Just a mother?

Mie Storm questioned the practice of putting her children into daycare – and wants to start a "care revolution"

Does imago images / Panthermedia

Copenhagen/Berlin-"Everyone has the right to an awesome kitchen".

Many Danes remember this slogan from an ad by popular Danish design company that hit screens back in 2017. For 33-year old philosopher Mie Storm the words symbolise the most severe mental illness of her generation: The idea that consumerism is a human right and that one cannot be a successful person without surrounding oneself with nice cars, the newest smoothie blender and expensive clothes - stuff we think we need to live fulfilling lives.

For a long time Mie Storm bought in to what she calls the "collective brainwash" herself. As an expectant mother she made a long list of the gadgets she thought she needed to make it as a parent. On the top of the list was a milk pump, because she was not going to breastfeed. By no means should her son stand in the way of her career. She planned to be back to work six months after the birth. When Thor arrived, however, her priorities changed radically.

"Before I had kids, my identity was constructed out of an idea of a young, ambitious woman who was heavily motivated to climb the career ladder. I looked down on motherhood and didn't think it was anything special because it was something any woman could do. But when I had my son I was struck by a new and intuitive feeling that I was 'enough' in myself and that I didn't have to slog away for hours and hours at work every day to feel I was worth something. It was a major shift in my understanding of myself – what I had been looking for out in the world was actually inside of me," says Mie Storm whose masters in philosophy dealt with psychiatric diagnoses.

The insight into her own "sickness" – an existential hole she had been feeling for years – however, led to an identity crisis: Who was she as a woman, wife and citizen if she was "just" a mother? She didn't know how to give in to motherhood and at the same time maintain her external identity. So when Thor was 10 months old she went back to her job as a coordinator and lecturer at a school for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. But she instantly felt that it was wrong to separate herself from her infant son. When she handed him over to his caregiver he showed obvious signs of discomfort and cried when she left. And so did she in the car on her way to work. After three months she told her husband, "I'm not doing this anymore". Since then she's been a stay-at-home mother.

Separation culture

Today, Mie Storm has a three-year-old and a five-year-old and is the administrator at her self-founded online platform Forum of Cultural Critique. Neither of her children attend a kindergarten and she works when they sleep, are with their grandparents or visiting friends. Mie Storm has become an expert on "attachment theory" which she communicates through FoCC. The goal of the forum is to problematise what Mie Storm calls "separation culture": The social model where the institutionalisation of small children is the norm and parents are pushed to distance themselves from their offspring. Separation culture is inextricably linked with society's obsession with consumerism, efficiency and eternal production where it is considered outrageous if you resign from your duty to work for more than a year, even when you become a parent. Because children are not capable of contributing anything in the hamster wheel, they are stowed away in institutions, not unlike old people and refugees.

The problem is just – according to internationally acknowledged studies on young childrens' mental and psychological development – that children up to the age of three have no desire to be looked after by adults to whom they don't have an emotional attachment. On the contrary, too much time away from their parents can cause severe damage to the children's mental and emotional health.

"The secure attachment to one or two people who love them is requisite for a child's development as a stable person with a deep anchoring in life. That attachment is formed in the early years and requires time spent with the child's primary caregiver(s). If it's left to itself – which is too often the case in overburdened kindergartens - it won't even learn the physical movements it needs to survive. It also won't develop the ability to speak, think, love and sympathise if it doesn't spend enough time with the people who love it," explains Storm and refers to the rising numbers of youngsters who are diagnosed with ADHD, stress and depression. A tendency she thinks is directly linked to the early and massive institutionalisation of children in daycare centres which seldom have the capacity to attend immediately to every child's basic need such as diaper-changing, physical help let alone caring attention.

Denmark is among the Western countries that places kids under the care of professionals the most and the earliest. The percentage of kids in daycare and kindergartens increased from 27 in 1975 to 90 in 2021. When more women began to work full-time in the 1990s the institutionalisation of children became the norm. What at first was a stepping stone for women's equality had the uncanny side effect that it disregarded what is best for children, says Storm.

A care revolution

When she founded FoCC four years ago Storm received a vast number of reports from women who had similar experiences to hers with the daycare system. Children who cry when their parents leave them and the attitude that you're oversensitive if you react to it. "He stops crying when you're gone" is the mantra you hear from the educators. The acclimatisation of children in institutions is supposed be as quick and effective as possible – just like everything else in our "separation society". The "good" kids are the ones that are easy to integrate in daycare and don't make a fuss. But when children oppose their parents leaving, says Mie Storm, it is their natural way of expressing their attachment to them and should be heard as a sign that they feel threatened and insecure.

FoCC now has thousands of followers– mostly women and mothers with a higher level of education - who contribute to the knowledge base with articles and columns which are often printed in Danish newspapers. Storm is a frequent guest on TV and radio debates where she advocates a "care revolution" and the empowerment of children and families with young children. She communicates her knowledge to midwives, nurses and doctors who, she says, more often offer parents-to-be info on kindergartens than pamphlets about attachment theory. FoCC also functions as a meeting point for parents who have rejected daycare and kindergarten for their children.

For many modern women, it can probably feel as if they are "bad mothers" if they send their children to daycare when they are still young, Mie Storm admits. In Denmark, about 60 per cent of women work full-time. In Germany that figure is just 46 per cent. Whereas the idea of the stay-at-home mother as a stable constant in small children's lives is more accepted – and even promoted - in some smaller, West German towns, Berlin and other big cities are hubs for career women and the institutionalisation of children begins typically at the age of one year or younger.

That Mie Storm is a 1950s-loving reactionary who wants to send women back to the kitchen is a criticism she has had to face more than once when she reveals she's a stay-at-home mom. However, she is fervent that the "care revolution" is the most pressing matter of the modern women's liberation movement.

"When we entered the labour market in the 1970s, it was an important step in women's liberation. But now I feel like the freedom of choice has been taken away from us. If I, as a woman, choose not to work for a number of years I am criticised. But the terms under which I have to work are essentially made by men for men," she says and refers to Jungian analysis of so-called masculine and feminine values. Whereas typically feminine attributes like care, awareness and attention are not appreciated in the rat race, masculine values like results, action, dominance and leadership are the ones that count.

"Most people have both feminine and masculine values in them. When I was young I was primarily driven by the masculine energy in me. But when I became a mother I connected more with my feminine values. Unfortunately, I'm not seen as a productive part of society if I don't use my masculine qualities. To give children a secure start in life is not seen as something valuable. But as far as I''m concerned it is in everyone's interest that we gain more balance between the masculine and feminine values – both men and women," says Storm.

In her own household the gender roles do in fact resemble those of the 1950s. Her husband is the breadwinner and she is the primary caregiver for the children. Both she and her husband would love to have a more equal distribution of work and childcare but society's structures don't allow it. More freelance positions for both sexes, flexible working hours and state subsidies for stay-at-home-parents as well as settlement of the pay gap between traditional "feminine jobs" and typical "masculine jobs" are measures that could be taken to make it easier for mothers to maintain a connection to working life while having small children as well as a possibility for fathers to spend more time with their kids, Storm says.

"Imagine if families were offered three years of maternity and paternity leave and could split it as they liked because it didn't make an economic difference whether the mother or the father stayed at home. But we're not there yet. What it takes at the moment is that women – who are the ones who most often feel the pain of leaving their crying children in institutions – have the courage to take the lead in the care revolution and attempt to change things. Then I'm convinced that the men will jump on the bandwagon, because, ultimately, they want to be with their families too".