After a recent Washington Post article on deaths of infants in Virginia’s unregulated child care environments, there’s been a lot of Virginia bashing. Petula Dvorak followed up with a column, suggesting that a recent decision by INOVA Health System to shut down its day care center is symptomatic of a Virginian attitude that makes it possible to characterize child care for employees as a “perk.” She was right to expose some of the far more decadent perks INOVA offers to its executives (“posh” offices, expensive seminars, and high salaries), and I can’t blame her for singling out Virginia’s legislative failures at a time when its governorship is at stake. However, I think this is symptomatic of a widespread tendency in American culture to view having children as a hobby or optional life experience rather than as something essential to society.
Like other readers, I had a judgmental reaction at first to the story of the Shenandoah Valley mother who placed her eight week old infant (who later died at thirteen weeks) in an unregulated in-home day care for $85 a week after dismissing regulated $150 a week options as too far away, too expensive, too restrictive in their schedules, and/or too booked-up. I wondered why she would expect to get decent care at such a low price (she thought initially the caregiver would care for up to four children, but there were six the day her infant died). I wondered if she had started her child care search too late in her pregnancy and whether she had dismissed the more expensive options due to her unwillingness to make some financial sacrifices on behalf of her child—while the photo of her sitting in the fancy nursery of her now-dead child made me question her priorities. Then it occurred to me that I was falling prey to the common notion that people should only have babies if they can afford them. And of course that’s pretty different from saying people should only take up golfing or skiing or violin or wine-tasting if they have enough disposable income to finance these hobbies.
Did anyone ever tell early homo sapiens to check the local food supply before reproducing? Or did they plan in advance to make sure someone could watch the baby while the parents went out hunting and gathering? The urge to reproduce is just one of many evolutionary traits that have contributed to the survival of our species, and things were probably simpler—but not easier—when moms could strap babies onto their backs while foraging for berries. Although we now have many varieties of birth control and our work lives have become largely separate from our family lives, the urge to reproduce has not disappeared.
In some European countries where population growth has stalled or declined, governments have offered incentives for families to have children. When I was an au pair in France years ago, my host family’s costs for employing me were covered by a parental stipend, and there is a well-trod path for working parents to secure care for children from birth until universal preschool kicks in at age three. Such social support networks ensure that younger citizens can support the social security needs of an aging population, but they also make having children far more affordable, so much so that Slate writer Claire Lundberg feels her family can’t afford to return to the U.S. after benefiting from the French system.
In the United States, immigration and the higher birth rate of immigrants have compensated for the increasing tendency of more affluent and educated women to delay childbearing or avoid it altogether. Of course, most of these immigrants are low income, and I do not have a comprehensive understanding of how they meet their child care needs, but there are probably many immigrant parents who can’t afford more than $85 a week either. Whether they are lucky enough to benefit from child care subsidies or rely on relatives or neighbors to care for their children, the children of parents with an illegal immigration status or limited English language skills may be at greater risk even in states that do regulate all registered in-home child care providers.
A second Washington Post article appearing next to the one referenced above addressed the problem of regulatory exceptions for day cares sponsored by churches and other religious organizations. Parents who choose such centers may assume they are subject to regulation because they don’t know that, according to the Secular Coalition for America, fourteen states offer such religious exemptions. Deaths in both religious facilities and unregulated in-home care environments have resulted from infants being put to bed on their stomachs or on beds with excessive fabric, but inappropriate adult to child ratios, neglect, and caregiver ignorance were additional risk factors. It is tempting to blame parents for not recognizing the inferiority of these providers, but when this is all they can afford, we have to look beyond individual responsibility and acknowledge that this is a problem affecting society at large.
Call me a tax and spend liberal, but I think that high quality subsidized child care should be available to all but the most affluent Americans. We need to get creative about how to organize child care and pay for it. Because I believe that exorbitant CEO and executive pay has created the economic conditions that make it “necessary” for service economy workers (including child care providers) and other lower rung employees to earn such inadequate wages, we should view the highest salaries as a direct revenue source for improving child care–with special tax breaks for companies that provide it on-site. After all, businesses need people to keep on having babies and buying stuff for them, and their employees can only keep working if someone is taking care of their children.
Since I have not read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I will refrain from making generalizations about her attempt to urge women not to “give up” on or slack off in their careers even before having children, but I will say that women would be much more confident about managing their life trajectories if they stop getting the message that having children is just an expensive hobby or a career distraction. Yes, Virginia (and Mississippi and California and Indiana), children are a fact of life. Let’s just make life more livable for everyone, including vulnerable infants.