Tied to a board and put on a human back, laid in a box, locked in a parked car, left to run the docks with a warning “to stay away from the water!” - these were just a few childcare solutions of the past. Long a need for the working class, most actual care of children was a luxury for the well-off. Nannies, au pairs, Black women coming into other people’s homes to keep house and care for children, all of these options were out of reach for low-income parents with no option to stay at home and nurture their children.
In spite of gender conservatism, when the social order dictated that women - at least white women - should stay home to nurture their offspring, the need for quality childcare has always been around. The need was so pronounced in the Industrial Revolution, as the American economy moved away from agrarianism, that children were at risk. Parents had no option other than to take their children to work every day. The dangerous working conditions resulted in so many children’s injuries and deaths that they sparked social reform movements.
The Industrial Revolution reform societies established “infant” or “day” nurseries in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. Often these philanthropic programs focused on the health and safety of children rather than their developmental needs. Though the reformers opened up these programs to serve low-income and immigrant families, they blatantly barred children of color from participating. Too often those mothers cared for White children while their own children were left at home, their care delegated to older siblings, relatives, or neighbors. Remember To Kill A Mockingbird’s Calpurnia? She had children at home but many readers might never wonder, who kept her house and cared for her children?
Much of the problem of childcare has resulted from social mores that prescribed women stay home, regardless of intelligence, skill, or drive.
From the 1850s through the 20th Century, all manner of doctors, reformers, and others telegraphed that children would be stifled if their mothers worked. At the turn of the 20th Century, Jane Addams and Julia Lanthrop of the US Children’s Bureau promoted “mothers’ and widows’ pensions” to pay women to stay with their children, arguing their nurture was an act of national service. After World War II through the 1970s, politicians opposed government-supported childcare because it would, in the words of Richard Nixon, “sovietize” American families. It seems that few have held the both/and notion that children might experience both familial bonding, even with working parents, and reap benefits from high-quality childcare.
The binary has been the argument - either appropriate emotional bonding, which is supposedly exclusive to family relationships, or a narrative that parents have ceded their responsibilities to ‘the state.” Binaries tend to offer false and limited options that squelch needful policies for those working so hard they cannot take the time to become a noisy gong or squeaky wheel for their cause. Instead of a genuine assessment of what is both needful and beneficial, reforms reflect philanthropic or aspirational intentions. To salt the wound, childcare is denigrated as a second-class option.
This history of limited or unavailable childcare options always affects rural communities because the need is cloaked behind more dispersed populations. We end up with “daycare deserts” that beg for systemic, holistic community solutions. Here in Montgomery County, childcare is one of three top concerns of both corporations and citizens. For corporations who need reliable employees, they need parents who are socially healthy and unencumbered with worry and stress about their kids’ safety and health. They and the whole community also need childcare that serves the intellectual, emotional-social wellbeing of little humans because this will reduce mental health stressors and the likelihood of addiction-the two other top concerns- in the next generation.
In 2019, Crawfordsville received a childcare development grant because it has been one of those deserts. Over 1800 children under the age of six need spots in high-quality childcare programs. Presently, about half of parents are not fully satisfied with their options for caregiving, and as a number of parents surveyed by MCCF noted, quality doesn’t matter if there aren’t seats or if those seats don’t accommodate the hours and days parents need to place their child under care.
When four of five employers know that their employees come to work with divided attention and stress over childcare, when those employers factor the availability of quality childcare into their presence- now and in the future- as critical, it’s become a systemic concern worth the attention of our local government.
MCCF’s Lisa Walter noted that staffing is the most significant issue. Providers often make less than a fast-food employee but need more training and soft skills. The tension between what families can afford, what can be subsidized, and how to pay caregivers makes turnover and availability a problem. When wages are low in comparison to the cost of living, families just can’t afford quality childcare. Like their predecessors, they resort to any livable option to the detriment of their kids.
As yet, no philanthropic, nor private system can fund and improve a quality system. In a nation as developed as ours, we should be able to ask for government assistance to implement programs that meet real demand. MCCF is trying. As Walter noted, “Our coalition can help support employers in creating family-friendly policies, setting up agreements to reserve high-quality child care seats for their employees, and creating dependent care accounts to help families find the right balance of support.”
For Mother’s Day - and Father’s Day in June - parents could use the gift of system-wide support to increase places for their children in quality programs that focus on the developmental growth of their children.
Boogey man in the argument:
In his veto, Nixon played on Cold War fears that public child care would “Sovietize” American families. He said it would, “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”