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                               Families Matter
            9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
                      Melbourne, 9-11 February 2005

                         Mothers’ use of and beliefs about child care.
                                            Kelly Hand
                             Australian Institute of Family Studies


Abstract


The Family and Work Decisions study is a large-scale study combining quantitative and
qualitative methods. Sixty-one mothers from Victoria and South Australia took part in in-
depth interviews about work and child care arrangements. This paper explores mother’s
reasons for using child care or caring for their children at home, their views on the child care
available to them and what their ideal child care arrangements would be. Differences between
lone and couple mothers and between mothers in different socio-economic circumstances and
geographic locations are explored.


Introduction


Access to child care is seen as a key factor in encouraging women’s return to the paid work
force after having children (Doiron and Kalb 2004), and Australian parents are increasingly
using formal child care to meet their work and family needs (Baxter 2004; de Vaus 2004).
Knowing “what women want” is an important question to be answered when planning child
care provision and there has been much research about what drives child care selection and
how parents view the child care available to them (Singer, Fuller, Keiley and Wolf 1998;
Early and Burchinal 2001; Vincent and Ball 2001; Duncan, Edwards, Reynolds and Alldred
2004).


However, previous research about child care selection and parents’ child care preferences has
largely been quantitative in nature. The work and family literature has produced some
qualitative data about how mothers’ views about child care influence their decisions to
participate in paid work (Himmelweit and Sigala 2004; Duncan and Irwin 2004; Duncan,
Edwards, Reynolds, and Alldred 2004). However, this literature is largely based on research
conducted overseas where the type, quality and cost of child care available is very different to
that of Australia. In Australia, Elizabeth Reid-Boyd (2000) has touched on some of the

Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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concerns of mothers who choose not to use child care but other Australian research which
explores qualitatively mothers views about the child care they actually use is very limited.


This paper begins with a description of child care provision in Australia and of the Family
and Work Decisions (FAWD) study from which this data was drawn. This is followed by a
description of mothers’ patterns of use and beliefs about child care using in depth interview
data collected as part of the FAWD study.


Child care provision in Australia


This paper focuses on mothers’ use of formal child care – that is centre based care, family day
care as well as preschool/kindergarten (early childhood education offered the year before
children commence school). Australia has a highly regulated system of child care, with a
process of accreditation based on quality measures linked to child care funding and payment
of the Child Care Benefit. In Australia, children’s participation rates in formal child care has
increased over the past 20 years. Table 1 shows the participation rates of preschool aged
children in child care in 2002 (ABS 2003 cited in de Vaus 2004).


Table 1: Formal child care use for Australian preschool aged children, 2002
Care type                             Children aged 0 to 2                Children aged 3 to 4
                                           Per cent                            Per cent
All formal care                              25.2                                72.8
Family day care                               5.6                                 7.0
Centre care                                  17.4                                30.5
Preschool/Kindergarten                        0.1                                38.6
Source: ABS 2003 cited in de Vaus 2004


The Australian Bureau of Statistics also asked parents to indicate the reason why they used
formal child care (ABS 2003 cited in de Vaus 2004). For children aged 0 to 4, 37% of parents
reported using child care for work related reasons, 14 % for parent reasons and 44% because
they felt that it was beneficial to the child.


Access to child care has been an ongoing source of concern in Australia. The Household,
Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study asked parents to about difficulties
they had experienced in finding child care. The highest ranking difficulties in order from
most common were - findings care for a sick child (32%), the cost of child care (22%),
getting care for hours needed (18%), finding a place in the centre of your choice (18%) and

Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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finding good quality child care (15%) (HILDA 2001 cited in De Vaus 2004).




Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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The Family and Work Decisions study


The data presented in this paper are drawn from the second stage of the Family and Work
Decisions (FAWD) study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies to explore
the effect of policies designed to support mothers’ choices about paid employment. Mothers
were asked to look back over their lives and reflect on the different decisions they had made
about parenting and paid work.


The first stage of the study involved a telephone survey of 2,405 mothers, half of whom were
lone mothers and half of whom were partnered. The survey was conducted in December 2002.
Participants were recruited from the population of mothers with dependent children aged less
than 15 years, or with dependent students aged 16-24 years, who were receiving a family
payment from Centrelink. All were therefore in receipt of some type of government benefit at
the time of selection into the sample.


The second stage involved in-depth interviews with 29 of the lone mothers and 32 of the
partnered mothers who participated in the telephone survey. These interviews were conducted
approximately one year later. The mothers had children of different ages, diverse work
circumstances and diverse employment histories. The age of youngest child at the time of the
qualitative interviews ranged from 8 weeks old to 16 years. Two mothers were also pregnant
and talked about their child care plans for these children as well. Interviews were conducted
in metropolitan, rural and remote areas of Victoria and South Australia, including socio-
economically advantaged and disadvantaged areas, and areas of average socio-economic
status.


The in-depth interviews were semi-structured in nature and took a life history approach,
covering the different ways mothers and their partners (if applicable) had combined paid work
with having and caring for children, the ways they had made decisions about this, the events
and circumstances that influenced this process, and how they changed over time and in
relation to other circumstances and events.


Whilst many sections of the interview are drawn on for this paper (for example the cost of
child care was often raised in the context of discussions about whether it was financially
worth working), a number of questions were posed specifically about child care. These
included asking mothers about their child care arrangements at different life stages and during

Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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periods of paid work, whether they had been able to access their preferred care arrangements,
what they saw to be the advantages and disadvantages of child care and whether they thought
child care was developmentally advantageous for children. Finally, women were asked what
their ideal work and child care arrangements would be. The responses to these questions are
presented below.


It is also important to not that given that some of the mothers in this study had children in
their teens, we are relying on reflective recall. Therefore, attitudes of these mothers regarding
child care may not reflect those mothers who would be considering use of any child care
today. We have been mindful of this in our analyses but still think all of their stories are worth
considering as they share much with those of the mothers of younger children we interviewed.


Mothers use of formal child care


Mothers who participated in qualitative interviews for the FAWD study had a diverse range of
child care arrangements. Mothers’ reports range from using no non-parental care at all
(including no care from extended family members) to use of full time child care for children
of preschool age. However, most mothers report having used combinations of different child
care arrangements – informal arrangements such as grandparent care or paid care
arrangements with friends or neighbours, formal care options such as centre care and family
day care or something in between such as in home care through babysitters and in a small
number of cases nannies. This section describes mothers’ patterns of child care use. Whilst
the sample is not representative of the general population, table 2, overleaf, maps the child
care usage of different mothers participating in the qualitative component of the study.




Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
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Table 2: Mothers use of formal child care since birth of first child
                                  Couple mothers Lone mothers All mothers
                                      n = 32        n = 29       n = 61
                                       (%)           (%)          (%)


Never used formal care                     16                  7                23
                                         (50%)               (24%)            (38%)


Used FDC                                   8                   7                15
                                         (25%)               (24%)            (25%)

Used centre care                           10                  16               26
                                         (31%)               (55%)            (42%)

Used regular informal                      12                  10               22
care                                     (38%)               (34%)            (36%)


Used kinder (not LDC)                      8                   3                11
                                         (25%)               (10%)            (18%)


Used After School Care                     2                   5                7
                                         (6%)                (17%)            (11%)


* Note: mothers may have used more than one type of formal child care since the birth of
their first child, so columns may tally higher than 100%

As can be seen from Table 2, a significant proportion of mothers in the study (38%) reported
that they had never used formal child care – in some cases their children had attended
kindergarten but this was not viewed by these mothers as child care. Mothers who had not
used formal child care tended to be mothers who were in couple relationships – or had been
when their children were small – and were not participating in paid work. Mothers in this
group who did work used informal care, usually provided by a family member or friend.


Whilst half of the couple mothers had reported never using formal child care, a much smaller
proportion of mothers who were currently un-partnered reported this. These lone mothers had
typically (but not always) been in couple relationships when their children when their children



Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
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were preschool aged. These lone mothers also tended to wait until their children started
school before returning to paid work.
The rest of the paper explores the reasons for using or not using formal child care, mothers
beliefs about the care that was available to them and mothers ideal child care arrangements to
help better understand these patterns of usage.


Reasons for never using formal child care


For some mothers their reasons for never having used formal care were about a preference to
be at home and to not miss out on children’s developmental milestones. 1


           You miss out on a lot. I know a lot of young mothers that go straight to work after
           having kids. And they say, “oh I missed out on his first smile”, or “he started walking
           today”. I don’t know how they can do it myself. (Couple mother, one child aged 16,
           not in paid work, never used formal child care, Rural SA)


For many mothers, the choice not to use formal child care was also based on a belief that
children were best cared for at home by their mothers and that “strangers” such as child care
workers could not be trusted to care for their children. They talked about the possibility of
their child being harmed whilst attending care. Many of these mothers stated that children
who attended formal child care learned bad habits and were exposed to values and beliefs that
did not match those of their parents.


           It was just the fact that I didn’t know these people, I don’t know who they are, I don’t
           know what their opinions are on how to raise a child. (Couple mother, one child aged
           3 1/2, not in paid work, child attends kinder one day per week, Regional VIC)


           I don’t like child care…just the stories I hear like when they come home with marks
           on them, they’ve probably just had a fall or something, but at least with him at home I
           know where he’s fallen, I know what he’s done. You’ve just got to 100% look after
           them, so I just don’t like, like it’s going to kill me even sending him to Kinder. I can’t



1
    This preference to be at home is explored in more detail in another paper presented at this conference
describing mothers’ attitudes about parenting and paid work (Hand and Hughes 2005).


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        be with him! (Couple mother, one child aged 15 months, not in paid work, Regional
        VIC)


The previous quote also suggests a lack of understanding about what happens in child care
settings - and this was found in many of the interviews with mothers who do not use formal
child care. These mothers tended to have had no direct experience of formal child care
themselves and had gained their knowledge of it through “stories” from other people. They
were unaware, it seemed, of the high levels of regulation in formal child care settings (such as
incident reports when a child bumps their head) and the emphasis in accreditation for parent
involvement.


Kindergarten was generally seen as a positive experience for children and was not seen as
being the same as child care and their children’s attendance at kindergarten was framed
entirely in the context of children’s educational needs


        I’ve never used formal child care, ever, for any of my children. Besides kindergarten,
        they all went to kindergarten. But that was more educational than child care. (Couple
        mother, 3 children aged 6 to 30, not in paid work, Inner Melbourne)


Mothers who had a strong belief that mothers should care for their children all of the time
were more likely to speak this way. Sometimes in interviews mothers would state that they
had never used child care - but then it would emerge that they had used occasional care or a
day at week at a child care centre as a learning experience for their child. But this was framed
entirely around the needs of the child and was therefore not seen as child care by these
mothers.


The quality of child care available was also something that mothers who had never used
formal care were concerned about, and a small number spoke about not being able to find care
of adequate quality, that they were willing to use. This was especially the case for mothers in
regional areas who spoke about a lack of choice of services. Often there was only one centre
or a handful of family day carers to choose from and this lead them to use no care at all if they
were not happy with these options.


        I don’t know if it was run by volunteers, or just the structure, I didn’t think it was
        very good. It was everybody clumped into this little hall and no, I didn’t think it was
        suitable. (Lone mother, one child aged 17, not in paid work, Regional VIC)
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Some mothers were concerned about the cost of child care. Lone mothers and low income
couple mothers who were not working were also concerned about the effects of working on
the cost of child care.


        When you’re not working it’s cheap as chips but when you’re working it’s really
        expensive. And it was like, well I’m going to pay half my wages to child care.
        (Couple mother, one child aged 3 and 1/2, not in paid work, uses kinder 1 morning a
        week, Regional VIC)


Availability of hours was also discussed by some mothers not using formal care. This issue
was of most concern for mothers who worked outside of normal business hours. Mothers
were aware of the option of using family day care in the evenings but many were reticent
about their children having to spend evenings away from their own homes. They stated a
strong preference for support to have carers come to their homes instead.


        Say I wanted to work at night. And have family day care but I’d have to take my
        children there. They’d be better off being at home, because you can put them to bed
        and have a normal set up, but that options not available. (Lone mother, 2 children
        aged 8 and 9, works part time, Inner Melbourne)


        I have to drop my kids off so early in the morning so that I can start a 7 am shift
        somewhere, which is really tricky… and it doesn’t seem a fair thing to do for
        them…The ideal thing would be to have a babysitter come in and look after them but
        its just totally out of my price range. (Lone mother, 3 children aged 6 to 11, not in
        paid work, Outer Melbourne)




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Accessing child care in their local areas was also an issue for some mothers. While waiting
lists were a concern for some mothers in metropolitan areas, regional and rural mothers most
often voiced concerns about being able to access any child care at all. They also voiced
concerns about having limited choices in type of care and carer.


        There’s very, very limited services available in this area… (Lone mother, one child
        aged 5, not in paid work, Rural VIC)


        And the availability, having to go on waiting lists… (Lone mother, 3 children aged 6
        to 11, not in paid work, Outer Melbourne)


        That’s the only place I could get into, all the rest of the places were booked. Couldn’t
        get in, was on the waiting list (Lone mother, 3 children aged 7 to 14, works part time,
        Regional VIC, )


Mothers in regional areas spoke about a lack of options to choose from, high demand for
places, lack of stability of care and the need to travel large distance to access care. Some
mothers who had never used care said that there had never been care available, others had
started using care but the carer had become sick and they had lost access to care. Others spoke
about not being satisfied with the care offered and therefore feeling that they could not use it.


Ideal formal child care arrangements for mothers who had never used formal child care


All the mothers in the qualitative sample - whether or not they had used formal child care -
were asked what their ideal work and child care arrangements were. Not surprisingly, for
mothers who had never used formal child care there were no ideal formal child care
arrangements because they had strong views about not using formal care.


Trust was also a key factor in these mothers’ decisions about child care. They worried greatly
when others cared for their children and also felt that child care would expose their children to
values and behaviours that conflicted with their own. They believed that children who
attended child care could be bullied, become naughty or develop an “attitude” and they
worried how this would affect their children later in life.


The large proportion of mothers in this study with these views is probably related to our
sampling strategy. Most of these mothers were mothers in couple relationships - half of them
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have never used formal care. The sample as a whole under-represented dual income families
and this may also have lead to an overrepresentation of these views.


A small number of mothers suggested that limited access to care in regional areas, cost and
the type of hours available for care had influenced their decisions about using formal care.
However, mothers in this group tended to also have strong reservations about using formal
child care and it’s is not clear if they would have chosen to use formal care had there been
fewer barriers to them doing so.


Reasons for using formal child care


Now we turn to those mothers who have reported using formal child care. Many mothers who
had used formal care - in fact almost all of them - reported “child centered” reasons as part of
the reasons for use. This reflects ABS data, which also found child related reasons as
prominent in parents child care decisions (ABS 2003 cited in de Vaus 2004). Even if using
child care also enabled them to work for example, the fact that child care had benefits for
children that could not be attained elsewhere was an important part of why mothers said they
used child care.


        I see a huge advantage in the way they learn. I mean sure you can take them to a
        friends house and they can play with her kids but they’re not going to learn, I mean
        Patrick wouldn’t have learnt anywhere near as much as he’s learned in day care.
        (Couple mother, onet child aged 2, not in paid work, uses regular centre care,
        Regional VIC)


        They’ve got little colleagues…the hustle and bustle of having other children, learning
        to share… (Couple mother, 2 children aged 3 and 20, works part time, uses centre
        care 2 days per week, Regional VIC)


Mothers also saw child care as a way of having some respite from the demands of
childrearing. This was especially important to lone mothers. The demands of being
responsible for a small child “24/7” was emphasised by many lone mothers of young children
and they saw having time out as enabling them to be a better parent overall.


        Yeah [laughs]. Peace of mind, a sanity day. Just a bit of freedom to be able to do what
        I want. And it’s very helpful now that I’ve started work obviously. But before, the
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        original reason wasn’t to work but so I could have some time out from her. Because
        when you’re a sole parent and they’re around 24/7, it gets very frustrating and they
        can be very whingey… You just need a break. (Lone mother, one child aged 2, works
        part time, uses centre care, Adelaide)


Explicitly stating that they used child care for work reasons was not popular with many
mothers - maybe due to the sample we had drawn who had low work participation especially
for couple mothers. Below are responses at two extremes but it’s interesting to note that there
was a very “loud” silence on the issue of using child care to enable participation in paid work.


        When they were little, one day a week they used to go to day care and that purely was
        social, not because I had any jobs to go to or anything… (Lone mother, works part
        time, 2children aged 6 and 9, used centre care and after school care, Outer
        Melbourne)


        Oh look, when I went back to work I realised I really needed to be at work and I was
        quite prepared to pay the extra and to have less money, to have good child care, but
        have the work I wanted to do that I felt fulfilled in, and I really strongly feel that.
        (Couple mother, 2 children aged 16 and 17, works full time, used centre care and
        nanny, Inner Melbourne)


Mothers also had quite different views about their preferred type of care. Mothers who
preferred centre care placed greater emphasis on structure and educational experiences and
also on having a large group of children to play and interact with.


        I don’t really like the idea of family day care…I know a few people who look after
        children and they don’t have that experience with, or not all of them I shouldn’t say
        all of them - but I know the ones I know don’t have that child care experience … at
        kinder they participate in a lot more activity, its more a structured kind of thing…
        they’ve got more kids to play with. (Couple mother, 2 children aged 2 and 4, not in
        paid work, uses 2 days centre care for older child, Inner Melbourne)


Mothers who did use centre care were generally happy with the quality of care arrangements.
However, some mothers spoke about having experiences where the quality was not good and
that they had changed care arrangements as a result.


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Child care that was seen to be of high quality by mothers tended to be run by professional,
and trained caregivers. A well structured program that offered learning experiences was
important particularly for mothers who used centre care.


Other Australian Institute of Family Studies research has had similar findings. For example
the Child care in cultural context study also found that parents who use centre care value
structural and educational activities such as learning activities, ratios between staff and
children and nutrition most (da Silva and Wise 2005).


Mothers who preferred family day care valued a home like experience with less structure and
high levels of warmth - a “second mum” as the mother in the first quote below demonstrates.
Having a good relationship with caregivers was also an important measure of quality for these
mothers. Some mothers spoke about experiencing difficulties in finding the right carer and
had had to change once or twice. These difficulties included a lack of stimulation (that they
kids watched TV all day) or not using sunscreen and hats. But all reported being happy with
their current arrangements.


           I prefer family day care, I’d like them in the same environment as what they’d be in
           home…his day care Mum is kind of like his second Mum…(Couple mother, one
           child aged 2, has own business, uses family day care full time, Regional VIC)


           I didn’t see [centre care] as a viable option because I think from my perspective that’s
           too structured. I wanted the kids to have a more family environment where they could
           see the role models of Mum doing the dishes and the washing and stuff they didn’t
           necessarily see at home when I was working shift work…
           (Lone mother, 5 children aged 5 to 20, works evenings, uses FDC for younger kids,
           Regional VIC)2
Some mothers also chose their family day care because of cost.




2
    It’s also interesting to note here that the mother in the second quote (above) values this not because it
mirrors what exists at home but that it provides the “home environment” that she would prefer to
provide but feels she cannot whilst working.


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         Well, basically I chose family day care through the council because it’s
         cheaper…(Lone mother, 4 children aged 3 months to 16 years, works part time, uses
         FDC, Regional VIC)


Ideal formal child care arrangements for mothers who have used formal child care


Mothers who used formal care actually had quite modest “ideal” care arrangements and
tended to report being happy with the care arrangements they already had. Mothers who did
use formal care tended to want to limit use to part time hours and preferred their children to
be cared for by trained caregivers whether in a centre or home environment. They saw
benefits to the child such as social skills, learning, school readiness as being an important
reason to use care and also - for lone mothers in particular - as an opportunity for respite, for
some time to themselves. The type of care chosen by these mothers depended on their values,
their reasons for using child care and the age of the child. Centre care was preferred by some
mothers for the educational and social experiences it offered whilst family day care was
preferred by others for its small group sizes and home like environment. This reflects other
research about the types of child care parents choose (see for example da Silva and Wise
2005).


Like some mothers who had never used formal care, access to home care overnight or early in
the morning would be a preferable arrangement to their current arrangements for some
mothers. Cost was also an issue for some mothers and will influence their choice of care and
limited choice for mothers in regional areas in type and also of care provider was also a
barrier for some mothers who used formal care.


Conclusions


The actual and ideal child care arrangements of mothers participating in the FAWD study
varied greatly. Overall mothers who used formal child care in the current study were
generally happy with their care arrangements.


Access to child care in regional areas and availability of care for shift workers was a concern
for some mothers and may also be something for further consideration from a policy
perspective. Some mothers also spoke about cost being a barrier. These are similar to the
difficulties found in other research with Australian parents such as the HILDA survey
(HILDA 2001 cited in de Vaus 2004).
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However, the data presented suggest that mothers in this study ultimately based their
decisions about whether or not to use formal child care on their own child rearing ideologies
rather than particular characteristics of care such as quality, cost and accessibility – that is
their decisions about whether or not to use formal child care were based on their beliefs about
what is good for their children. Mothers who do not use formal care tend to have high levels
of concern about the effects of formal child care on their children’s wellbeing and chose not
to use care because they felt this was best for their children. However, mothers who did use
formal care spoke consistently of the benefits of attending child care for their children
cognitive and social development. Even when using child care as a source of respite mothers
saw this as enhancing their own ability to parent well which again was linked ultimately to
their child’s wellbeing.


From a policy perspective this suggests that changes to aspects the way in which child care is
provided will not necessarily encourage stay at home mothers to use child care but will assist
mothers who choose to use care in finding child care that best suits their needs and
preferences.


References


Baxter, J (2004) “Increasing employment of partnered mothers: changes in the use of child
care” Paper presented at the 12th Biennial Conference of the Australian Population
Association Population and Society: Issues, Research and Policy 15 – 17 September 2004,
Canberra


da Silva, L., & Wise, S. (2005) “Parent perspectives on child care quality in a culturally
diverse sample”. Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
Families Matter 9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne.


de Vaus, D., (2004) Diversity and change in Australian families. Statistical profiles.
Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.


Duncan, S., Edwards, R., Reynolds, T., & Alldred, P. (2004) “Mothers and Child Care:
Policies, Values and Theories” Children and Society. Vol. 18, pp 254 - 265.



Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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Not for circulation or citation. Please contact the author for comment.

Doiron, D., & Kalb, G. (2004) Demands for Childcare and Household Labour Supply in
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Economic and Social Research, The University of Melbourne.


Early, D. M., & Burchinal, M. R. (2001) “Early childhood care: relations with family
characteristics and preferred care characteristics” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol.
16, pp 475 – 497.


Himmelweit, S., & Sigala, M. (2004) “Choice and the Relationship between Identities and
Behaviour for Mothers with Pre-School Children: Some Implications from a UK Study”
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Reid Boyd, E. (2000) “’Being There’: Mothers who stay at home” Paper presented at the 7th
Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Family futures: issues in research and
policy Sydney, July 2000.


Singer, J. D., Fuller, B., Keiley, M. K., and Wolf, A. (1998) “Early Child-Care Selection:
Variation by Geographic Location, Maternal Characteristics, and Family Structure”
Developmental Psychology Vol. 34, No. 5, pp 1129 – 1144.


Vincent, C. & Ball, S. J. (2001) “A Market in Love? Choosing Pre-school Childcare” British
Educational Research Journal, Vol. 27, No. 5, pp 633 - 651


Weston, R., Qu, L., Parker, R. & Alexander, M. (2004) It’s Not for Lack of Wanting Kids…”
A report on the Fertility Decision Making Project, Australian Institute of Family Studies,
Melbourne.




Paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Families Matter
9 – 11 February 2005, Melbourne
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