Do you ever find yourself thinking about something and then finding it everywhere? That happened to me recently when I read this excellent feature in Pacific Standard about childcare in the United States and the way it contributes to gender inequalities. Then a day later, I was talking to some friends who haven’t had children yet, but are planning on doing it eventually, as one does, and we got into a discussion about terrible parental leave policies in the US, but also about childcare.
They noted that they intended to use childcare services when their parental leave was up. Some people they know have opted to use nannies. Others have had one parent stay home until the child is old enough to head to school. I’m always hesitant to engage in these conversations on a personal rather than structural level, given that I will never need childcare services of any kind, and so I don’t want people to think that I’m being judgmental about the choices they make, whether they are totally happy about them and pleased about their options, or are taking the best of a bad lot and not feeling great about it.
There’s a lot of judgment in the United States that surrounds parents and everyone seems to have a good idea of what would be better for everyone else’s children. I really try not to be one of those people, because I know a lot of parents and I know it is frustrating to have people repeatedly make sonorous pronouncements about their lives and that of their children, often with insufficient information.
But there are some structural issues we should talk about. We’ve established that parental leave options in the United States are bad. Parents of any gender should be able to take lots of time with a new child, whether born or adopted into a family. They should also, of course, feel free to return to work whenever they want, which may be earlier for some parents than others — and people shouldn’t be judged for not using the full length of their parental leave. Parents should be able to take time off together, if they want to, rather than being forced to alternate. Ample studies demonstrate that parental leave is immensely beneficial for families, but also society at large, in addition to specific companies: It is a sound business decision, even if you don’t think that caring about employees as whole people should be a priority for your company.
But we don’t have enough conversations about childcare. Which, if you haven’t been in the market for it lately, is extremely expensive. It is very costly to use a nanny (or nanny share), but it’s also extremely expensive to send children to daycare, especially in urban areas. That’s fraught even more by regulatory problems, like spotty inspection and accountability practices that mean parents could be putting their children in danger without realising it, which is terrible, and a horrible position for parents to be in. You may be paying a lot of money for a really great service that prioritises your child’s safety and wellbeing. Or you could be paying a lot for…something that is not that.
Some companies have daycare facilities on site, which is great for parents who want that option. You can bring your kid to work, have your child close by so you can check in and spend time together, and take your child when you leave work at the end of the day. This is something that all medium to large companies should be providing, honestly, whether on site or nearby — even if it’s in the form of a voucher programme for employees to use at local vetted daycares.
Because the cost of childcare can be a huge burden for a family. Sometimes it’s cheaper for a parent to drop out of the workforce and stay home, even if that means giving up on dreams and losing career ground. Sometimes both parents have to work to be able to afford to meet a child’s needs, depending on their situation and the child — parents of disabled children, for example, may need a dual income to support medical and personal care. Inevitably, when the conversation in a heterosexual relationship about which parent should take time out happens, it’s…often the woman who’s saddled with this.
Like. Even in the case of couples that think of themselves as very progressive and forward thinking, it’s assumed that of course she is willing, and wants to, stay home or take on added caregiving responsibilities beyond work. In addition to being sexist, that entrenches inequality — one reason there’s a wage gap is because many women have caregiving responsibilities that interfere with their careers, or feel like they are forced to choose between children and career, or are shamed for deciding that while they love their children, they also love their work and it is meaningful to them.
This is a situation that shouldn’t come up, because the US should be providing universal free childcare, at least to kindergarten, and honestly beyond. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be supporting children by ensuring that their parents aren’t forced to make terrible choices about how best to care for them. There should be a universal basic standard available to everyone. If parents want to pursue other options, great. But they should know that their desire to raise children is supported by society, and that their children are valued as humans with needs that need to be met.
I realise that in a climate where everything feels like it’s on fire and we’re ferociously fighting to prevent rollbacks of social gains, talking about how we need free universal childcare seems a little superfluous. But why should it? Why isn’t the left more widely supporting the people and organisations who are working on this, and have been for a long time? If not now, when?
Image: Children at a rural childcare, Shehzad Noorani for UNICEF Iran, Flickr