reproduction of obesity. Feminism & Psychology, 22(3), 360-375.








2 replies on “Children’s wellbeing or perpetuating handmaids?”

Most mothers want the best for their children, and, liked their own supportive post-natal groups. But, many felt too shy or scared to go to one, or did not know of access, or could not afford travel and costs. “We all do the best we know how at the time”. There is new info on nutrition, coping with stress, child’s needs, etc, to share, and share coping ideas.
We need to support and value “good enough” parenting, for parent, family and child, and pay an incentive to those parents with child who both attend a supportive educational group from when child is aged 3 mths to 3 yrs, and for half-day/week, at least, similar as if going out to work. Prof Fraser Mustard in Canada showed benefit of such attendance for those children throughout their schooling. Also, we need to support the principle of The child’s best interests (and safety) being paramount.

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