Can We Solve Our Child-Care Problem?

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Photo: Ali Jarekji/Corbis

When I was growing up, my mother had a refrigerator magnet that said, “Every mother is a working woman.” The cartoon drawing of a woman on her hands and knees, surrounded by three small children and their assorted wreckage, was her quiet salvo in the mommy wars. As a child, I didn’t really get it. My friends’ moms who had painted fingernails and never drove for school field trips? They had jobs. Taking care of my brother and sister and me wasn’t a job. I knew that because my mom didn’t get a paycheck.

For a proud statement, the magnet also betrayed some resignation. Even now, 20 years later, I have yet to see an equivalent “Every father is a working man” kitchen-décor option. I thought about this as I watched all of the feminists in my Twitter feed applaud President Obama's comment, in the State of the Union address this week, that child care is not a women's issue. “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue,” he said, “and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” As such, he proposed a child-care tax credit for all single-parent families and two-parent families where both parents work outside the home. Mothers who are full-time caregivers cried foul and said the president was devaluing their work because the subsidy would not be available to them.

As the cost of child care has skyrocketed, the value of child-care work has not risen along with it. That goes for both child-care workers (who enjoy virtually no worker protections in most states) and for parents, most of whom aren’t guaranteed any paid leave to care for their families as needs arise. This presents a dilemma for those of us who want European-style flexible work-family policies and child-care options: We need to prioritize caregiving work on a level with other types of work that are, right now, better compensated. But if we pay caregivers what they truly deserve, it's even further out of reach for most families. What if we want to pay caregivers more for their work and also want to make child care accessible to everyone? How can we afford to have it both ways?

I called economist Heather Boushey to find out. “What’s interesting about the cost question is that it presumes that no one is paying the costs right now,” Boushey, executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told me. “We are paying for it, we’re just paying for it in this inefficient way that doesn’t work for families and isn’t good for kids.” Families that can scrape together the money for safe, inspected day-care facilities are forgoing other priorities like saving for retirement or buying new shoes. Families who can’t afford day care are relying on a relative or a neighbor to provide informal care, which may or may not be paid. “Then,” Boushey adds, “there’s the really poor-quality jobs that this creates for child-care providers.”

The only way out, she says, is government-subsidized care. Obama’s suggested tax credit is a first step. But he was not proposing a network of state-run, quality day-care facilities — which actually did exist, during World War II, when men were at war and women flooded the workplace. America tried again in the 1970s, when President Nixon vetoed a bill that would have established a network of federally subsidized child-care centers, open to all parents on a sliding scale. He cited the bill’s “family-weakening implications,” adding that he was all for making sure children received quality care and early education, but in a way “consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”

The notion that affordable day care is harmful to families sounds downright crazy today. It was probably slightly less bizarre at a time when 70 percent of women did not work outside the home. But the underlying idea — that who cares for your children is a sign of your cultural values — has been perpetuated by people across the ideological spectrum. It’s what has allowed office-going women to assume full-time caregiver mothers are submissive or unmotivated. It’s what has allowed mothers who care for their own children to judge mothers who put theirs in day care as inattentive or insufficiently committed. Sure, personal politics play a role in how each family makes child-care decisions. But in the vast majority of cases, the economics matter far more.

“We’ve lost ourselves in the morass of the culture wars,” Boushey says. “The reality is far different from that conversation. Most women don’t have a choice.” Indeed, the Pew Research Center connects the rise in stay-at-home motherhood to the rising cost of child care — not with any sort of cultural sea change.

Yet the cultural implications of child-care choices mean that there’s still surprising reluctance among professional-class workers — both men and women — to acknowledge that their careers and families are supported by the people they employ to help them. “Historically, that has been one of the fundamental contradictions in feminism,” says Andrea Mercado, campaign director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “On one hand, women have been able to access so many different parts of the workforce and the economy, but really it’s made possible because of the primarily low-income women of color who are doing the child care.”

Conservative women have long charged feminists with hypocrisy for employing other women at low wages as they make headway in corporate America. A decade ago, Caitlin Flanagan wrote an Atlantic cover story, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” in which she charged that feminists were hypocrites because they hired nannies — essentially oppressing other women to fuel their own forays into the male-dominated corners of corporate America. I don't think hiring a nanny is hypocritical, but I do think that a failure to acknowledge how another woman's hard work enables your own is a major feminist blind spot.

It’s taboo for professional women to talk about the people who care for their kids. Sheryl Sandberg regularly brushes aside questions about her in-home help with charges of sexism. "Men aren't asked, how do you do that, how do you do this? Do you have nannies? Do you have a cook? My husband has never been asked,” she told The Guardian. “I am asked that all the time.” But just because men don’t get the question doesn’t mean women should be ashamed to answer it. In a refreshing departure from this kind of evasion, Hannah Seligson wrote at the Daily Beast that she and her husband started a nanny fund. “In this country we have all kinds of campaigns that tell us how much we need to save for retirement, but no one is telling my generation, women born in the 1980s, how much it really costs to have the help it takes to launch a high-powered career.”

And simply talking about the value of care work is an important step toward compensating it. In a recent essay, Tamara Straus wrote frankly about how her own career was bolstered by another woman’s economic misfortune: “Through Craigslist, I hired a new mother who traded in her job as a social worker to care for her infant son and my daughter. Jen quit working for one simple reason: Her day care costs were wiping out her income. I found her choice unfair, but the results were clear: My earnings and savings went up, and Jen’s went down. When the time came for preschool, I could afford to send my daughter to a good one.”

This is not an easy thing to acknowledge. But in the foreseeable future, these admissions and conversations are likely to remain focused on women. Obama said that child care wasn’t “a women’s issue”; perhaps, though, a more realistic statement would have been “child care should not be a women’s issue.” Because as long as children are more likely to be raised by single mothers than single fathers, and as long as the persistent wage gap keeps women’s paid work less valuable to the family than men’s, and as long as most child-care workers are women, it’s a de facto women’s issue.

But maybe if we asked prominent men about their child-care arrangements, this would start to change. Maybe if caregiving jobs paid better, they’d appeal to more nonemployed men. Male homemakers are twice as common today as they were in 2000, and while you could try to credit feminism for this fact, it probably owes more to economic concerns than to gender equality. That’s a good thing, though: There are legislative ways to ensure caregivers are better paid — you can’t legislate a belief in equality.

Boushey is optimistic. Obama’s State of the Union, she says, laid out a comprehensive work-family agenda, not a few piecemeal ideas. Modern Republicans don’t tend to be as backward as Nixon was on this issue — just last year they voted to renew child-care subsidies for low-income Americans. And if Hillary Clinton ends up running for president, you can expect her to talk about work-family tension a lot. “This is only the opening bell of how much we’re going to hear about these issues over the next two years,” Boushey says. “There is an opening to really push on this.”