Elise Hilton over at the Acton Institute picked up my “Razing the Village” piece and wrote about one of my unstated premises of childcare, that government isn’t the solution. She reminded me of a daycare piece I’ve had sitting in my drafts from when Cameron and the Tories called for more women in government last year. And timely, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz sounded the same call a few days ago. And so to the daycare debate.
Any time the topic of the number of women in the workforce comes up, someone, or many someones, will claim the simple fix of more and better child care. Keeping up the trend, UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated that UK conservatives needed to have more women in office. Enter the obligatory column about nurseries, this one about the House of Commons nursery.
The expensive nursery operates below capacity. The article cites the nursery opening hours as one of the reasons it is not effective in getting more women into government. Government works late, but the nursery is only open from 8am to 6pm. If the nursery had longer hours consistent with government work, more women might be able to work in government, right? But as any parent can tell you, the nursery closes at that hour because children need to be home for bed. That is, the limiting factor isn’t the nursery schedule but the child’s schedule. Or put another way, unless women have the availability or income for at home care, they aren’t likely to stick with a job inconsistent with children’s schedules. Convenient child care discussions routinely ignore this truth.
Moms of means—and this example of women who might run for political office is typical—don’t make work decisions on the availability of institutional day care. If we are willing to leave our children with anyone, we typically prefer the father, our family, a friend, a nanny, or the cute little nursery school down the street.
Onsite nurseries sound great in theory. We can pop in and see our child during the day, which works pretty well while our child is a nursing infant. Soon, however, the goodbye clinging and crying starts whenever mom pops in. So moms avoid visiting as it is too disruptive for everyone. Onsite care also sounds convenient when the child gets sick, but moms really hate using it then. Even imagining that the daycare does not have rules against sick children attending, few things make a mom feel worse than handing over her fever-flushed, limp-noodle child for someone else to play nursemaid. Throw in the germ vector problem of any nursery with a sick room, and mothers will only use the nursery in desperation of the kind that often prompts a crisis and career change.
If we must use it, we move our kids out to a nursery school as soon as we can where the focus on early education programs soothes any lingering guilt about institutional care. Partially, we intuitively get that parent care at home serves children and families best. But we are also a generation of professional moms. We manage parenthood. Call us Helicopter or Tiger moms, but the root impulse is the same: we want control. We hardly let our husbands have a say in how to deal with the day to day of children. We’d rather divorce them than compromise with them. If we want to work, we usually hire a nanny that we can micromanage, who in turn will micromanage the children. Throw all the money available at institutional daycare, and it won’t make a dent in women’s employment rates.
So what will bring more women into the workforce? There are two major options, one for businesses and one for individual women. Businesses who want to keep women need to offer flexibility, both in career timeline and in working hours. Offer remote, part time, or freelance work, continuing education classes, and professional socializing for women with young children, and those women will be more likely to return to the profession, and company, sooner and better informed. That one should be easy but feminists fight it as unequal Mommy Track treatment of women. It’s a dirty little secret of corporate life. It is often the power women who rail against such policies in the board rooms and encourage women to lean into the traditional male centered work schedule as a duty to their sisters to show that anything men can do, women can do better. That the author of the get-to-work self help book Lean In thinks it is a big deal that she demanded better parking for pregnant women should be telling. (Then there is the “Are You My Mentor?” chapter.)
Women who want to combine profession and family, they should flip their career timeline to have children first while they complete their education. Truly ambitious women don’t have time for the wasted hookup sex years and delayed childbearing and/or fertility treatments that derails their career just as they gain momentum. The class schedules and study time needed for post graduate work, save perhaps med school and residency, mimic the part time and freelance schedule compatible with mothering young children. Would Margaret Thatcher have been as successful if she had children later? Would her life have been as full if she hadn’t had them at all?
Obviously the business option is easier and less politically volatile even with old-line feminist resistance. Front loading family is the solution that must not be named. Universal daycare sounds better, which seems to be more important that whether it actually works.