Friday, October 19, 2007
What are the odds? There was actually a staggeringly brilliant piece in the New York Times yesterday! (The piece is here.) Gail Collins fired off several great ones, but my personal fave:
While it’s becoming virtually impossible to support a middle-class American family on one parent’s salary, we never hear political discussion about the repercussions. In a two-hour debate that focused on job-related issues, the Republican presidential candidates managed to mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff and trade relations with Peru but not a word about child care for America’s working parents. John McCain, who was on the receiving end of Matthews’s question, chose instead to focus on the fact that “50,000 Americans now make their living off eBay,” that the tax code is “eminently unfair” and that Congress wastes too much money studying of the DNA of Montana bears.
We live in a country where quality child care is controversial.
Yes, yes, yes.
My college is losing yet another wonderful woman employee this week. After trying valiantly to do the two-job-family thing for a while after her son was born, she finally threw in the towel and will stay home. It's a real loss for us. She's very good at what she does, and we'll have to bring in someone new who – even if good – brings a learning curve. In the meantime, her position will remain open a few months to save money. Some will do unpaid overwork to compensate, and some work will just slip through the cracks. This is how decisions get made.
The Wife and I did the two-job-family thing for several years, as my regular readers know. Even when she went to reduced hours, the day-to-day stress level was beyond belief. Life become little more than time management. And in some ways, we had it as good as it got: we could just afford a pretty good daycare center (with webcams), we worked (mostly) regular hours, and her parents were close by enough that they could be our emergency backup system when The Boy got sick and couldn't go in. Even with all that, it was just too hard.
I honestly don't know how single parents do it, especially with younger kids. I just don't know.
At my job interview in September, I suggested (based on some wonderfully helpful feedback from readers) that the Anne Arundel CC model of evening childcare might be a great way to help returning adult students succeed. My argument was that working parents would be much more able to commit to regular class attendance if they could drop off their kid(s) at a good childcare center on campus. Ideally, keep the cafeteria open late enough that they could grab something to eat before class, too. A parent who knows her kid is okay is able to focus on other things.
The students I spoke to loved the idea. The women I spoke to loved the idea.
The men did not love the idea. I didn't get the job.
I've worked at two colleges now that have evicted their onsite daycare centers. (My previous college did that the same month TB was born. I was fit to be tied.) Daycare centers tend to be money-losers, and enrollment-driven institutions don't like to use space that could have gone to tuition-paying students for just about anything else.
Trying to balance a single college's budget, I get that. I really do. I wrote that $250 check every week for TB's daycare (the going rate around here at the time), and it was painful. I did the math once; it worked out to $13,000 a year, and there was no financial aid. And the daycare workers weren't exactly getting rich.
Something is fundamentally wrong.
The debate over whether or not women should be allowed to work, or are capable of work, has been settled. The real cost of non-slum housing has soared. Yet the perfectly predictable consequence of the intersection of these objective trends – a need for good, safe, practical childcare – is still considered a private matter. It's as if every single family with young children is a fluke.
Have a learning disability? We have an office of trained professionals to help. Can't afford tuition? We'll work with you. Have a kid? Good luck with that.
Kids aren't just private lifestyle choices. They aren't in the same category as jet skis or stamp collections. But our institutions are set up as if choosing to have a kid is like choosing to buy a boat. (Some of the people who believe that manage simultaneously to believe that having a kid shouldn't be a matter of choice, and they don't see the contradiction.) Then we're surprised every single time we lose yet another wonderful woman employee (and yes, they're always women, and yes, that's another post altogether) to the otherwise-unmet needs of helpless young children.
Now our Congress has upheld the President's veto of health insurance for young children, paid for by cigarette taxes. I guess the kids are supposed to get insurance by getting jobs or something.
Kids shouldn't be afterthoughts, or hobbies, or career-killers. There's something fundamentally wrong when the choice boils down to neglecting your job or neglecting your kid. And it's nuts to pretend that each new instance of someone making that Hobson's choice is random, or just the way the cookie crumbles.
Meanwhile, we're down another good young employee. Kids today...
On the bright side, my campus has committed to building a brand-new children's center. You'd think this would have been a no-brainer, as the long-awaited boomer retirement wave has reached our campus (in slow motion) over the past decade and the one big attraction of the location is that it's a pretty great place to raise kids, but it took years to get the project going. Hopefully it'll be ready in time for imoto to enjoy it.
and the parents would love it -- imagine being able to pay about $1600.00 per semester for 12 credit hours of childcare...
If it isn't, daycare should be something they can pay for with student loans, grants and scholarships.
Things get even more fun when the woman is the primary wage-earner (in my social circle, that's about 1/3 of the families). In a lot of cases, the economically sensible strategy is for the man to stay home with the kids, but there's incredible social bias against that...it's a one-way ticket out of your career for most guys.
I think that either work conventions or family life are just going to have to change in response to this. Either we go back to living in large family groups (or substitutes, like kibbutzim), or we need to re-model work life so that most people work from home most of the time. If you need Wednesday morning free for an important meeting, that's something you can manage even with toddlers in the house. It's the grind that gets you.
What sucks every time one of these discussions comes up is that it makes people like me sound like they are somehow anti-child or anti-affordable-daycare, which just isn't true. It's just that I bristle when I hear this sort of lament because no, issues like affordable childcare for middle-class, highly educated people with children are not the most pressing issues for me. And you know, I'm sorry, but I resent being told that other people's abilities to balance work and family are somehow more important than a childless person's struggle to balance a personal life with a career. That's what this sort of thing always turns into, and it puts people who disagree with a person like Dean Dad (and others who have similar views) in a totally false position.
It may help that we work at a smaller state school with an older dept. who themselves are parents and grandparents and an administration who are family friendly because we have a large commuter student body who themselves are parents.
But I do get comments everyday from people who wonder if I will stay home or go part time, which ticks me off, no one asks my husband that same question.
My Mom stayed home when I was little, but went back to work once my little sister was in school all day. It was my job to make sure she got off the bus safely and to look after things until Mom and Dad got home. If that's what you're talking about, then that's pretty normal for a 1970's working-class upbringing.
However, you can't do that with little kids....especially now, when leaving a 5-year-old unsupervised for five minutes will probably get you a visit from Child Protective Services. (Societal expectations for childrearing have skyrocketed in the last 25 years, but that's a subject for another post).
Ditto, except we're devout Catholics too. :P We can't figure out how to swing it; although we're professionals, we have crippling student loans, and the economics mean we'll either spend all of one salary on child care, or one of us will have to stay home. Either way, we wouldn't be saving for retirement or the offspring's college.
It just seems so perverse and unfair. We did everything "right," (including scholarships; we have far less student debt than most people we know) but we're 30 and we can't afford kids ... and God knows when we'll be able to. Probably slightly after I go through menopause.
(And we live in a small house in a middle-class neighborhood with two older cars. It's not like we're lifestyle-spending ourselves to death.)
We are seriously considering a move to Europe (or possibly Canada), if a good job for one of us could be found and the difficulty of international professional license transfer smoothed out. It seems extreme, but as far as we can see, it's the only reasonable solution to wanting children that doesn't involve the lottery or a mysterious rich uncle dying.
Instead, I 'll simply say that I totally heart you, Dean Dad, for just this kind of post. But then, you already know that.
We're doing well on two middle-class incomes but I'm always going to be perpetually low on vacation time because of all the child-related time off I (have to) take. My boss is easy-going about that but it would be nice if I could use sick leave to cover the child's sick times (I'm supposed to limit my use of sick leave for family illness to, oh, 24 hours total I think). And given that there's a shortage of daycare for children aged birth-12 months-old in our area, having decent maternity leave would be marvelous, luxurious even.
I know some single people feeling this way, in jobs where 60 hrs./week is expected. I think what we really need to talk about is balance more generally, to discuss the problem with corporations trying to squeeze more and more out of individuals while cutting the overall workforce and benefits. We all need flexibility and support and I just don't see many workplaces offering that right now. And maybe it's also cultural--these expectations--and we need to do something about that too.
/stepping off of soapbox
I think my long rant was, in essence, yes, in some places, cobbling together suitable arrangements for childcare is easier than some. When you're far away from family in an area with a high cost of living, it's particularly hard, and I believe DD is in one of those places as am I.
I also think that it's hard for single people to appreciate the cultural stigma against women working and that the word "neglect" is often used to describe what women who work are doing to their children. I've had friends tell me point blank they think my working is wrong or immoral. In no other area of my life do I get such comments. No one says the fact that I have a drink almost every night is bad, but put your kids in daycare when you can afford to stay home, well, that's a sin.
In your earlier comment you wrote:
"We all need flexibility and support and I just don't see many workplaces offering that right now." I entirely agree. And I wonder if that were the way that these questions were framed if it might be easier to get people on board with things that would make it easier for parents to care for children. By framing the debate as one in which childless people are ultimately dismissed - "you just don't understand because you don't have children" - it ultimately alienates a lot of potential support for these sorts of initiatives.
My point is that the existing options for most of us with kids suck.
They suck worse than they used to. Note my line about real housing costs having soared. If my house cost what my parents' house did, I wouldn't be so strapped. Arrangements that may have been possible, if difficult, in the seventies are simply impossible now.
I'm not saying that women who work neglect their kids. I would think you'd have sussed out my politics better than that by now. If I actually believed that, would I have dropped off The Boy in daycare every morning for the first two years of his life?
I'm saying that ever-more-demanding jobs, especially when there are two of them, make sustainable childcare arrangements that much harder. Every time I have to stay late for an evening function, I realize that a single parent couldn't do this job.
Dicty hit the nail on the head, as she often does. I would LOVE to see work arrangements become more flexible, humane, and sustainable, both for the sake of parents and for the sake of everyone who works. I'm lamenting just how hard it is to make that happen, even on a very local level. Jobs that consume personal lives are fundamentally inhuman. Even if I'm willing to sacrifice my own personal life, which is properly my call to make, I'm not willing to be the Absent Father. And it's unreasonable to make that a requirement, which, in many ways, it has become.
To the line about health care for spouses -- that's cute. Intellectually dishonest, but cute. As any careful reader knows, I'm a strong partisan of single-payer national health care. I don't know if something like that would work for childcare, but I'd be open to the conversation. What I'm not open to is leaving kids uninsured, or unattended.
To the others -- thanks for your support. Sometimes I think it's just me.
Income = Wages + Interest + Rent + Profit = Value of Products.
Add additional wage and salary income in the form of a second earner, watch the prices of houses and child care providers adjust. But nobody seems particularly nostalgic for the days of one income (usually Dad's) buying (paid in cash) housing services and (paid in kind) childcare services.
"I'm saying that ever-more-demanding jobs, especially when there are two of them, make sustainable childcare arrangements that much harder. Every time I have to stay late for an evening function, I realize that a single parent couldn't do this job."
In this observation, there's an opportunity. I keep hearing on the news (this might be a Chicago bias) of employers lamenting their ability to identify and retain skilled workers. Perhaps the job descriptions are sufficiently burdensome that people save their money and take earlier retirements, or they shop their resumes more aggressively. The community college might be hard pressed to promise "no night work." Must that be true of all possible employers?
Me, I'm not in favor of childcare subsidies, mostly because they won't work. In high-cost-of-living environments like DD's, an infusion of subsidy into the system will just drive up the cost of paid childcare, and we'll be right back where we started (except the taxes on everyone will be higher).
Any solutions are going to have to be market-driven, I think. Some workers will make themselves so valuable that they will be able to essentially force an employer into allowing telecommuting. (One friend of mine, a programmer, has done just that.) Other people might arrange child-care co-ops, where members buy in and agree to take training and work particular shifts to care for the co-op's children.
Solutions can be worked out, but there's a lot of social re-engineering that will need to take place. Right now, the main problem for academics is that our profession is low-paying, requires moving away from family, and demands very long hours, so we get the triple whammy. That's what I take DD to be saying.
Under the last (Liberal) government there was funding for more childcare spaces and the provinces began rolling out the red carpet. Then we had an election and the Conservatives got in and with their rhetoric of "choice" they decided that they'd give everyone in the country with a kid under 6 $100 a month to cover whatever "childcare" choice they make. This is their way of sticking it to families where both parents work, and 'honouring' stay-at-home parents. It's a bloody slap in the face every month when you are paying what we pay for childcare, and if I stayed at home I'd feel the same slap for different reasons.
Today, and yesterday, I have taken the days "off" to look after our son who is running a fever, so I've lost two days dissertation writing. Thank goodness he got sick on Wednesday afternoon after my lecture/office hour duties were finishes so that I was "free" to look after him.
Topic for another post? The flack you get for 'neglecting' your child to daycare while you do unpaid work like write a dissertation. If I had a dollar for everytime someone said "can't you just write while he's at home with you?" I'd make more than I do with my government childcare subsidy!
So, as Dean Dad has pointed out, there ARE answers to the childcare dilemma. We seem to have forgotten them.
My parenting experiences and expressions of frustration regarding some of the current problems in our culture around children aren't heard without being measured against some ethereal idea of what parenting was once or what it is in another context or for some other social class. All of my thoughts are subjected to an analysis of who has it harder and who should/n't complain and what the real issues are and don't they affect single people, too.
Well, yeah. Sure. And yes, if I were a single mother, things would be different. But it's not a competition and regardless of whether the working class has it harder, the point is that it sucks. For everyone. At every level, support for parents in this country just plain old sucks. This is a place where having a little bit of money really doesn't fix it all.
If you don't have kids--by whatever means--you are not responsible for the care, feeding, education and general well-being of another human being, who is incapable of looking after herself. And you have no idea what that's like. You don't know what it would be like to do that as a working class single mother any better than you know what it would be like to do it as part of a solidly middle class, two-income family.
So when it comes to talking through the experience of being a parent and the problems that accompany it, I absolutely think people who have kids have the right to say listen, let me tell you what it's like. And be listened to.
that's not to say I don't think single folks or childless folks don't have work/life balance issues. I absolutely do. I wish we lived in a world where we all had more balance and flexibility to take care of our personal lives and responsibilities. That includes married, partnered, childless, single, single, gay, straight whatever i don't care who you are we all deserve better.
and there are many things about a single, childless woman's life, for instance, that I clearly don't understand in the least. And I do hope I'm respectful of that.
I didn't know anything about what parenting would be like (obviously) but what I knew even less about was the difference in parenting expectations, options, programs etc between now and what I remember as a kid. And what I've learned since then is that what my mom did in the 1970's doesn't mean a whole lot.
Dr. Crazy, you know I love you.
On another note, when this country needed women to work (WWII) they provided daycare centers with full laundry service and even meal preparation. Can you imagine? I think government officials need to be reminded of these things. With all the rhetoric from conservatives who are pro-family, their actions are very anti-family. What good are school vouchers if they do not cover the entire cost of tuition. I know women that work not for the salary, but for the health benefits (husband's job provides no benefits). These people are under the impression that every family can afford to live on one salary. Yet, historically only the wealthy have been able to do so.
So that's where I'm coming from when I add this observation: part of our culture's issue with childcare is, I believe, the greater levels of surveillance and control we expect parents (and parents alone) to have over their children. This is a fundamental part of the childcare crisis. Leaving your kids in *anyone* else's care is seen as very risky. Ergo, bad parents work. Bad parents use daycare and family and friends to cobble together childcare. You can't trust anyone but yourself to raise and protect your children. For pity's sake, people don't even let their kids walk to school anymore. Good parents drop their kids off personally. We're turning childhood into a hermetically sealed environment and parents are expected to obsessively monitor and control that environment.
Bad parenting is a good red herring. In the meantime, real issues about cost of living increases and the inability of wages to keep pace get shunted aside. Who could possibly be a good parent by these criteria?
As for the experiences of your grandmother, things were a lot different then. First family tended to live close by, and help was close at hand. It was common to drop kids off at neighbors houses, daycare fro free, or barter if you will. Kids could knock on a door in the neighborhood with out fear if they needed help.
When my kids were first going to school, I knew that they could stop off at the store on their way home, because if someone tried to grab them all they had to do was yell and everyone would come over and ask just what the problem was. That is no longer the case.
I am sure there are many more examples, but things have changed, and not for the better. It’s a lot more difficult to bring up kids now than it was, and yes, folks who don’t have kids may not really know what the issues are.
Cranky Old Man
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