Day Care: An American Farce

This article suggests that parents are pulling kids from day care as the economy falters. As is often the case in journalistic trend stories, the writer only provides some anecdotes and interviews to make his point, and no big-picture numbers. Probably none are available at this early stage. However, I don’t doubt that this story is true; every economic contraction creates a pattern like this. But what does it look like on a family by family level?

You do see spikes in stay-at-home parenthood; people make do with a lower standard of living and try to enjoy the time with kids. I predict that when the next census numbers come in, we will see spikes in both stay-at-home motherhood and stay-at-home fatherhood.

This won’t represent an “opt-out revolution” (to use Lisa Belkin’s memorable phrase), but instead an involuntary retreat. I interviewed couples whose reverse-traditional arrangements arose from layoffs for my book and I know that when families are willing to retool their emotional lives, they can actually thrive. And periods of economic trouble always fuel calls for decoupling fatherhood and breadwinning (it wasn’t an accident that the film “Mr. Mom,” about a laid-off auto worker who become a stay-at-home father in Michigan, came out during a deep recession).

On the other hand, I have a friend who, as an infant and toddler, was left alone for the better part of the day. His mother (an immigrant) tied a rope around his ankle and a table, put food on the floor, and left for her job every day. She had to work; staying home with him wasn’t an option. (He’s fine, by the way, except for the fact that he’s a lawyer… I’m joking; I know one or two or three lawyers who are good people.)

This is echoed by one of the anecdotes in the article, about a “woman in New York who, unable to find anyone to care for her 4-year-old daughter while she went to work in a shoe store, simply left the girl outside in a car with a sandwich and water, checking on her every hour. The woman’s decision, which came to light when someone spotted the child and called authorities, underscores the desperate situations facing a growing number of parents.”

Imagine the stress and pain involved in these situations.

Alternatively, poor and working-class, and even some middle-class, people put their kids in cheap, unlicensed care. Sometimes that works out fine; “unlicensed care” is a very broad category that can include baby-sitting by close friends as well as caring individual providers. Sometimes, however, it is very risky. Many studies show that care in an unregulated environment comes with increased likelihood of abuse or neglect.

All of this really underscores that the need for America to step up and improve its child care infrastructure. This isn’t a public vs. private thing–individual companies (like Google’s amazing day care facility) need to step up, and so does every level of American government. To me, this is an issue that should go hand in hand with health care; both are about economic development as well as the well-being of parents and children.

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