Child Care on Trial

Before the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward fades too far from the headlines, we'd like to zero in on one of its most poignant subplots.

In the course of the legal drama, spectator judgment was directed not just on the accused, but on the woman she worked for, Deborah Eappen. Mrs. Eappen, a doctor who works part-time, reported receiving hate mail from people blaming her for not staying home with her two children. Some callers to local talk radio shows asked why she had children in the first place if she was going to entrust them to someone else's care. Women who work - women who choose to work, that is - are still too often thought of as neglectful and selfish.

Few of Deborah Eappen's critics ever mentioned the boy's father, also a doctor. Nor did they know the couple personally - or how they reached their work and child-care decisions. The critics knew nothing about how much time each parent spent with their children or the value of that time.

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Just as members of Louise Woodward's defense team accused the prosecution of rushing to judgment, some people have unfairly judged one family in particular and working mothers in general.

Around the world, more and more mothers are working outside the home. In the United States last year, 10 million American mothers with children under 6 were in the workplace, up from 8.5 million 10 years earlier. A great many of these women have to work for financial reasons - to pay the bills or to save for their children's college educations. Other women choose to work for a variety of reasons, including professional satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, and to maintain a standard of living for their families.

What the vast majority of these women have in common is a strong desire to find the best care for their children. Usually, that's not easy. The Woodward trial put the spotlight on the au pair industry, raising important questions about the program's status (a cultural exchange or work program?) and oversight. The industry needs to address the issue of training for these teenage nannies. And parents should have realistic expectations and demands, thinking carefully about the care they're choosing. We should remember, too, that what happened to the Eappen baby is rare; many families have had positive experiences with au pairs.

The attention focused on child-care issues by the Woodward trial can be positive. Deborah Eappen said she felt "bruised" by all the criticism she received, yet it was important for those following the trial to hear her talk of how she juggled the various demands on her time, and how her life was full, "but in a good way." It was important because she is just like so many women in the world today, who both work and care for their children.

Ten million US mothers with children under 6 are in the workplace - many because of need.

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