Recently I was swapping emails with a group of feminist activists I've known for 15 years. We were talking about progressive family policy.
At some point in the dialogue, I realized that we were starting from two very different assumptions. Theirs was that progressives should fight first and foremost for daycare and preschool, so that mothers could go to work and pursue worldly ambitions.
I couldn't help but feel that my friends saw kids as a burden that public policy should strive to alleviate, shades of Linda Hirshman. And until, oh, about 29 months ago, I pretty much shared their assumption and priorities.
Before Liko was born, we figured that after six months my wife would go back to work and we'd engage some form of childcare. Wrong. Liko didn't want his parents to go to work. This might have been a problem, except that we agreed with him. We didn't want strangers to take care of our son. We didn't think it was best for him or for us.
And so we changed our lives, in various ways I have documented here at Daddy Dialectic. Since then I have thought a great deal about our caregiving impulse and its relationship to our values, and what it might mean for the family policies I'd support as a parent.
Just to be clear: Childcare and preschool are good. High-quality childcare should, like health care, be available to anyone who wants and needs it. Moreover, I believe that daycare and preschool should be guaranteed and heavily regulated by government. It's a matter of equity as well as economic development. More women (and men) in the workforce is good for the economy.
Good for the economy, but is it good for children? Is it necessarily a good thing for all mothers and all fathers to march off to work every morning? There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that answer no to these questions; taken together, they suggest that parents working outside the home too much, too early in a child's life is bad for the kid as well as the parents.
Numerous studies, writes Jane Waldfogel in her new book What Children Need, indicate that "Children whose mothers work long hours in the first year of life or children who spend long hours in child care in the first several years of life have more behavioral problems...Children do tend to do worse [in health, cognitive development and emotional well-being] if their mothers work full-time." The effects of paternal employment have hardly been studied; social science firmly places the burdens and joys of caregiving on moms.
Does this mean that conservatives are right? Are working moms guilty of neglect and responsible for America's social ills? Emphatically: no. First of all, we need more men to contribute more to taking care of kids: there's no evidence at all that dad can't do it just as well as mom.
We need to be careful in interpreting these results [writes Waldfogel], given that in nearly all cases studied the fathers were either working full-time themselves or were not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time or a lone mother working full-time. And so their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother.
Second, the studies also show that parental sensitivity and responsiveness "is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development--more important than parental employment."
Third, we need genuinely family-friendly policies that respect parents' choices and will allow parents of any gender to stay at home as much as possible with their kids for at least the first year. To my mind, this needs to be the progressive policy priority. The shape of such policies is well-known and widely implemented outside of the US, consisting of paid parental leave and wage replacement, job and legal protections, guaranteed health care, requiring employers to consider requests for part-time work, etc. As usual, the social democracies of Scandinavia set the standard. As usual, the United States looks like it watches too much Fox News.
It should be acknowledged that support for parents to stay home can help keep parents out of the workforce or inhibit career growth. There are solutions to this problem. Sweden combines support for parents to stay home with comprehensive daycare and preschool programs for when they go back to work, with good results. But I don't want to move to Sweden. It's too damn cold.