Just thinking about all the childcare arrangements I’ve made for my three kids over the years makes me break out in an icy sweat even today. The list reads like a daycare c.v. of modern American motherhood, no less important to my career than a resume.
From 1997 to 1998, I had a newborn in my employer’s subsidized corporate daycare in New Jersey. Then I had baby number two and my husband implored us to move to Minneapolis for his dream job, so from 1999 to 2001 I had two young kids in a Montessori daycare in the Twin Cities. Then we moved to DC for new jobs, and our youngest went to the Jewish Community Center. When our third baby was born, she went to a federal government daycare across from the White House – I had gotten her on the waitlist the day the pregnancy test turned positive, nearly nine months before she was born.
By this time, I had three kids ages five and under, all in different daycares and preschools. My husband, who has many other virtues, did almost nothing to help with childcare, almost never performed drop off or pickup, and not once stayed home with a sick child. So, in order to keep working, I also needed a fulltime babysitter, in order to keep my crazy hours at a job I loved at The Washington Post. ?
It was one of the toughest challenges of parenting – leaving my kids with other people. But over time, I came to love daycare, and to value it as a critical piece of the working mom puzzle. Daycare was far more professional, reliable and stimulating for my kids than being at home with me or a nanny. ?My New Jersey employer, Johnson & Johnson, offered babies as young as six weeks a gleaming white I.M. Pei designed 25,000 square foot palace with two nurses on staff fulltime. Every teacher had a graduate degree in child development.
It would have been delusional to conclude that staying home with me, or a nanny, would have served my kids better than daycare.
Then one morning, after ten years riding the working mom rollercoaster, I had a mini-nervous breakdown. No surprise there! A few months later I negotiated part time work at the Post in order to save my sanity. My relationship with daycare ended, because I could no longer afford it.
It’s taken me longer to explain this daycare history than it would to go through my job qualifications. Which is kind of the point in the recent, rational New Republic article, The Hell of American Daycare.
However, even though I consider my daycare experience hellish, it’s not the kind of hell most kids experience. As reporter Jonathan Cohn explains, most American daycare is barely regulated, often unsafe, a kind of slipshod torture for kids, parents, and the underpaid daycare employees who earn, on average, $19,430 a year, less than American janitors and parking lot attendants.
The worst part is that so few people in our country seem to care one iota.
I will never forget my son’s introduction to daycare. As I was fighting back tears, I noticed an ecstatic mom from another J&J division. It was also her son’s first morning in the J&J facility.
Marcus had no hair on the back of his head because he had spent six weeks in a subpar at-home daycare where the provider kept him strapped in his car seat in front of the TV for ten hour stretches. The mom was distraught. She explained that, as a single mother, she couldn’t afford to take more maternity leave. Her baby had to go somewhere. She had begged J&J to get him off the ridiculously long wait list to rescue Marcus from that hell-hole.
The contrast between us offered me a strange, enlightening epiphany. I was guilt-ridden about dropping off my baby for his first day of daycare…and she was THRILLED to have gotten hers into a safe, high quality, affordable, loving second home. No matter what my twisted superego claimed, from then on I knew my son, and I, were lucky to have such outstanding childcare.
Most American daycare resembles the horrible in-home situation Marcus experienced. Our country lacks anything remotely resembling a regulated, professional childcare system. Even though two-thirds of American mothers of young children now work outside the home. Even though 8.2 million kids – roughly 40% of children under five, according to the New Republic – spend part of each week cared for by someone other than a parent.
Most state regulators inspect daycare centers only once a year – and smaller in-home centers only every two years. Nearly 50% of caregivers in licensed centers, and 69% in home day care, have “minimal” childcare training. The death rate for American infants in home care is seven times higher than in regulated daycare centers. The rate of SIDS fatalities is double in daycare vs nationwide deaths.
Why doesn’t America treat quality daycare as a priority, rather than a careless afterthought? Is it because we relish condemning mothers who are forced by economics to depend on subpar, unregulated childcare? Or do factions of our society rejoice in the fact that deplorable childcare cuts the competition nearly in half, since the economic and psychic burden of daycare falls disproportionately on women, distracting us from our work and quite often forcing us to “opt out” entirely?
Good daycare constitutes a public good for all of America, like stop signs, sidewalks, safe drinking water and affordable public education. Research has proven that interactive and nurturing care in the first five years of a child’s life results in stronger emotional skills, better physical health, higher academic achievement and avoidance of our criminal justice system. Good early childhood education is a sound and logical investment in our country’s future.
How can a country that cares about children, and its own future, neglect today’s smallest, most promising citizens?