High quality, affordable, readily available day care? Forget it. It can't happen. While offering all working parents first-rate child-care services at moderate fees appears to be an enlightened response to inescapable modern realities, it actually is an impractical solution based on a dismal sense of defeatism.
Let's look at the real "realities." By nature, high quality day care must be enormously expensive and somewhat restricted. Regulations in model states stipulate a maximum of three infants or four toddlers to one caregiver (most child development specialists contend that 2-to-1 and 3-to-1 ratios are preferable). Moreover, caregivers should possess outstanding personal qualities, have substantial training and experience, and be willing to stay tenured so as to ensure consistency for children.
Given the required ratios, and given that competent caregivers deserve commensurate salaries, the cost of high quality day care gets out of hand in a hurry. Add other financial factors from facilities and equipment to juice and cookies, and you're talking about amounts of money well beyond the means of most families, that businesses and industries can't contribute and remain competitive, and that government can't subsidize as its strives toward tax relief and deficit reduction.
Even if funds were miraculously found, where would a vast supply of day-care personnel come from? A large percentage of working parents would have to work as caregivers for the children of other working parents. Yet, it would be more cost effective, and make more sense, if most parents simply opted to take care of their own infants and toddlers.
Which brings us to the subject of choice. The notion that two paychecks is now a "necessity" is nonsense. Sure, a lot of poverty-stricken and single parents need day care to survive; but too many parents clamoring for such services merely seek to sustain a lifestyle their own parents only dreamed of.
Child care and the national agenda
Though every family has the right to set its own priorities, placing child care comparatively low on one's own agenda doesn't bestow the right to insist it be granted a top spot on the nation's agenda.
It would be grossly unfair to classify the majority of middle-class parents pleading for day care as selfish, child-neglecting Sybarites. But let's be honest. If earning extra bucks to make ends meet were the primary motivation, we'd be hearing much more about measures such as part-time jobs, flex-time, job sharing, etc. The real issue underlying the increasing demand for day care is equal opportunity in the workplace. Out-of-home work brings more than food, clothing, and shelter; there is nothing wrong with someone feeling that the rewards of child-rearing can't completely compensate for major sacrifices in career advancement.
But more day care is a bad answer. The better solution is twofold. First, society must recognize the value of parenting, both for the nation and for individual development. We already have a long and strong tradition of respecting and rewarding military service. Those who spend time in the armed forces, as well as those who take time to meet reserve and National Guard obligations, are given our gratitude. In employment and promotion policies, they are given credit for skills, abilities, and attributes gleaned from the experience.
Just as important as soldiering
Nurturing our future citizens is no less critical than protecting our borders, and the lessons learned are no less relevant to the workplace. There is no reason why people who devote a portion of their lives to this essential task should not be held in at least as much esteem as soldiers and sailors.
Second, all questions regarding child-care roles and responsibilities must be moved from the exclusive realm of motherhood. Women will never achieve equality and peace of mind in the workplace, and the void left in the home will never be adequately filled, until fathers have to bear their fair share of the decisionmaking burden. As long as this remains strictly a "women's issue," and men are tacitly absolved of their duty to provide at least half of the time and energy required to resolve it, we will always be dealing with imperfect alternatives.
Those calling for the expansion and improvement of day-care services say society in general and men in particular will never accept these attitude adjustments. Perhaps they are the same people who, 20 or 30 years ago, laughed defiantly when told the South would never be desegregated, student protests would never stop a war, and little girls would never grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
We have come a long way in the last two or three decades, but we've only made a half-turn toward a full revolution. We need to get back on the barricades and again start altering mindsets and power structures. This may not sound plausible, and it definitely won't be easy. But, in reality, it's our only genuine chance, and it's the right thing to do.
* Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Ill.