‘It’s a constant hustle.’ 2020 brings renewed attention to US child care woes.

Why We Wrote This

It’s a struggle working moms know well: finding affordable, quality child care, and with it, work-life balance. Now a shift in leadership and thought may offer fresh thinking on America’s child care woes. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Dana Hunter takes her 3-year-old son to a coffee shop in Pittsburgh on a recent workday. Three days a week she juggles primary childrearing and a full-time job, squeezing in work hours wherever she can.

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The difficulty of arranging quality child care is one reason that female participation in the U.S. workforce has stalled at around 57%. That puts the US slightly below the average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

Now relief may be on its way, as what has been called America’s child care crisis is getting the most attention it has gotten in decades. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made a federally funded network of affordable child care and early education for all a major policy plank. And some American cities, including Pittsburgh, are making a push for universal pre-K.

It’s an opportune moment for a great rebalancing of American families: The push for more equitable child care is being led by women in leadership who know the challenge personally. “I saw firsthand how important an early childhood education was,” says Leanne Krueger, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who was elected to office when her son was 3 and in pre-K. “Fundamentally we just haven’t had moms at the table in Pennsylvania fighting for these issues.” 

Dana Hunter helps her 3-year-old out of his car seat. It’s midmorning, but the working mother knows he needs to get out of the house at least once a day. So she “clocks out” from her job in social media and missions for an evangelical church in Pittsburgh, and heads to a coffee shop that she loves.

She’s thankful for the flexibility. Her husband, who works for a packaging company, doesn’t enjoy such leeway. Ms. Hunter works in her office two days per week, utilizing child care services that are offered onsite one day a week and her mother the other. The remaining three, she makes it work by herself – keeping track of when she’s on and off as she manages a full-time job and primary childrearing.

Recently she found a new time slot to get some work done: on her phone while she is lying down with her 6-year-old daughter at bedtime. 

“Margin,” Ms. Hunter answers, when asked what she most wants to improve her life. “Just, like, margin in my life.” 

Now relief may be on its way, as what has been called America’s child care crisis is getting the most attention it has gotten in decades. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made a federally-funded network of affordable child care and early education for all a major policy plank, while others, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, are co-sponsors of the Child Care for Working Families Act. And it’s a discussion well underway in many American cities, including Ms. Hunter’s. The city of Pittsburgh is making a push for universal pre-K, joining others in the state and across the country, including in Washington, D.C.; New York City, and the state of Oklahoma.

Much of the growing support for pre-K owes to research showing the benefits of early education, while the focus on child care often centers around the economic boon of getting mothers back into the labor market. But it’s an opportune moment for a great rebalancing of American families: the push for more equitable child care is being led by women in leadership, who know how off-kilter the work-life balance is for most mothers.

“It’s a constant hustle,” says Cara Ciminillo, the executive director of Trying Together, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that advocates for early childhood care and education. “It’s a constant piecing together and juggling of demands and priorities.”

‘I have to do everything’ 

With affordable, quality child care out of reach for many families, women often shoulder the bulk of domestic management – coordinating child care; packing meals; tracking dietary restrictions, field trips, and parent meetings – even as men’s participation in family life has increased. According to Pew Research Center figures, fathers in 2016 spent an average of about eight hours a week on child care, triple the numbers they reported in 1965; that compares to 14 hours a week for mothers. 

And the hustle that implies is one of the reasons that female participation in the U.S. workforce has stalled – and is now slightly below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average, according to their figures. In 1990, among women 57.5% were participating in the workforce; nearly 30 years later, in 2017, it was 57%. 

The American child care landscape, so individualistic and inaccessible compared to the government-subsidized programs in much of Europe, traces back to the founding of the United States, says Amy Westervelt, who wrote “Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood – and How to Fix It.” 

The Puritans brought their religious and cultural ideas around families being responsible for themselves. In many ways, she says, that sense of “going it alone” remains the ethos.

Child care options have morphed as society has needed or wanted women’s labor, whether during the Industrial Revolution or during World War II, when the country needed women in factories while men fought overseas. The government created a federally subsidized child care system for working mothers in 1941. As soon as victory was declared, the funding was withdrawn and women were encouraged to serve the nation by staying home to rear their children.

Each time women’s rights have been won, says Ms. Westervelt, notions of the responsibilities of motherhood have intensified. America’s first foray into a child care system, for example, gave way to the ideals of the 1950s housewife and mother.  

“Right now I think a lot of the reason that we’re seeing this sort of intense pressure (on mothers) is that the economy wants both things from women,” says Ms. Westervelt. “Late-stage capitalism wants the most labor out of everyone all the time. And then we’re hearing constantly about the declining birth rate. There’s this real push on both those roles at the same time, which I think is really playing into women feeling like, ‘I have to do everything.’ ” 

Push for pre-K

Now Pittsburgh might ease the pressure on mothers like Ms. Hunter. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has pushed for universal pre-K since his election in 2014, says Tiffini Simoneaux, the early childhood manager with the city.

She says pre-K has increasingly gained bipartisan support in Pennsylvania. A poll commissioned by the statewide group Pre-K for PA backs that up. In 2013, 63% of likely voters said they favored increased funding to ensure access to pre-K for all in 2013; in 2018, 75% did. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Lauren Bethea once enrolled her daughter in a pre-school that she could afford but where she never felt comfortable. She’s advocating for Pennsylvania to improve the quality of its childcare facilities statewide.

Support for such policy has grown as a historic number of women have recently been elected into office, many working mothers themselves, intimately familiar with the gaps in the current system. In Senator Warren’s pitch for universal child care and early education, she tells the story of her own struggle juggling a job and raising kids – eventually relying on her 78-year-old Aunt Bee in Oklahoma.

Leanne Krueger, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, says she was elected into office when her son was 3, and in pre-K. “I saw firsthand how important an early childhood education was,” says Representative Krueger, an advocate of the Pre-K for PA initiative. “Fundamentally we just haven’t had moms at the table in Pennsylvania fighting for these issues.” 

Support for pre-K in Pennsylvania is more about education for kids than women’s rights, says Ms. Simoneaux. “There’s some buy-in about pre-K being important and people realize that this is getting kids ready for kindergarten,” Ms. Simoneaux says.

Earlier care is a harder sell. Pennsylvania launched the “Start Strong PA” initiative this winter, advocating for improving quality in daycare facilities. Pittsburgh also just unveiled a $2 million fund to improve quality across its child care centers. Still, Ms. Simoneaux says, attitudes about childrearing persist.

“Specifically with infant and toddler care, people think they’re better off at home,” she says. 

Yet the reality today is that many women have to leave the house to work – and child care amounts to one of their biggest expenses and stressors. Married couples pay 11 percent of their income toward child care, according to a 2018 report. Single parents pay 37 percent of their income.

Lauren Bethea, a single mother in Pittsburgh who is part of the “Start Strong PA” initiative, chose her daughter’s first daycare because it was the one she could afford. But it never felt right. “Every day I was stressed out. I’d think, ‘What am I going to hear, what am I going to see?’ ” says Ms. Bethea, who has since secured a spot in a top daycare center where she works, and tears up in relief.

No mother should have to make such tough choices, says Ms. Ciminillo. “We’ve got to reshape the way in which we pay our workers across the board and in every sector so that families have the choice as to whether they want to use child care or want one of the parents to stay home,” she says, “or we’ve got to invest in our care infrastructure.”

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