A piece I wrote 14 years ago this month, published in the Montreal Gazette. Time has flown, but the cultural issues are much the same.
A child’s first birthday is a wonderful event in the life of a family – filled with balloons, cake and party hats. For many parents, however, the joy of first-birthday celebrations is tempered by the realization that mom’s year of federally-subsidized maternity leave is coming to an end. Going back to work means finding someone else to take care of a child. And as my wife and I recently discovered, a year of advanced notice doesn’t make it any easier to work through this time of transition.
As a part-time pastor and full-time graduate student, caring for our little one didn’t seem to be in the cards for me – time was in short supply. And my wife was returning to full-time work as a nurse. Her twelve-hour shifts, seven days out of fourteen, meant that we needed someone to care for our daughter two or three days a week.
Thus it was that we turned to daycare, that near-universal institution, to solve our dilemma. It wasn’t easy to find a daycare that would accept a child for only two or three days each week (five-dollar-a-day daycare seems only to be available to those who part with their children five days a week), but we eventually found a non-subsidized daycare space we thought would be good for our daughter.
The first week of September our daycare ordeal began – and it was an ordeal. Day one was no problem – our daughter found everything new and interesting at the daycare. Day two wasn’t so pleasant – this time she knew that mom and dad were leaving her behind and she clearly expressed her displeasure. Days three through four left us guilt-ridden and in tears – our little one was equally teary-eyed on each morning’s hand-off, and again at pick-up.
As we worked through this process, family and friends offered encouragement on all sides: “She’ll get used to it – it’s only a matter of time.” Or, “Don’t worry, there’s research that says daycare can be good for children – even one year olds.” There is, we discovered, no dearth of lines available to sooth parents who are wracked by guilt and fear in sending their child off to be cared for by near-strangers.
As we moved through this parental right of passage, however, the conventional wisdom about daycare suddenly wasn’t enough. We found ourselves asking: Is it true that our one-year-old is better-off (or as well-off) being cared for by someone other than her parents? Should our guilt be so easily assuaged? Do we have no choice in this? Daycare has become, undeniably, a pillar in Canada’s social structure. So much so we have stopped questioning whether or not day care is, in fact, a social good.
Of course, there are studies which claim to demonstrate the advantages of daycare, even for one year olds – it improves social skills as well as short-term memory. But then again, there are also studies which paint a darker picture – the longer a child is in daycare the more likely that she will exhibit aggressive or fearful behaviour. Who to believe? Looking at the findings of most studies leaves one with the distinct impression that the conclusions reflect more of the authors’ assumptions than anything else.
In working through this daycare dilemma, however, I have begun to wonder whether our children aren’t test mice in a grand social experiment. For centuries and millennia the primary care of our children was undertaken by immediate family – mostly, of course, by mothers. And it is only in the past fifty years that the state, and so-called ‘child-care professionals’, have come to such prominence in the lives of our pre-schoolers. At a minimum we must admit that this is an unprecedented situation. But even more, we ought to acknowledge that we simply don’t know what the long-term impact of this experiment will be. We don’t know what we are doing to our children.
The origins of this great social experiment lie, in part, in the worst of feminist tradition, which exchanges one form of subservience for another. It is no longer men who are telling women they must stay at home – rather, the feminist establishment now tells women they must NOT stay at home, for that would be an impediment to success. This principle has become firmly entrenched in social policy across the country, but nowhere as firmly as in Quebec. Thus the recent hew and cry by the usual cadre of left-leaning politicians and ‘child-studies experts’ when the Charest government announced it planned to reevaluate five-dollar-a-day daycare.
However, the origins of this social experiment lie not only in feminism gone awry but also in two age-old vices – greed and pride. Today we gauge personal success in terms of the acquisition of wealth (greed) and in terms of our own sense of self-worth (pride). Correspondingly, then, we live with the assumption that success, for both women and men, is best gauged by our net income and by advances made in our chosen profession.
Children, it seems, are an impediment to success so-defined, an encumbrance which must be relegated to the sideline of our lives. Too infrequently do we stop and consider the perversity of this shared measure of success. And it is our children who may well be paying the price for this perversity.
So then, back to the daycare dilemma my wife and I faced, and which we have now sorted out for the short term. Even as I sit typing at the computer, our daughter is taking her afternoon nap – it seems I do have time for her care. This arrangement might mean the end of my graduate education, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay.
Post Script — It is worth noting that my tone and style of writing (and thought) has moderated over the years. The tone of this piece is somewhat bracing, but perhaps that’s what I/we need at times. Also, the bracing style should not be taken as to suggest that there are not lives/experiences/persons for whom the day care question is decidedly more complex (think of single parent families) than it was for my wife and I. But that doesn’t change the basic point being made – just qualifies it in other circumstances.