A popular children’s author has enraged mothers around the world after equating day care with child abuse.

Mem Fox, best-selling writer of the tale “Possum Magic” came down quite hard on moms who return to work soon after giving birth during a recent interview with Australia’s Sunday Mail.

“I don’t know why some people have children at all if they know that they can only take a few weeks off work … it’s actually child abuse.”

“You … have to say to yourself, ‘If I have to work this hard and if I’m never going to see my kid and if they are going to have a tremendous stress in child care, should I be doing it?'”

While her opinion has ignited a storm of controversy, one has to wonder why. Are there people out there who honestly believe that infants and toddlers are better off in the hands of day care workers than a loving mother or father?

Perhaps the brouhaha has more to do with guilt than anything else.

Ms. Fox recalls a conversation she had with someone who works in child care:

“She said that we’re going to look back on this time from the late ’90s onwards, with putting children in child care so early in their first year of life for such long hours, and wonder how we have allowed that child abuse to happen.”

The debate coincides with the announcement that Sarah Palin will be John McCain’s running mate in the U.S. presidential race. While Palin certainly seems to possess many admirable qualities, one has to wonder about a woman who would boast about returning to work three days after giving birth.

Sorry, lady. That isn’t something you should be bragging about.

Research shows that the first three years are critical to a child’s long-term development. A report by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found that the vast majority of the brain’s synapses (the connections among brain cells) are formed during the first few years of life.

Because this period of development is so important, the New South Wales Commission for Children and Young People is urging Australia’s government to provide longer paid leave to new parents.

A recent report by the Commission explains that “… many of the vital connections between the cells that help the brain grow occur during the first three years. They form the foundation for the brain’s wiring – how a child controls their emotions, communicates, solves problems, thinks logically and reacts to the world. What happens, or doesn’t, in these first years has a major impact on healthy brain development and long-term mental and physical health.

“The best interactions between infant and parents for healthy brain development are continuous, consistent and back-and-forth. They help baby and carer to connect and understand each other, and the infant begins to attach meanings and associations to being touched and talked to.

“But when an infant is rarely noticed, touched or talked to, it lowers their ability to withstand stress, to learn, to control emotions and develop into healthy adults.”

Of course, it’s politically incorrect to question working mothers, especially those who can afford to stay at home but choose not to.

My husband and I decided long before we had children that we would forgo certain luxuries to ensure that our kids had a stay-at-home parent.

Life is all about priorities. I couldn’t possibly work eight or more hours per day and pretend that my children came first. Putting our kids first meant walking away from a career that I loved in order to be there for our kids on a full-time basis.

Over and over again, I hear working moms say that they are excellent parents, even though their kids spend more than 40 hours per week in day care. It’s laughable.

I wonder, if an employee were to spend one or two hours at work each day, would the boss consider that person to be an “excellent” employee? Probably not.

I’m so tired of parents who pretend that two incomes is an absolute necessity. Kids don’t need a large home or fancy cars. They will survive without cell phones, iPods or – gasp – HD television. What children need above all is constant love and attention.

When I take my children for walks, we sometimes pass by a rather large day care facility. I often wonder about the kids inside. Are they truly happy, or would they rather be home with mom or dad? Do their parents send them to day care even when they’re sick? Are the kids in day care because mom must work – or because she chooses to?

In the early evening, the day care’s parking lot is filled with vehicles as parents stop to pick up their kids before supper and bedtime. Many of the cars look new and sleek. Surely these parents do not belong to the working poor.

For them, it seems to be a choice.

Personally, I would rather fail as a writer than fail as a mother.

Ms. Fox is right. One day, we will look back on these day care centers – these warehouses for children – and wonder how we ever could have thought it was a good idea.

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