Stephanie Coontz

Following the State of the Union address, childcare is poised to become the next emotive issue in the national debate. A leading family historian offers her solutions.

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On February 4, 1997, when English au pair Louise Woodward fractured the skull of her 8-month-old charge, Matthew Eappen—causing his death five days later—she unleashed a storm of outrage. One of the targets was Deborah Eappen, the child’s mother, who had returned to work as an ophthalmologist (albeit part time) after her son’s birth. Eappen was vilified as selfish and irresponsible for leaving her son in the care of an 18-year-old.

But even as the public and pundits were lambasting Eappen, policymakers were quietly acknowledging a growing national problem. With more two-income households, the country is suffering from a critical shortage of safe, affordable ways to care for children. President Clinton made the push for national childcare a pillar of his State of the Union address in January, and there are several childcare bills sitting in Congress. An endless variety of options is being publicly debated: tax credits that help families pay for childcare; government subsidies to improve the quality of childcare; incentives for businesses to shoulder some of the cost; and vouchers to give parents broad choices. Already, the political lines are being drawn. Should women receive financial help if they stay home, or be helped if they go to work, or be helped no matter what? Should dads be included in the deal?

As the debate heats up, Mother Jones posed some of these questions to family historian Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, author of two books on the American family, and mother of a teenage son. Her most recent book, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families, was just released in paperback. Coontz spoke about what makes good childcare and what makes good social policy. And she drew an important distinction: The questions we ask ourselves as families are not necessarily the best ones for the government to ask when determining policy.

Q: Why should creating safe, affordable childcare be a public concern?

A: It’s only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger crisis of caregiving. We are moving to a true full-employment economy, in which most families can no longer count on having someone at home to take care of the young or old or ill.

We all have an interest in how kids grow up. Even if you want to reduce it to the most mundane, “me first” interest, who is going to pay into your Social Security fund? All of us have a stake in kids growing up to be productive members of society, for financial reasons, for the notion of social progress and productivity, and of course, for quality of life.

The fact is, women are entering the workforce in every country of the world. In the 1995 census, for the first time ever, a majority of moms in the U.S. went back to work at least part time before their kids reached age 1. Women with kids under age 18 are one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce. This is just a reality we have to deal with.

Q: Still, wouldn’t some parents prefer to be home, and shouldn’t we support them?

A: Some research shows that it would be preferable if parents could be home for the first six months of life. And I am absolutely in favor of making that possible. But if, in fact, staying home is as important as the conservatives like to say, then it ought not to be a class privilege.

And you do not make it happen by denying funding for childcare and giving people tax incentives. You do it by providing paid parental leave. We should expand the dependent care tax credit to include people who decide to stay home. At the same time, we have to build the kind of high-quality childcare and the kind of flexible jobs that allow people to put together the best package.

People like to talk about whether childcare is good or bad. It seems to me that this is one of the few win-win situations left in the country. The happier a parent is, the happier the kids are. So, if you’re happier staying home and can afford it, good for you. And we should make that easier for you. But if you’re happier going back to work, and if you need to go back to work, we need to give your kid good childcare so you don’t have to stay up at night fretting about it.

Q: Recent research shows that the architecture of children’s brains is strongly influenced by their intellectual and emotional experiences during the first three years. If you were a mom and you heard that, wouldn’t you have a strong impulse to stay home?

A: If you think that you’re the only one capable of giving stimulation. I don’t want to advocate one way over the other, but there are good reasons to argue for women working. As a mom, you may have a special love bond, but that doesn’t mean that you have the energy and resources to do the best job 24 hours a day.

We know that men do more and better childcare when the moms are not at home. When mom is around all the time, the man lets her be the expert. Men, when they’re left on their own, become the experts themselves. So right there, you’re doubling the amount of stimulation a child gets. If you add high-quality childcare, you’re providing them with more and different kinds of stimulation.

Q: What about the argument that childcare might hurt kids’ development?

A: The latest and most comprehensive study of childcare had only one negative finding—when a mother starts out low in sensitivity to her child’s needs, then puts the child in childcare for long hours before the age of 15 months, or in poor-quality childcare, that tends to reinforce the interaction. In other words, if you have poor parenting, and poor childcare (and too much childcare), it’s a double whammy. The kids suffer. When mothers start off with normal responsiveness and you combine that with high-quality childcare, you have a double advantage. In between, the adequate childcare most families have should be better but is not really a risk factor.

The national studies find that the number of hours a mom works and the age at which a child enters daycare do not predict a kid’s outcome. The outcome depends on a real interaction between the quality of childcare, the quality of parenting, the contentment of the parent with the work situation, the emotional and financial consequences of a woman not working, and the willingness of the dad or other significant people to share responsibility.

Q: Which social supports help most?

A: Parents have to be able to have parental leave, and they have to be paid for parental leave. The maternity and nursing benefits that working mothers in the U.S. get are the least generous in the entire industrialized world. And our Family and Medical Leave Act only covers about 60 percent of workers and only provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. That is less than the maternity leave offered by 80 percent of other countries.

Q: Didn’t sociologist Arlie Hochschild [“Home Work Time,” May/June 1997] find that people aren’t taking the leave that is offered to them, that they actually prefer to be at work because things are so stressful at home?

A: If you look very carefully at Hochschild’s research, she studied a company that had a cosmetic policy. It’s very important to have generous policies on paper, but it’s the attitude of your immediate supervisor that makes the biggest difference. The research is overwhelming. Not just women, but also men who ask for these parental leaves, tend to be categorized in most corporate cultures as not loyal, not committed to their job.

And there was also a recent study that found that among employees who needed but didn’t take family leave, two-thirds said they couldn’t afford the lost wages.

Q: You say that to improve childcare, we need higher staff-to-child ratios, low turnover, and people who enjoy the job. How do you legislate or regulate that?

A: You have to raise wages. Some kind of subsidy is extremely important. When the government doesn’t subsidize childcare, but just multiplies regulations, you find that parents can’t afford the higher cost of the regulations—and they go under the table to an unregulated childcare system that can be extremely dangerous.

Q: Why not privatize childcare?

A: I’m very much in favor of having companies provide childcare to their employees, but I’m worried about organizing it through incentives. The Clinton plans don’t construct childcare at all. They offer incentives for private firms to do it.

If you privatize childcare, the profit-making kids will get creamed off. There are kids who will generate a profit: They’re low cost; they don’t have special needs. It’s just like the insurance industry. If you don’t require companies to cover everyone, they will only cover the totally healthy ones. Everybody else gets left behind and discarded in the trash.

Childcare has to be subsidized, the way it is in European countries, where up to 95 percent of kids are usually in preschool by age 2 and a half, regardless of income, because the quality is so high. And in this country there is tremendous grassroots support for it.

Q: Do you think we’ll be able to face the issue head-on?

A: The thing that keeps me hopeful is that people know there is something empty in a world that is ruled by consumer values. Interestingly enough, this is one of the great appeals of the right wing. But their answer is, just build a barrier, a great big Berlin Wall, around your family. And make the wife the gatekeeper.

What they’ve heard from the left is: “If we had more money, we’d all be fine.” Somewhere in between is a politics that can take on the social and psychological consequences of the economic inequalities and unfairnesses of this winner-take-all society.

The Deborah Eappen case haunts us because family life and childcare in this country is a lottery. Parents feel like we’re going along blindfolded with instructions being shouted at us from all sides and all of these sideline commentators are more interested in announcing where we made a wrong turn than in helping map out the right course for our families. So you have individuals scrambling to do the right thing, making sacrifices to do so, and resenting the lack of support for the choices they’ve made. And it’s easy for them to project their own fears and resentments onto someone else—it’s nice to look at somebody and say, “Ha! That person just went way too far off, and I would never do that.”

Q: What are the politics that would embrace the whole spectrum?

A: I don’t have a blueprint. As a historian, I believe you can’t ask people to have answers until they’ve discovered what the real question is. For the last few years, we’ve been focusing on the wrong questions. Different people need quite different things, and that gets lost in this debate.

Q: What are the right questions?

A: There is this massive campaign that keeps telling us that the question is what decision you should make as a mother. That may be the right question for an individual family trying to cope with these changes. But the right questions for a society are: What does it mean to have both men and women integrated into the workforce? What does it mean to have the massive kind of productivity that we have? What are the costs and the needs that are set up by a basically full-employment economy, but one in which many people’s wages are really, really low wages? What does it mean to no longer have the 40-hour workweek? And how do you have even a 40-hour workweek when there isn’t somebody at home to take care of the kids?

There’s this schizophrenia in American society. We are told, on the one hand, the work ethic is everything. At the consumer end we are told, and have been told since the ’50s, that the aim of work and the measure of our political system is that we have ranch houses and appliances and all these good things in life that we can buy.

So what’s the balance? A work ethic that is not directed toward everything you can consume, but how you can live. Both women and men have to have the chance to use their work to make better lives—not just buy more appliances.


Sarah Pollock is a Mother Jones contributing writer and a professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Her interview with former poet laureate Robert Hass appeared in the March/April 1997 issue.


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