IMAGINE for a moment that you are a 24-year-old single mother with a five-year-old child. Your husband abandoned you, so to support yourself and your daughter you hold two jobs. During the week you work full time as a secretary for a lumber company. On weekends you clerk at a department store in a shopping mall. But you have a problem - no weekend child care. You have been forced to fire three baby sitters who stole your food, left your daughter unattended, and brought their boyfriends to your house. You have no relatives to help you. You love your daughter and don't want to leave her alone, but you also cannot risk losing your job. What do you do?
That question was anything but hypothetical for a young mother in Elizabeth, N.J., last month. Believing she had no other options, the woman locked her daughter in the car while she worked at the mall. One Saturday police found the girl inside the car with a coat, a blanket, a flashlight, a stuffed animal, and a doughnut. They arrested the mother and placed the child in protective custody. Oh yes - the furniture store also fired the woman.
Charges against her were reduced when prosecutors found she was otherwise a responsible, caring parent. ``This was not a venal act but a desperate one,'' observed a spokesman for the department store where the mother worked part time. The store offered her a full-time job and a loan, and a baby-sitting service offered her a reduced rate.
This case may be extreme. But ``desperate'' is the word countless other working parents could use to describe their search for safe, affordable child care. The problem is acute for poor parents, whose incomes offer little margin for baby-sitting costs. Yet even middle-class families can find themselves forced to leave children alone because of squeezed budgets or a lack of programs. Phrases such as ``children in self-care'' - the latest euphemism for latchkey children - help to assuage guilt, as do parental rationalizations that a young child is ``very mature'' for his age.
A few privileged parents enjoy the luxury of other options. Employees at 14 large companies in New York and New Jersey can take advantage of an emergency child-care program. If a child cannot go to school or a regular baby sitter is unable to work, the program sends a child-care worker to the family's home. Employers typically pick up the tab - between $11 and $12.25 an hour - for the first three days, then pay half for the next three.
But perks like these remain only a dream for parents who, like the mother in New Jersey, must rely on a flimsy patchwork of baby-sitting arrangements. And so working mothers remain vulnerable to the kind of charges leveled last week by John Silber, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts. In a TV interview he said that ``child neglect'' sometimes results when a woman tries to combine a career with child rearing.
``There is no question that we have a generation of neglected children, we have a generation of abused children, by women who have thought that a third-rate day-care center was just as good as a first-rate home,'' Dr. Silber said. Later he softened his comments by saying he was referring to mothers in higher-income homes who work simply to support their ``overweening materialism.''
It would likely be hard to find many parents who happily settle for ``third-rate'' day care, or who think that even a high-quality center is a perfect substitute for a parent's loving care. As in the case of the mother from New Jersey, economic necessity propels more mothers into jobs than ``overweening materialism.''
But there is no use continuing the old ideological arguments - Good Moms vs. Bad Moms, homemade cookies and milk vs. the fast track. Let the contradictions be confronted. Children's physical and emotional needs will always remain urgent and constant. So will the compelling reasons that send mothers to work.
This is the new and difficult situation. The best possible compromises must be worked out, combining parental commitment and first-rate day care, and involving all the resources of families, employers, and federal and local governments. The point is not to win a debate about perfect parenting, but to save the next generation - to get the child with the doughnut, the stuffed toy, and the flashlight out of the car.