Alissa Quart has a piece in The New York Times today that looks at the financial burden, and often impossibility, of child care on American families. Given that one of my chapters tackles exactly this topic, it piqued my interest. Why would a book on the politics of pregnancy discuss post-birth child care? Because we put our son on a daycare waitlist five months into our pregnancy—twenty months later, our number (a pessimistic 35) has not budged.
If parents are lucky enough to gain admission for their children, Quart discusses the crushing costs. Citing research from University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Joya Misra, she writes that the cost of center-based day care surpasses one year of tuition at a public college in thirty-five states, as well as DC.
But it’s not only the price tag that has parents in despair. Despite resounding evidence that investing in young children’s care reaps huge social benefits, the United States is currently suffering from a severe scarcity of decent day care facilities. A survey conducted by the National Institute Child Health Development deemed only ten percent of facilities to be “high-care” nationwide and a recent cover story for The New Republic by Jonathan Cohn described the overall quality of day care in our country as “wildly uneven and barely monitored, and, at the lower end, Dickensian.”
An expose like this, on the dismal state of American child care, surfaces once every year or so. In general, comparisons are made to other industrialized nations, where states invest heavily in quality child care facilities and parents are even offered tax incentives if they stay home to take care of their own children, given that it is considered to save the state a huge sum of money.
Pamela Druckerman also discusses the American day care dilemma in her comparison between parenting in France and the United States, Bringing Up Bebe. As an American expat in Paris, she compares the quality of care that her first daughter receives from state run crèches with day care back home in the States.
At least half of any crèche’s workers, Druckerman writes, must pass rigorous tests in reasoning, reading comprehension, math, human biology, and psychological reasoning. Another quarter must have degrees in health, leisure or social work.
But what really wins Druckerman over with her own daughter’s experience in the crèche is its dining experience. Again, the rumored four course meal: “a cold vegetable starter, a main dish with a side of grains or cooked vegetables, a different cheese each day; and a dessert of fresh fruit or fruit puree.” Lunch is prepared by an in-house cook from scratch each day. Soon Druckerman admits to thinking of her daughters’ caregivers as the “Rhodes Scholars of baby care.”
The first day cares were established during the Industrial Revolution in both countries, because women simply had no choice but to leave their homes and enter the workforce. Horror stories of children being tied to bedposts all day while their mothers worked in factories became so common that the crèche was established in France in the mid 1800s. News of this arrangement spread to States soon thereafter. In France this child care system was seen as a state investment in helping create responsible new members of society, and enabled mothers to participate in the workforce with confidence that their children were in good hands.
In the U.S., however, born more out of necessity and continued for dubious reasons such as “Americanizing” the children of immigrants, child care never developed as an institution that could help socialize children into well-adjusted, independent and developmentally advanced individuals, as it did in other industrialized nations.
We do ourselves a disservice if we just think that this set of circumstances that conspire to disproportionately punish women in the workforce are happenstance. American day care is so dismal because the state has long seen the care of children outside of the home as inferior to a mother’s care—the proper place for a woman is in the home, tending to her children’s needs, so significant state subsidies have been nearly unimaginable for the majority of our country’s history.
Let’s not even deign to discuss the wild possibility that a father might also be considered a parent. When the government collects data on parents and work life balance, for instance, the mother is termed the “designated parent” and the father is a “childcare arrangement.” Yes, you read that right.
How might things have evolved differently in this country had our government established an agency that oversaw child care facilities, similar to the Mother and Infant Protection service that the French state formed after World War II? What might it take to convince our state that child care is a responsible investment, given the huge social benefits to not only children, but their working parents and the economy as a whole?
I’m not quite sure what my husband and I would have done had we not had an amazing network of family to care for Desmond while we both worked full time. He really hates bedposts.