Monday, September 18, 2023

The Death of Daycare: Tragedy or Silver Lining?

In 2021, millions of mothers left the workforce as a result of the pandemic. For many of them, it was a golden opportunity to respond to the chaos that had become their lives—and make the decision to change course.

“Sandee Barrick was making a six-figure salary as a salesperson when she quit her job in December 2019 to move to North Carolina…At first, she made plans for when she went back to work, but slowly that shifted to if she would go…Barrick values the extra time at home and the fact that she no longer feels she’s racing through her life on auto-pilot… She and her husband have decided they can make it work on one income.”

Barrick isn’t alone. Article after article shows that those who’ve quit their jobs are happier for having done so. Life threw these folks lemons, and they made lemonade.

During this same time period, daycare centers throughout the U.S. received stimulus checks that have since driven up the cost of child care. That federal aid is set to expire at the end of this month, and America now faces what has been dubbed a child care “cliff”: Nearly 70,000 daycare centers are preparing to close up shop.

Is this a tragedy? Or a wake-up call?

For years I have listened to young mothers talk about daycare as casually as one talks about taking a shower. I play pickleball on weekday mornings, and one thirty-something woman announced she had to drop her newborn off at daycare. (To play pickleball?) It finally occurred to me that today’s mothers, and fathers for that matter, have no concept of the needs of their very young children. They genuinely believe daycare is harmless.

Twenty years ago, when I wrote my first book on this subject, the ‘mommy wars’ were all the rage; and the media repeatedly fed Americans lies and distortions that normalized daycare, going so far as to make it sound good for kids. They were so successful in their messaging that over time, parents have come to believe they’re doing their babies and toddlers a disservice by not sending them to daycare. “How else,” mothers ask, “will they learn to socialize?”

These mothers aren’t to blame. They have zero awareness of the lies they’ve been fed.

In Bernard Goldberg’s 2004 book, Bias, he wrote a chapter entitled “The Most Important Story You Never Saw on TV.” It referred to bias of women in the media, many of whom are mothers who rarely see their own children and thus feel deeply conflicted about reporting on findings that make them feel even more conflicted than they already do.

To wit, the largest study of daycare ever conducted, from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), was released in 2001—and the media largely ignored it. Yet it shows, very clearly, that long hours in daycare are associated with behavior problems. These are the results of a ten-year, ten-city, federally financed study of more than 1,364 children. It is ironclad.

“There is a constant dose-response relationship between time in care and problem behavior, especially those involving aggression and behavior,” noted Jay Belsky, the study’s lead author.

If you were to talk to Jay Belsky today, he could share with you that getting the results of this study to the public was nearly impossible. He warned that the results show children benefit from fewer hours in child care, especially at a very young age, and tried to advise parents to limit the hours their young children spend there.

But Belsky was pressured to keep the findings buried. The field of developmental psychology was, and is, monopolized by women who have a decidedly feminist bias. Simply out, they don’t want this information available to the public.

If we can muster the courage, this could be a seminal moment in America. If daycares are indeed gearing up to close en masse, parents will be forced to consider alternative arrangements for their children. Now is the time to educate them about the needs of their very young children.

Let’s begin with what was once obvious: Babies need their mothers. As a society, we are uncomfortable admitting this fact. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Attachment research has been widely available since the 1960s, and parents need to be aware of it.

“When we institutionalize attachment, it doesn’t work because you can’t institutionalize attachment security,” notes psychoanalyst and parent coach Erica Komisar. “Attachment security is dependent on one go-to person who is the person you go to when you’re in distress. It’s usually your mother. It can also be the father. But it is not a daycare worker who is transient who you see a few hours a day and who may come and may go.”

Facing this fact will be the first step forward. The second is for married couples to figure out how to make it work financially for one of them, preferably Mom, to stay home. Can most married couples do what Sandee Barrick and her husband did? Does the fact that Barrick made six figures make a difference?

Probably not, although it is true that some families will make more sacrifices than others. As a rule, though, living on less has less to do with income and more to do with what people do with the income they do have.

Hannah’s story is a great example.

My husband and I met in college and got married in 2017 when we were 24. We went to a private university so we graduated with tons of student debt. In 2019 we found out I was pregnant with our first baby. I was working long hours as an accountant at a CPA firm, and was making more money than my husband. He knew that I always wanted to have a lot of kids and be a stay-at-home mom, so he started taking online classes to pursue a better degree and hopefully have better career options.

After our son was born, I dropped down to part time work, but shortly after that I quit my accounting job completely. Finances were tight so we had to get creative to make ends meet, without putting our son in daycare. I cleaned houses to earn extra money, and my husband mowed lawns, worked evenings at UPS, and also delivered furniture on the weekends – in addition to his full-time job. After I got pregnant with our second baby, my husband finally got a well-deserved promotion at work.

Fast forward to now, and we are both 30 years old, have 3 kids, and just purchased a modest home in a small town. My husband makes good money but living on one income still isn’t easy. We drive old vehicles, don’t take expensive vacations, eat at home, and stay within a set budget. We have tons of student loans that we can only afford to make the minimum payments on. Our lifestyle is completely different from before we had kids, but we’ve never been happier. Someday, when my kids are older, I’ll be able to go back to work so we can afford nicer things and be more aggressive with paying down debt. But for this short season, my babies need me at home.

America’s response to COVID-19 may have been frustrating and politically charged, but it had a silver lining. Forced to remove their childcare expense, millions of parents put pen to paper and learned that it is possible to live on one income—and to actually like it. At the very least, their newer, slower paced lives had a hugely positive impact on their mental health and overall well-being.

Daycare is not a necessity for most two-parent families. It is a necessity for low-income and single-parent families. The problem emerged when daycare became a way of life for families who’d rather work outside the home than raise babies, a task that’s not only equivalent to a full-time job but that’s completely out of step with the way we now live. Babies require stillness, and toddlers move at a snail’s pace. It is a temporary state; but for modern mothers, it is the equivalent of learning how to live on Mars.

The best response to America’s looming child care “cliff” is to encourage married couples who can afford for one of them to stay home in the early years to do so. That way, daycare can continue to operate in the way it was originally intended: on a much smaller scale, and as a last-ditch option for struggling families.

As Dr. Stanley Greenspan wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish, “The only way to improve daycare is for fewer parents to use it.”


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