Sharing Child Care: Can the Job Ever Be Gender-Equal?

Like millions of working women, Deborah Eappen of Newton, Mass., leads a busy life. She works three days a week as an opthalmologist. She is studying for her board-certification exams. And she is a wife and mother.

But last February, that combination went tragically wrong. While Mrs. Eappen and her husband were at work, the couple's eight-month-old son, Matthew, suffered a massive head injury while in the care of an 18-year-old British au pair, Louise Woodward. He died five days later.

By all public accounts, Eappen is a conscientious mother. Yet in the months since Matthew's death she has come under attack, in letters sent to her and in comments published in newspapers, for "neglecting" her children. Her husband, Sunil, also a physician, has been spared such criticism.

Last week, testifying at the trial of Ms. Woodward, who is charged with murder, Eappen admitted that her life is "a balancing act." No similar admission has been required from her husband.

Fathers perform impressive balancing acts too, of course. But it is still mothers who bear the most responsibility, endure the sharpest criticism, and feel the heaviest guilt for their children's well-being, whatever career choices they make. For the most part it is still women who wake up at 3 a.m. wondering about child-care arrangements, and who wonder again at 3 p.m. when school lets out.

Perceptions of family roles still vary as well. In an NBC News poll this week, 78 percent of men, but only 61 percent of women, said sex roles in marriages are more equal than in the past. More equal, yes, but still not fully balanced.

As further evidence that child care remains largely a women's issue, it has been Hillary Rodham Clinton, rather than her husband, who has been quietly championing improved child care in speeches this month. How much more powerful and urgent might that message be if the president himself were leading the charge?

President Clinton will have a chance to do just that today when 135 child-care experts, business leaders, and parents gather in Washington for a White House Conference on Child Care. Organizers see this as a "launching pad" for a national discussion on ways to improve child care.

Conference leaders acknowledge that Americans have come late to the issue of child care, in part because people remain highly ambivalent about whether mothers should work. "We're also late on how we can help mothers stay home in those early months," says Helen Blank of the Children's Defense Fund.

As welfare reform pushes millions of low-income mothers into the labor force, it sends the message that it's fine for poor women to work and leave their children with caregivers. But when middle-class mothers like Eappen do the same, they are often held to a different standard. Accusing fingers point at them with the message, "Go home to your children."

Another irony exists as well. So devalued has the role of at-home mothers become that many full-time mothers must constantly justify their role to themselves and others, especially in the face of that dinner-party question, "What do you do?"

Now that two-thirds of American children regularly attend some form of child care, no one - not businesses, not the government, not families - can ignore the issue. Child care is the elephant under the living-room rug.

With or without White House support, Americans must find ways to make it more possible for parents to stay home with babies. For parents who want or need to work during a child's first year, there must also be better infant care - a category that child-care leaders call "shockingly low" in quality and quantity.

Finally, as the recognition grows that child care is a joint responsibility within families, perhaps the blame game will end, and mothers will no longer be held solely responsible.

Deborah Eappen would surely approve.

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