Saturday, January 26, 2008

On going back to work, Part 5 of infinity

...or Why access to quality childcare is a feminist issue (whether or not you plan to have kids)

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I grew up believing I could have it all. I mean, my mom came pretty close to it. She had a career (as a children's librarian) and raised 5 kids. I don't think I ever once considered the possibility that I would NOT have a career. I always assumed, too, that I would have kids. Though obviously there is some sort of problem with this scenario, I have always assumed the solution would be a quality daycare.

Fast forward.

I'm 27. Married. My husband and I get knocked up (intentionally)... We start looking for daycare. Let me tell you a bit about what we found:

1. Most places don't even take infants. The age that kids can start varies, but many places don't accept kids till they're over the age of 1. Some don't accept kids until they're 2. Okay, so that narrows down the options.

2. Places that do accept infants have ridiculously long "waiting lists." These waiting lists are not on a first come, first served basis per se. They operate at the discretion of the daycare (they usually take the baby that happens to have a convenient birthday... thus minimizing any empty slots in the infant room). We got on the waiting list at several places, and never (even now!) got a call to say that there were spots available for the Bean. It has been a year and a half since we signed up for these waiting lists. So getting a spot in an infant room is basically like winning the lottery. And just because you do your research, doesn't mean you actually get to choose where you send your child.

3. The in-home daycares we visited were of poor quality. That is NOT to say that all in-home daycares are of poor quality. But we had a difficult time locating an in-home daycare that was anything other than custodial care (i.e. we'll try to make sure your kid doesn't kill herself while you're gone, but other than that we can't make any promises). One of the places we visited, they didn't even turn off the TV while we were visiting. Again, this is not to say that all in-home daycares are terrible, but simply that a good situation is hard to find.

4. As in real estate, location is everything. Anything close to work was at least $400 more per month. The only daycares we were able to afford were out in the boonies... "luckily" we live in the boonies...

After a lot of looking, Husband and I were able to find someplace that we absolutely LOVE. Thank goodness for it too. Because going back to work was exponentially harder than I ever could have anticipated in my naive youth. And if we didn't LOVE the place that we take the Bean every day, if she didn't LOVE it, I couldn't have gone back to work.

Now all of this is well and good, you might be thinking, but how is daycare a feminist issue?

As I said, if we didn't love Bean's daycare, and if she didn't love it, I wouldn't have been able to bring myself to go back to work. The daycare dilemma is one that nearly every working mother faces.

In the absence of quality childcare, women will drop out of the workforce in disproportionate numbers. Because even in relatively enlightened households (like mine), women remain the primary caretakers. And when faced with undesirable options for childcare, women will choose to care for their children at the expense of their careers.

I truly believe that this is the true heart of why there remain fewer women at the highest levels of nearly all careers. Women who reaped the benefits of the women's movement, who trained and studied, who really bought in to everything the women's movement had promised... they are dropping out of the rat race. Some of them leave their careers altogether, some of them simply veer off the most demanding career tracks in favor of a more balanced work life, some of them will take a few years out of the workforce while their children are young only to find that reentry is next to impossible.

What does this mean? It means that in the absence of quality childcare, primary caretakers (women) will continue to be underrepresented in the highest levels of our judicial system, in the most highly paid jobs in the private sector, and in the most powerful positions in the government. And in a very real sense, their interests will also be underrepresented.

What do I mean by quality childcare? I mean specifically a developmental, rather than custodial approach to caring for young children. Such care should be available to anyone who wants it. Not just those who can afford ridiculous premiums, or who happen to win the child care lottery (like we did).

Universal early education, and subsidies for early childhood care, is a feminist issue.

P.S. Why should the government, and therefore the (sometimes childless) taxpayers pay for early education and childcare subsidies?

1. By increasing the availability of quality developmental childcare, you enable women to remain in the workforce. This is not only an issue of equality (and dare I say human rights?), but actually creates a stronger richer workforce.

2. Mounting evidence shows that early childhood education programs create more successful, emotionally mature, productive citizens. This not only creates quality human capital for the next generation, but also decreases likelihood of dependence on social support programs.


hypoglycemiagirl said...

While I agree that quality daycare/school for all kids of all ages is an important issue, I think an even more important feminist issue is to change the attitudes from the woman as primary caregiver to the PARENTS as primary caregivers. Why shouldn't Dad be as inclined as Mom to stay home if there is no quality daycare available? Or maybe in many cases Mom would think it would be equally hard to leave baby with Dad as with a bad daycare?

In Sweden, no kids are admitted to daycare before their first birthday, but then there is the excellent 13 month paid parental leave which seems pretty utopic in many parts of the world. Even if parents are enouraged to share equally, many dads will not take more than their allocated two months. And even then, rumours says that a certain groups of men seem to take their parental leave during the hunting season or hockey/soccer world cup...

That being said, most of the biologist dads I know would happily do their fair share of staying at home.

Natalie said...

We got lucky and found a great in-home care provider that provides developmental care, plus a mix of ages and income-levels so my kids get a great education while they're there. That being said, she can't take infants and I had a student watch my baby in my office while I taught my class (I teach part-time at a college). And I totally agree that if I hadn't found someone I loved (and who loves my kids) to watch them, I likely would have stayed home until I did find that situation.

arduous said...

There are a TON of working moms in my line of work. And I've always kind of wondered why it was that there were so many working moms considering that my field is one that involves a lot of 60 hour weeks. But I think you've hit the nail on the head here. These working moms continue to work and they are willing to work long hours because they can afford high quality child care (almost all of them have in home nannies.)

I mean, obviously, there are other elements at stake, but I think this is a big one.

Jenn said...

Totally agree with you on this one... I'm in a part of the world where moms just don't work... daycare spots are more or less on a part time basis only until at least the age of 3... sure there are good parental leave options to compensate, but can you imagine leaving the bench for 3 years plus and actually having a hope of getting back in?! not likely!

The bean-mom said...

And you haven't even touched on the insane cost of high-quality daycare! In addition to being limited and difficult to find, high-quality daycare for infants can approach the cost of tuition at a private college. Which makes things very difficult, of course, for grad students, postdocs, medical residents, and many others at the beginning of their careers.

I was talking once about daycare issues with a woman professor at my old institution. She told me that she'd always employed a nanny for her children, even when she was still in trainng and couldn't really afford it. She employs a nanny still, and her kids are now 9 and 12. Unfortunately, most *really* can't afford it...

While in France (and other countries, I think?) there is universal, paid, high-quality preschool programs for children starting at age 3, and additional subsidized infant and toddler programs for working parents...

ScienceMama said...

Yeah, the cost is a whole separate issue. For anyone who's interested, we spend 1.5 times our mortgage payment each month to have Bean in a quality place. It's half my salary.

Once you get more than one kid, many women are actually /paying/ for the privilege of remaining in the workforce.

expat_mama said...

I love your blog (I have an 8 month old and also need to stop swearing like a sailor), but the following statement really bothered me:

"Because even in relatively enlightened households (like mine), women remain the primary caretakers."

Speaking from personal experience, it doesn't have to be that way. Also, why calculate the cost of childcare in terms of the woman's salary? Both parents are paying for childcare, and the $$ should be thought of that way. All of the good daycare in the world can't make up for inequality at home...

ScienceMama said...

That's an excellent point, Expat_mama. Childcare constitutes 25% of our family income.