MomTalk Talks Childcare and Choices
In our third week of write/respond, Regina Martine presents her thoughts on the state of childcare options and parental support in this country. The other Mamas and Papa have their say as well. We're sure you'll have an opinion on this one.
Back in May, the Patch Mamas (and lots and lots of other people) wrote about the Time Magazine cover of a young mother nursing an older toddler. At the time, the interwebs were abuzz with all kinds of talk about what parenting philosophy is best to use to raise a child. I think, in this country in particular, we tend to get all in a twist about parenting issues that don’t matter and never talk about some of the issues that really do matter in how we raise our children. This is a huge topic, and I certainly don’t have the answers but I would love to have a substantive, meaningful discussion about how motherhood and parenting could be better, rather than judging each other's parenting choices.
In some ways, society reveres motherhood – we call it the “hardest job in the world” – but society offers no help or real support to most women as they try to care for its newest members. Once you have a baby, you are on your own. If you have a supportive spouse, good jobs, money in the bank, and family and friends to help you, lucky you. If you don’t, too bad. This is what equal opportunity looks like. Figure it out. But what happens to mothers who are on their own? What about the mother who has a job, but no paid maternity leave? What if she can't afford childcare? Our society values a spirit of individualism – “I’m strong and independent and I don’t need help”– but it doesn't apply to parenting. No one can do it alone. Instead of addressing how we as a community can better care for all our children, we get caught up in the “mommy wars” – imaginary battles about the merits of staying home with kids vs. going back to work when the “choice” is often forced by financial necessity. For a society that claims to care about families and “family values” very little value is put on the real work it takes to raise a family.
I was luckier than most. I had a good job with great benefits. I had 16 weeks of paid maternity leave – but what happens to women whose employers can’t give them that kind of time off? What if they can’t afford to take time off without pay? What if their (and now their baby’s) health insurance are tied to their employer?
When I went back to work, my 16 week-old infant daughter went to daycare for three days a week. The teachers were warm and loving and the care they provided was wonderful, but we could have paid for 2 years of college for what we paid for it. When my second child was born, my job required me to be in the office 5 days a week. It would have cost MY ENTIRE SALARY (ok, I would take home about 50 bucks every 2 weeks) to have an infant and a toddler in daycare. I have been home with my kids ever since. Luckily for us, my husband's job provided our health insurance and paid enough to cover the bills.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Lots of other countries have different models of childcare that work better for mothers and families than they way it is done here. I think we tend to get into an “America is the greatest country on earth” mindset and refuse to acknowledge that there are some things that other countries do better than we do. How can we do better?
Some additional information about how other countries handle the complexities of raising its newest citizens:
Our newest member, Paul Simpson, has this to say in response:
This may not make me popular with my new group, but here goes nothing. I’m not so sure that those parents without a perceivably ideal child-rearing environment (two-parent home, supportive spouse, plenty of money, health care benefits, and family and friends) are thrown to the wolves once they have a baby. I agree that having these elements in place certainly makes parenting less challenging, but I don’t recall anyone telling me raising kids would be easy.
I think, at least in our fine hamlet, parents decide to bring a child into the world. With the exception of the oblivious expectants profiled on I didn’t Know I was Pregnant, people don’t suddenly have an infant foisted upon them. Along with the decision to have a child, parents need to make plans. Even if the government mandated, or employers chose to offer, a year of paid maternity leave; at some point you’re not going to be paid to stay home with your kids. You will inevitably face the decision between staying at home and opting for paid child care. This involves crunching numbers, evaluating benefits, and making some hard choices. Does child care make sense so both parents can work? On the financial side of the equation, start by totaling annual child care expenses and subtract that number from your net pay. It’s not such a simple formula, however. You’ve got to add in the emotional toll (even harder after a lengthy maternity leave), impact on daily routines, desired lifestyle, emergency plans, etc. Again, it’s not easy, even from the most ideal starting point. Single moms have even fewer options and face an entirely different set of circumstances.
While our system for helping and providing for moms is imperfect, assistance is available for those in need. ChildCare.gov has information on how to apply for child care subsidies, details other programs for single-parent households, and lists state and local agencies that help with child care issues. Another site, singlemoms.org, has links to information on financial assistance, and assistance with food, child care, healthcare, housing, education, and transportation. Single moms can also apply for different types of grants for their own education and training.
While the help available might involve more red tape and require more effort to find than the turnkey child care systems of some of our European counterparts, help is available. I don’t want to even imagine what a government-run child care program would look like in the U.S., where salaries reflect the low financial value we place on those who raise, teach, and care for children. I envision unhealthy centers staffed by low-wage, frontline workers (some of whom would be there because they couldn’t find work elsewhere), and a bloated hierarchical agency rife with politically-connected overpaid middle-managers. I’d rather live in a cardboard box and raise my kids on my own.
I’m fortunate. My wife has a great job with incredible benefits, I have an extensive network of family and friends in the area, and I’ve been able to stay home with my two boys for the last 11 ½ years. My circumstances, like most of ours, could change in an instant. After all, it was a layoff from a start-up company when my child-care-bound newborn was 6-weeks-old that made me a stay-at-home dad in the first place.
In the end, parents have to decide what’s best for their family with the resources available to them. That’s the best any of us can do.
And now Tasha Schlake Festel has her turn:
I never felt the need to have a network of women. Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of chicks in general and felt more comfortable with a group of men than women. Then I became a mom. All of a sudden I needed women. They were right up there with things like air, water, and a greasy slice of pizza after a night of drinking. Absolute necessities. But since I had never done a thing to cultivate it, no such network existed for me. I wasn't handed a "support system" after having kids, nor did I expect it. It was up to me to create it, just like I had created my child.
Support systems should be personal, not governmental. The last thing I want is the government any more involved in my life than it currently is. The less they know about me and my family, the better, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not paranoid, but the government has its place and its job. Neither of those have anything to do with raising kids.
I was a full-time mom for a year after I had my daughter. Besides the year when I lived in Connecticut, worked for an insurance company, had an abusive assistant, and sank into deep depression, that year of being a full-time mom was one of the worst of my life. It wasn't that I didn't want to be a mom – I did, that we were totally broke – we weren't, or that my daughter was difficult – she wasn't (yet). It was that I am not happy if I don't have a job. End of story.
To save my sanity and contribute to the family so we could move out of our tiny house, I went back to work full time right around my daughter's first birthday. We took my baby to a day care center that was on the first floor of my husband's office. He was only 3 floors away and could see her any time he wanted. His window even looked out on to the playground, so he could see her playing with the other kids. I was intensely jealous, but it was the right thing for our family. I was comfortable with where she was and the choice I made to go back to work.
My decision to go back to work wasn't entirely financial, but if it had been, I still feel that I had options. It was never work or starve. We could have moved to a more affordable home. We could have made spending cuts and smarter buying decisions. I could have - gasp - cut coupons and become organized.
But I didn't. I chose to work. And I was – and am – happy with that choice. After my second child was born, I did not return to a full time job. I decided that I needed more balance. I didn't want to have kids just so I could pay someone else to take care of them. Again, I had a choice. We cut costs and made sacrifices. I took a flexible part-time job and hired a nanny. It worked for us. Now that they're in school, I have no childcare worries. But I still intend to work part-time so I can be involved in their lives when they get home from school, even if a full time job might get me a nicer car and weekly house keeper. Choices are not always purely financial ones.
Finding affordable, quality child care certainly is a pain in the ass. I’ve been a full-time mom, had a child in full-time day care, had a nanny, and relied on public school and camps. I’ve done it all. I know I have more options that some other parents out there. Gina is right. Some people really are screwed and I don't pretend to know the answer to that problem. But I do know that the answer is likely not government involvement. I can't imagine the impact a government-mandated, extended maternity leave would have on businesses in this country. I know, I know. Other countries do it. But I don't see their economies leading the world, either.
Paul stated very clearly that it's a choice to have a child and many things must be considered. Just because you "want one" doesn't mean you should have one. Hell, I'd love a hot tub, a fancy convertible sports car, and clothes that aren't from Target. But guess what? I can't afford that stuff so I don't have them. It's a tough choice, but having a child isn't your "right." The government should run the country, not businesses and families.
Last but certainly not least, we'll hear from Melissa Schools:
No doubt I’d be in for a most brutal reality check if I suddenly became a single mother. Whether reeling from the grief associated with the death of my husband, or that grief which would come with abandonment, I cannot fathom having to adjust to single parenthood. Heck, I’m clinging to sanity as it is, and that’s with healthy children and a partner who is a good husband and father and who holds a job that supports all six (seven) of us.
The statistics comparing family leave in the United States with family leave policies in other countries around the world are startling for sure. It could be argued that the cold, down side of capitalism makes this disregard for human needs possible. You know, those money hungry employers caring only about the bottom line, and such…
Outrage is easy to muster. Feasible solutions and remedies are harder to conjure. Most Americans balk at the amount in taxes they are currently required to pay. Any idea what the tax rate is in the countries that have awesome family leave benefits? I cannot imagine people in this country embracing a tax rate that is fifteen to twenty percent higher than what they already pay, no matter the benefits, yet the countries that boast the best family leave policies also have much higher individual tax rates than we have in America.
Yes, I sure hope that someone will make it a priority to research and implement better solutions for family leave policy in our country, but I doubt the efficacy of just looking at other countries and imagining we can merely superimpose their policies onto ours. (I’m not saying that’s your position, Gina.) That doesn’t look at the broader picture of the impact on employers- small business owners included. And what of the added burden that would have to be assumed by people without any children or with grown children in the workplace? Are they expected to accept a huge hike in taxes- and in work load- without a peep? Here in Wakefield, there was plenty of opposition and grumbling about passing the debt exclusion just to help fund a new middle school.
As an admitted skeptic about “big government,” I’m more apt to support and believe in change that starts at a more local level. There has to be some convincing that an investment in some segment of the population (Parents of Small Children, Middle Schoolers…) has benefits for the community at large. Allocating more resources and efforts toward the vital importance of education for girls/women would provide a multitude of benefits, not the least of which would be something to rely on besides a minimum wage job with no benefits should she find herself in a single parenthood situation.
To Gina’s point about parents without built-in support systems or good family leave policies or affordable childcare options, I agree to a point with her statement that, “Once you have a baby, you’re on your own.” As adults, we rarely get to write our own ticket for life choices without also having to make a list of sacrifices to achieve our goals and wants. Being able to “have it all” is a myth. Plain and simple.
My husband and I agreed that I’d leave work to be home with our kids when they are young. Not only does that generally mean I can’t pee alone, but it also means that we do a fair amount of economizing to bring our standard of living in line with the dictates of one income. I know lots of moms who do double duty of staying home with their kids and work part-time jobs to supplement income and sanity. Other families are two-income with kids in daycare. The expense of daycare can be a factor in decisions to limit family size. Subsidizing daycare costs may ease the burden of working families, but would it necessarily guarantee daycare employees themselves a decent wage? My mother ran an in-home daycare for years for what amounted to peanuts per hour- partly because she felt for the financial burden of working parents, but I remember thinking it was a ridiculously low amount to be paid for the work she did.
As for help specifically for single mothers, I want to give a shout out to Catholic Charities, on a national level, and Catholic charities on the local level: organizations designed specifically to give aid to women struggling to provide for their children. The need for aid may far outweigh the ability and number of these organizations to provide for those needs, but a cursory Google search reveals many Catholic organizations offering help to single moms in many forms: housing, rent and utilities subsidies, childcare help, clothing, food, education and job training, parenting classes and mentoring support. There has been much ado lately about the Catholic Church objecting to a government healthcare mandate that it pay for contraceptive coverage. I’ve also heard accusations that the Catholic Church and its adherents to a pro-life/anti-abortion stance only care about “savin’ babies” without a second thought to the mothers, their circumstances and lives. Regardless of one’s personal opinion on these two matters (contraception and abortion), I feel it’s important to remind that there are many Catholics and Catholic organizations dedicated to easing the burden of single moms. That’s a local initiative for change I can support.
Now, let the combox erupt…