Any working parent knows the feeling: While you're on the job, you want to know, with rock-solid certainty, that your child is in a safe and stimulating environment.
But for many Americans, high-quality child care is an unaffordable luxury. Full-time day care for a one-year-old can easily cost $4,000 to $8,000 a year, and in some cities matches the tuition for a top private school.
For some parents, the best they can do is rely on family and friends until a slot opens up in government-subsidized day care. And even then, there's no guarantee of quality. In some states, licensing requirements are minimal, inspections infrequent.
Further down the road, as more mothers who receive welfare get nudged into the work force, the child-care crunch may only get worse.
Washington has taken notice. The dual issues of quantity and quality in day care have roared back onto the agenda. In Congress, legislators from both parties have introduced some two dozen bills this year focusing completely or partially on child care. And at least five states are looking at - or have already approved - funding to subsidize day care for all low-income families that qualify.
In October, the White House will hold a first-time conference on child care, following up on its April session about the development of children in their first three years.
"We've had a double boost - first with welfare reform," then with new research and high-profile publicity on early childhood development, says Gail Richardson, interim executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York.
Still, it is too strong to suggest a broad bipartisan consensus is forming around a need for greater federal support for high-quality child care. Regulation of child care remains a state prerogative, even though some states have minimal standards. In South Dakota, for example, a home provider may care for up to 12 kids without a helper or even a license.
A plan to institute federal standards was shot down in the 1970s, and has been politically infeasible ever since. During recent Senate debate on the federal budget, Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana echoed the long-standing argument: A government policy that pushes people toward using "credentialed care" will put other providers out of business and limit parents' choices.
Senator Coats was speaking against a proposal to give families who use "accredited or credentialed care" a bigger dependent-care tax credit. The measure, designed to encourage families to seek higher-quality care, was defeated by three votes.
These days, the once-common argument that the government should not be encouraging mothers in two-parent families to work outside the home is rarely heard. Many families need two paychecks to make ends meet, or to support a desired standard of living. The result is an explosion in the proportion of children in day care - from 30 percent of kids under age 6 in 1970 to 70 percent in 1993.
"I think there's the understanding that most women are working, and you can't label those women as bad ... without labeling a significant portion of your constituency," says a Democratic Senate aide.
After being on the losing side of a large gender gap in the last election, Republicans are loath to alienate women any further. But Pat Fagan, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, says today's politicians "lack leadership" in standing up for what's best for children - to be with their mothers.
Thus, he says, even a socially conservative senator like Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio was comfortable introducing a bill last week to help people repay student loans if they earn a degree in early-childhood education and work in licensed day care.
Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, a liberal Republican and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, introduced a bill last week with the same provision - and a raft of others aimed at boosting both quality and quantity of child care through the use of incentives to states, not mandates.
A hearing on child care in Senator Jeffords's committee featured heart- rending testimony from a Florida couple whose baby suffocated in his crib on his first day at
day care. The couple claims the provider was negligent. Her license was revoked after it was found she was caring for 13 children under age 3, a fact she hid from regulators and prospective customers.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut, a longtime child-care advocate, supports the Jeffords bill and has introduced his own to provide an additional $1.4 billion over five years in federal subsidies to child-care. He cites a Congressional Budget Office study showing states will need that much money to accommodate the needs of welfare-to-work families and other poor working families.
For child-care advocates, the bottom line is that the economics of child care simply doesn't work without government and private support. Sixty percent of national child-care costs are borne by the families themselves, while 39 percent are funded by government and 1 percent by businesses and foundations.
The additional money needed to improve quality should not come from the families, who are already stretched financially, advocates say. And home day-care providers need as much help as centers.
"It's difficult to earn a living wage by taking kids into your home," says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. "That's why some providers take in more than they can care for adequately."