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Moms have the power to transform childcare in America

Moms have the power to transform childcare in America


A new mom never knows when she’ll feel utterly alone and desperate. Maybe it’ll be when she’s laid out her pumping equipment in a closet-sized room at work only to realize she’s forgotten the power cord. Or when her bus stalls on its way home, and she knows her infant son will need to go directly to sleep after she picks him up late from daycare. Or when she’s finally crawled into bed and it’s at that precise moment her baby wakes up screaming.

Sometimes parenthood is downright grueling. But the frustration inherent in moments like these is compounded by the reality that American politics has made a sport of using families, particularly mothers, as heartwarming props but abandons them when it comes to policy. 

New moms look at a system where paid family leave is a fantasy for most and finding affordable, accessible child care is akin to winning the lottery, and ask: Is there really no village to help raise the next generation? 

Is there really no village to help raise the next generation? 

The initial shock of realizing there is no proverbial village to aid families gives way to outrage, then exhaustion, then surrender. Moms decide it’s not worth expending what little energy they have on what feels like a quixotic quest to convince policymakers that families deserve much more. But that long-warranted pessimism is being replaced by fresh confidence that change is within our reach, thanks in part to politicians talking about solutions to this problem. 

After launching her presidential campaign last month, Elizabeth Warren quickly unveiled an ambitious plan to provide high-quality, accessible, and affordable child care to American parents. A week later, Warren’s Democratic colleague in the Senate, Patty Murray, reintroduced her Child Care for Working Families Act. When the Trump administration released its new budget this week, it called for $1 billion in funding for states interested in increasing supply for child care. 

Child care quality, accessibility, and affordability has taken its rightful place as central to our political debate today. And while this is far from just a mom’s issue, women now have a unique opportunity to channel their anger at a broken system into pressuring politicians and presidential hopefuls. They can and should demand that the people elected to run this country fix a crisis that threatens far too many families.  

That may feel like too lofty a goal for moms who, despite this progress, are still as tired — and financially tapped out — as they were before child care started making headlines. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO and executive director of MomsRising, a grassroots advocacy group, can relate. Even though she sees powerful momentum toward meaningful policy changes, she knows that a lot of parents are consumed by the day-to-day reality and expense of raising small children. 

In 2017, the latest year for which data is available, 4.9 million households spent almost $36 billion on early child care, which includes nurseries, day care, and preschools, according to a recent Moody’s Analytics . Nationwide, sending a kid younger than five to full-time care cost nearly $10,000 per year on average, but it can exceed more than $20,000 in more expensive cities. Regardless, the typical family spends 10 percent of their annual income on child care. (Warren’s plan, which includes access to free care, would cap that figure at 7 percent.) 

Even as parents spend bank-breaking amounts on ensuring their child has a safe, enriching place to spend the day, they’re still juggling how to cover gaps in care when their provider is sick, closes for vacation, or doesn’t offer extended hours. 

“It’s exactly the moment when you need the help the most, you hit the wall the hardest.”

“It’s exactly the moment when you need help the most, you hit the wall the hardest,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner. 

That’s why she recommends breaking up your advocacy into bite-size pieces, like signing a petition to , sending a to your member of Congress, or sharing your child care story on social media to create awareness of the problem amongst your network of friends and family. More time-consuming tactics include writing a letter to the editor on the subject of child care, attending a town hall meeting and asking a candidate or representative to explain their position on the issue, and volunteering with MomsRising (or another advocacy group) to receive training to share your experience with lawmakers. 

To put it simply, Rowe-Finkbeiner says, you can “look for moments when your voice can make a difference.” 

If you find the various policies confusing and aren’t sure what to support, you can start with the premise of making high-quality care affordable, accessible, and a well-paying career for providers, who now a mean annual income of $23,760. Increasing wages, quality, and supply will take a massive amount of money that can’t come out of the average parents’ pockets. That’s why Warren proposed an “ultra-millionaire tax” to fund a government investment large enough to match the scale of the crisis. Whether you agree with that approach or not, try to get familiar with why it’s impossible to move forward without some form of government intervention. 

Though MomsRising tends to support progressive policies, and criticized the White House’s new proposal as “wholly unacceptable,” Rowe-Finkbeiner says she’s glad Republican leaders are talking about child care. 

“It’s absolutely essential that people of all political parties step forward to solve this crisis,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner. “We just need to make sure solutions aren’t false solutions or wolves in sheep’s clothing.” 

One way to make a such a distinction is considering whether a child care proposal helps to create that village of support so many mothers need. Importantly, the solutions shouldn’t play into the idea that the dearth of high-quality, affordable child care is somehow parents’ fault because they didn’t plan in advance, save enough money, or get a promotion. 

“We don’t have an epidemic of personal failings,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner. “We have a structural issue which clearly we must address together.” 

“We don’t have an epidemic of personal failings.” 

That means a lot of middle- and upper-class moms will need to think beyond the language of luck, which sounds a lot like this: “We’re so lucky to be able to afford this daycare. We’re so lucky that our parents can babysit during the week. We’re so lucky that we got the last spot available.” When women frame their child care fate around luck, it becomes so personal that you may not even think about it as a systemic problem that needs to be challenged.

Not every mother will want to fight for better child care policies, either. 

Marissa Martino Golden, an associate professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, believes there’s still widespread cultural ambivalence about the fact that many moms work full-time while children are young. The powerful conservative Christian lobby, which includes plenty of moms, may reject the importance of supporting more affordable, accessible child care because its focus is on promoting stay-at-home mothers. Middle-class moms may feel there’s stigma associated with sending a child to daycare or think child care cost and access is their personal problem to solve, so they aren’t eager to demand help from the government. Meanwhile, moms who live paycheck to paycheck might urgently want access to high-quality care but possess few resources to make that clear to their elected officials. 

These are real social and cultural barriers, and they stand in the way of shifting public opinion toward comprehensive legislation that transforms child care in America. But Golden thinks it can be done with the right framework, particularly if advocates can make the case that businesses would benefit under better child care policies while also persuading the public that child care isn’t a private matter to be handled by families but a question of national importance. 

So, with that in mind, mothers should talk about what their families need, without embarrassment or apology, no matter how often their ideological opponents cast them as freeloaders or socialists or undeserving. The louder their voices get, the harder it will be for the public and politicians to ignore, slander, or silence them. 

The truth is that moms have the power to help bring the village they’d envisioned to life.  

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