In 'Mirror' of Au Pair Case, Families See Themselves

Judge frees Louise Woodward, but her trial taps deep child-care insecurities of working parents.

The deeper effects of the extraordinary trial of British au pair Louise Woodward may be just beginning.

The reduction of Ms. Woodward's second-degree murder conviction to manslaughter seems unlikely to bottle the national discussion launched by the story of the young English sitter, the shaken baby, and the grieving working parents. It's a truism of cultural history that widespread reaction to an event can have as much meaning as the event itself - and reaction to the au pair trial reveals a nation where many adults are deeply unsatisfied with their child-care choices, riven every day by the compromises they make between parenthood and work, and unsure where to turn for solutions.

In short, the au pair proceedings may have revealed a national issue whose resonance far surpasses that of balanced budgets or campaign-finance reform.

"These cases are mirrors, reflective mirrors, in which we see what the public is thinking about or worried about," says David Nasaw, an American cultural history specialist at the City University of New York (CUNY). "It is clear that this case invokes an anxiety we all have about who's taking care of our kids."

This doesn't mean that the bare plot of the Woodward case is particularly unusual. Violent crimes against children - allegedly carried out by people who were supposed to be caring for them - are an unfortunate staple of the American legal system.

BUT a number of factors combined to make Louise Woodward's story an obsession for many people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Woodward herself is an articulate, middle-class English girl - just the sort of caregiver many American mothers long to obtain. The parents, Deborah and Sunil Eappen, were both doctors and seemed similar to millions of career couples.

Perhaps most of all, there was television. "You have to look at this trial in a larger context. The media fixated on it," says Frankie Bailey, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

The medium in this case was cable television, which carried the trial verbatim on many days. Proceedings against O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers featured similar blanket coverage, but it is not just a modern phenomenon. In the early 20th century, newspapers routinely carried transcripts of high-profile events such as the trial of the Lindbergh baby kidnappers.

At various times in American history, court dramas have thus become a sort of cohesive national conversation. "The analogy I use is with sports," says Mr. Nasaw of CUNY. "Everyone used to be an expert on whether Willie Mays was a better centerfielder than Mickey Mantle. Now everyone can have an opinion as to whether Louise Woodward is guilty."

Eventually, much of this widespread conversation appears to have turned to child rearing itself. While the trend of women entering the work force is longstanding, the extent of the shift - some 60 percent of married women with kids under 6 now work, as opposed to 20 percent three decades ago - has dramatically altered America's social landscape. Yet society's organization for child care often seems stuck in the 1960s.

"The reality of having two workers in a family, especially in the upper middle class, that's new," says Betty Farrell, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. "More and more middle-class families are facing the stresses that working-class counterparts have long had to deal with."

Child-care providers say the Woodward trial may have thus launched a much-needed analysis, in both the United States and England. Fewer than half of US kids whose parents work are in licensed day-care institutions, experts say. And they claim that many of those licensed institutions are subject to fewer rules and regulations than are barbers or kennels for pets.

"I hope this helps parents realize that the time they spend in selecting child care is real important time and effort," says Peggy Pearl, a professor of consumer and family studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.

Woodward may well be innocent of the charges against her, as she claims. But irrespective of that, too often many working couples, even highly educated ones, are caught short on day care and opt for a hurried, ill-thought solution, says Ms. Pearl.+

"Both parents need to see this as an important issue, and so does society," she says.

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