Day Care - As Indispensable As It Is Imperfect

Pity the working parents in Berryville, Ark., who thought they could count on long-term stability at the First Baptist Church's day-care center. With little notice, the church shut down its center last month, sending parents scrambling to find other arrangements.

But the closing represented more than an inconvenience. The explanation for it came packaged with an insult. In a letter, the church criticized working mothers for neglecting their children and hurting their marriages. By forgoing such luxuries as "big TV's, a microwave, new clothes, eating out, and nice vacations," the parents were told, they could surely live on one salary.

If only family budgets were that simple. It's a naive view of the world that harks back to the pre-divorce, pre-downsizing 1950s, when most families included two parents, and when most fathers' jobs were secure and paid all the bills - including those for vacations.

Mothers - employed or not - remain a tempting target for finger-pointers seeking to blame someone for the ills of the American family. Yet criticism is shrouded in inconsistencies. For middle-class mothers, the message is: Stay home with your children. For welfare mothers, it's the opposite: Go to work, even though child care in poor neighborhoods remains in short supply.

To talk to middle-class mothers is to hear a chorus of ambivalent voices. Child care is not a decision most families make lightly. Who can blame them for clinging desperately to the good news in every report about child care?

The latest national study, released last Friday by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, shows that high-quality day care can enhance children's cognitive and language skills. But it also includes two other important findings: First, the more hours infants spend in day care, the less sensitive and engaged their mothers tend to be. Second, the quality of care matters greatly - children need a rich, stimulating environment.

Yet finding high quality remains a challenge in a profession where child-care teachers average only $6.70 an hour - $11,725 a year. A study in Wisconsin finds that licensed family day-care providers earn just $8,627 a year after expenses. Non-regulated providers clear only $4,114 annually. No wonder turnover stands at 38 percent nationwide.

On May 1, child-care workers around the country will observe Worthy Wage Day, an annual event to raise awareness of the need for better salaries. This year's theme takes the form of a hopeful equation: "Quality child-care jobs equal quality child care."

Claudia Wayne, executive director of the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force in Washington, which sponsors the event, explains that parents' fees can't meet the true cost of care. Without significant government and private-sector support, she says, "we're not going to see significant improvement in the quality of care."

The First Baptist Church in Berryville isn't wrong to encourage parents to examine their motives in wanting two incomes. In an ideal world, one parent - mother or father - would stay home with very young children. But simply locking the doors of child-care centers won't make the need for child care go away or improve its quality. Nor will turning mothers into villains encourage companies to create solutions that can help families, such as longer parental leaves and more flexible work schedules.

Women work for many reasons: to pursue a satisfying career, pay the mortgage, save for children's educations, provide health insurance, build a pension. As Ms. Wayne says, "The truth is, women just as much as men need to work out of economic necessity. As a society, we need to create good-quality child care for all children."

For some families, two careers are an option, subject to debate. But for many more, day care is the essential that makes a working household possible, and the only question remaining is: How to make it better?

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