Caring for Our Children
American society has changed rapidly, with two-income and single-parent families now in the majority. A working mother examines how well day care meets the needs of children in their critical early years and explores the conflicts faced by working parents.

In the morning I sweep up my small and precious children in my arms. My daughter whines about wanting to bring her Little Pony in to class for the 15,000th time. The baby burps Cream of Wheat on my wool jacket, his shoes already half off, and gives me that knowing smile. Mommy, you're late. Who you gonna shortchange today? Me? Sister? Or da boss?

We pile into the car and head off for the day-care center. As we arrive, I kiss my son's head five or six times, all the while releasing him from a car seat, hoisting his 20-pound self in one arm, a huge canvas bag filled with his food and his sister's backpack in the other. With one finger free, I reach for his sister's hand. Loaded down like refugees, our threesome approaches the center.

It is 7:45 a.m. My hope of getting a parking place within a half-mile of my office vanishes with the dew. After the children are settled, with the usual kiss and a wave, I head out, fighting the urge to linger.

"We're obsessed," says Linda Blum, flatly. "As a culture we're fixated on the notion of the 'privileged mother' or the woman who has the luxury to choose whether to work or not, and the 'morality' of this decision." Blum, an assistant professor of sociology, has spent years researching different aspects of modern women's lives. She tells me that this obsession has created the fear that drives women into "supermom" roles, seeking to distance themselves from the "bad mother" and creating anxiety about their ability to become a "good mother." But there is no consensus on what a good mother is—whether it's the strictly stay-at-home version or one who achieves a perfect balance between children, marriage and career. Thus the load of guilt that employed mothers like me carry and the doubt that plagues my stay-at-home parent friends shadows us no matter what choice we make.

One of the most critical measures of quality child care is a low child-to-caregiver ratio.

"Our government says the responsibility for creating good children rests with the individual, not the state," says Blum, echoing other researchers. "Middle-class and above children are considered neglected if their mother isn't home raising them. Conversely, mothers of children at the bottom of the economic ladder are expected to work for pay, as shown by the ending of welfare. What we lack in our country is any real sense of choice in child-rearing options."

In 1965, 25 percent of mothers with children under six years of age worked outside the home; today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 65 percent do so. And thanks to skyrocketing divorce rates, about half of the children born in the 1990s can expect to spend at least five years of their childhood in a single-parent family.

Most American mothers who return to the office do so in their child's first three to five months of life, and their children spend much of their early lives with a variety of caregivers. I was lucky. My bosses let me cobble together paid and unpaid leave that gave me four and five months off with each child. My friends in the corporate world normally receive eight paid weeks off. The government mandates even less—12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers at businesses with more than 50 employees. Nor do fathers fare any better. Only 1 percent of corporations offer paternity leave and few fathers take advantage of it, fearing that caring for children would signal a lack of professional commitment. One UNH researcher I spoke to said she tried for three years to study "daddy-track" fathers in Alabama who either stayed home with their children or took a part-time job to spend more time with them. She had to abandon the study because she was only able to locate two such fathers.

"We don't even dream of the kinds of parent-friendly legislation that exists in other industrial nations, like Scandinavia," says Blum, "where either parent can take a year's paid leave after the birth of a child or work part-time for the child's first eight years."

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