The work-life balance conversation is front and center right now. Obama is pushing sick-leave and family-leave policies, and Anne-Marie Slaughter has a new book out about our “toxic work culture,” in which only the young and childless can survive. The high cost of child care forces many women out of the workforce because they can’t cover the day care bill. As a working parent, I would kill for a Scandinavian- or French-style day care system, in which the caregivers are well-trained, the food is nutritious, and the cost is subsidized so that no one goes broke (or tries to skimp by hiring less-skilled and less-experienced caregivers).
Opponents of subsidized, universal day care have argued that the government shouldn’t be in the “business of raising kids.” They believe that children thrive only when cared for at home, by a parent. That’s a point on which reasonable people can disagree, at least with respect to how we all run our households.
But having been a stay-at-home mom for five years, I can say one thing for sure: Stay-at-home parents need high-quality, affordable day care too. Obviously, I’m not talking about 40 hours a week. I’m talking about a few hours here and there, either at the kind of open preschools that Sweden offers, where parents take their kids to play, sing and socialize with other local kids and adults, or drop-in day care where you can leave your child for a couple of hours to do errands, clean the house or accompany your parent to the doctor.
The first couple of years of being a stay-at-home parent, I could have really used somewhere, anywhere, to go during those long, bitter cold stretches of winter when we couldn’t play outside. I imagine that kids being able to exercise and play with other kids while adults chat with fellow parents is a huge boon for the mental health of the Swedes. American parents are left with the library or the bookstore—where the kids make a lot of noise, bother other patrons and sometimes destroy the books—or home, alone, again. Stay-at-home mothers are more likely to be depressed than their working counterparts; having a bright, clean, fun place to spend time with other families would go a long way to counteract the isolation of being at home with kids.
And I also could have really used some drop-in day care for when I needed to run errands or go to doctors’ appointments. But because a babysitter is expensive, I often found myself strapping the toddler into his stroller while my dermatologist looked at my suspicious mole,or handing the phone to the baby in the hopes of keeping him quiet in the DMV. Because child care is scarce and costly, SAHMs end up dragging their kids along with them to places where kids don’t really belong, like the tire store or the bank. You know the dirty looks people give you when your kid is screaming in line at the tax office? Subsidized day care would take care of that problem. You know how you can’t go with your mom to the oncologist, because you can’t manage an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old in the waiting room while the doctor examines her? Subsidized day care would take care of that too. My friend skipped all her follow-ups after her C-section because she couldn’t take the kids with her and her husband couldn’t take off work.
Expecting mothers, even stay-at-home mothers, to be with their children 24/7, 365 days a year, ignores reality: We need to do stuff sometimes at places where kids aren’t really welcome. A lot of us can’t afford a sitter for every errand. But an inexpensive center with well-trained staff at a low or no cost? That could only have benefits, for the moms, the kids—and everyone else in line at the DMV.
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