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We Need to Provide Affordable Childcare

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Affordable Child CareThe arrest of a South Carolina mom on charges that she left her 9-year-old daughter alone in the park while she went to work has sparked a furor over her decision and whether it was appropriate to arrest her for it. It’s far from the only instance of a parent doing something dangerous, even allegedly criminal, in order to go to work when there’s no childcare available. I wrote in December about a California woman who lost custody of her son—permanently—after leaving him alone in his crib one workday. And I am sure there are countless other parents facing similar dilemmas every day.

For women who need to work and don’t have reliable childcare, what are the options? Even Michelle Obama faced a similar dilemma in her past, recently making headlines for her recollections of bringing young Sasha along on a job interview.

That South Carolina mom, Deba Harrell, faced a no-win choice, as my colleague Lisa Milbrand wrote: “to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald’s with little to engage her. Debra picked the park.” Home seemed more dangerous and would also likely have led to Harrell’s arrest, while having a child at work all day seems like a recipe for getting fired for needing to care for her while on the job (and hardly seems like a healthy environment for a child).

A lot of the discussion about Harrell’s case has focused on how protective and hovering parents should be, and whether we as a society have gone too far in “criminalizing” parenthood, as Radley Balko of the Washington Post put it.

But as essential as that debate is, there is another, related issue that these cases raise, and that is the question of affordable childcare. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat begins to address this in his latest column, questioning a “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.” He concludes that “we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.”

But Douthat stops short of taking his argument to its natural conclusion. Affordable, reliable, and safe childcare is a necessary component of a functioning society, especially one that expects—requires, even—parents to work. And so we need to figure out a way to guarantee it to all working parents. In Europe, “all European countries offer government subsidies and regulation support to early childhood care,” according to the European Union’s website. “These measures include tax breaks, vouchers, subsidies paid to parents or to the care provider; and in several European countries, capping of childcare costs relative to household income, or by obliging employers to support childcare costs (for instance in the Netherlands).”

I don’t know what form this sort of policy should take here in the United States, but whether it’s tax breaks or subsidies or publicly funded day-care centers or something else entirely, without addressing this problem, we will see many more Debra Harrells.

I also don’t want to let the absent dads off the hook. While moms like Harrell are arrested and may lose custody of their children, nothing is asked of the dads. Granted, many are not in the picture at all; but where they are or can be found, I don’t know why they are not required to be part of the solution, financial or otherwise, or why they don’t share the blame for alleged neglect and other decisions.

Our public policy must recognize the realities of today’s families, especially the huge number of single parents (and the correlation between single parenthood and poverty). In addition, many families today lack the extensive familial and social networks that may have, in the past, provided (free) childcare so mom and/or dad could work. This is not just a problem for the very poor. There is nothing optional about working for most people trying to support their kids, and childcare could easily be beyond a single parent’s means. As parents, most of us have said things to our kids like, “I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” or, “I can’t be in two places at once.” For the single moms who must be at work in order to feed their families but have no one else to supervise their children, these are not flippant throw-away lines; they are realities that we as a society must help fix.

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Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care

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Is Paid Family Leave the Path to the White House?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Hillary Clinton Paid Family LeaveCould support for paid family leave be the centerpiece of a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016? In The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky argues for just that, saying that Clinton should make “paid family leave a—no; the!—central plank” of her presumed run for the presidency. Tomasky is just offering advice and not reporting that this is actually under consideration, but his argument is persuasive that this issue is a winner.

I can’t agree more. Let’s look at the facts of the situation and then the politics of it:

The fact of the matter is that the United States is last among developed countries—final, end of the list—in legally mandating paid leave, with a grand total of zero weeks. Not a single day of paid family leave is guaranteed by law to new parents. Instead, the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by none other than Pres. Bill Clinton, guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers in companies covered by the law. Between the lack of any pay during that period, the measly three-month length, and the relatively high number of companies not covered by the law, this not exactly a generous policy.

Elsewhere in the world, however, Tomasky reports, workers are entitled to large chunks of paid time off to focus on their children: “In France, it’s 100 percent for 16 weeks. Mon dieu, you say, that’s France. But in Germany, which even American conservatives respect a little more in economic terms, it’s 100 percent pay for 14 weeks, and 65 percent for an astonishing 12 to 14 months.”

Our neighbors to the north and south also put us to shame in this department: Canadian moms get 15 weeks of leave at 55% of their pay, plus the couple get an additional 35 weeks at the same pay rate to split between them however they see fit. In Mexico, moms get 12 weeks at 100% of pay. There’s no reason for U.S. parents to be without any paid leave.  (Andrew Sullivan of The Dish posted a sobering chart illustrating just how behind we are.)

Then there’s the politics. Paid family leave has long been a dream of political liberals and a nightmare to business interests, who would be forced to pay employee’s salaries during periods when they are not working. But, as Tomasky points out, the idea of paid leave enjoys wide support among the public, and it’s hard to see women, even those with conservative, pro-business political leanings, opposing it. They and their families stand to benefit greatly from it. “A survey commissioned in 2012 by a pro-leave group found that respondents supported the idea by 63 to 29 percent,” Tomasky writes. “Democrats were of course strongly in favor (85-10), but independents were at a still quite favorable 54-34, and even Republicans weren’t against it—they were evenly split at 47-48.”

For Clinton, who usually plays her politics safely, it would be a bold stance that would at once show her independence—by hewing to the left and taking a risky stance contrary to her usual centrist leanings—while also remaining absolutely true to her pro-family, pro-woman concerns she’s focused on throughout her public career. In short, it’s an issue that is bound to be immensely popular, despite vocal and well-funded detractors.

I would add to Tomasky’s analysis that rallying support for paid family leave has the potential to attract religious conservatives for whom the health and strength of the family is paramount. It’s hard to imagine a policy that would do more for families than one that allows more parents to spend more time with their new babies (or ailing family members) without worrying about losing their income. Too many parents now have to make a choice between spending that crucial time with their newborns or paying the bills, because they cannot do both without paid leave. Family-values conservatives joining liberals and women from across the political spectrum would comprise an impressively powerful coalition to advance this cause.

In addition, it’s important to remember that paid family leave is not just beneficial to women. Men would also be covered by paid paternity-leave policies, allowing them to spend the time being fathers and bonding with their children that they otherwise could not afford to. And the real winners here, of course, are the children who would have more time with their parents at home.

Lastly, I’d argue that the idea should not be confined to a Hillary Clinton candidacy or pigeonholed as her thing, lest it end up buried in partisan combat (which, of course, it might anyway). It is a policy whose time has long past come and I’d invite–expect–any candidate from any party who claims to be pro-family to take up the cause.

Plus: Use our stay-at-home calculator to find out if you can afford to give up your job and stay home with your kids full time.

Work-Life Balance in America
Work-Life Balance in America
Work-Life Balance in America

Image of Hillary Clinton via Shutterstock.

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Fathers in Girls’ Dressing Rooms: What’s Appropriate?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Fathers in Dressing Rooms With DaughtersA friend of mine, an involved father in every way and a sometime stay-at-home dad, was shopping for clothes in the kids’ department of a large department store recently with his wife and two daughters. When his daughters, 8 and 5, needed to try on clothes, he did what he’d always done, and what many of us would have done—followed them into their dressing room Except this time, something different happened. A manager came and asked him to leave the dressing room area, saying there was a complaint from a mom about his presence.

My friend, shocked, complied, not wanting to make a scene at the store, though he did ask the manager what would have happened if he was a single father. She said she wasn’t personally bothered but that she was acting only on the other woman’s complaint. (Why a store manager can’t exercise judgment and must blindly comply with a complainer’s request is another story.)

That’s all the information he got, and all the information I have, but he and his wife were outraged, and so am I. Was that woman objecting because she worried something inappropriate would go on between father and child in the dressing room? That would mean she saw a father with his daughters and immediately assumed he had horrible things in mind. Or was she concerned that a man might somehow see her  daughter changing clothes in her own dressing room, even though the dressing rooms were all private? Aside from the supernatural abilities that would require, this assumes he would even have interest in doing so.

What happened, it seems clear to me, is that the other woman saw an involved father enjoying time with his children—enjoying shopping for clothes with his children, which so many dads don’t (guilty as charged here)—and immediately thought, “Pervert.” And not just thought it, but acted on it.

Part of me wishes my friend fought back and stood up for himself, and by extension for all dads implicated by such treatment. But I fully understand why he chose to comply rather than have his daughters witness what would likely have been an ugly argument.

The incident remains baffling and enraging to me. Yes, the statistics on child abuse are horrifying and unacceptable and I mean in no way to be dismissive of this reality. But I fail to see how that connects to what happened in the dressing room. While not everyone has experienced humiliation on par with what happened to my friend, so many dads have had strange interactions with people when they are out and about with their kids, ones in which strangers clearly have some suspicion. In less insidious cases, it may not be suspicion of abuse, specifically, but an implication that a man’s place is at work and not home with his kids, that there is something unusual about a dad breaking traditional gender stereotypes. A stay-at-home dad I met at the Dad 2.0 Summit earlier this year talked about the questions he frequently gets from strangers about why he is at the park on a random weekday with his kids.

We hear lots of welcome support for involved dads and the amazing changes that are taking place in modern fatherhood. But we can’t ignore the inescapable fact that some people look at involved dads as weirdos—or, worse, as suspects. For shame.

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Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy

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It’s Time to Reduce the C-Section Rate

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

woman giving birthIs it possible to be awake, lucid, and able to make your own medical decisions—and still have surgery against your will? Apparently so. A New York woman is suing the hospital at which she delivered her baby, according to the New York Times, alleging that her doctor forced her to have a C-section that she did not want and did not consent to. The case is disturbing in and of itself but is also indicative of a much larger, extremely prevalent problem: the extraordinarily high rates of cesarean births overall.

Rachel Dray knew what having a C-section is like, as she’d had two of them previously. For her third baby, she wanted to have a VBAC—“vaginal birth after cesarean”—but after several hours of labor, and what must have been many vehement arguments with her doctors, she was given the C-section. “I have decided to override her refusal to have a C-section,” one of the doctors reportedly wrote in a note explaining the situation.

The right to decide whether to have another human being cut open your body seems like a fundamental choice that a person should be able to make for herself. Of course, the health and welfare of the baby is a concern, and perhaps there are extreme circumstances where a hospital needs to overrule a mother’s decision in order to save the life of a baby, but it’s hard to imagine that actually happening in reality rather than just in hypotheticals.

Ultimately, Dray’s whole situation may have been avoided if our hospitals were not so quick to move laboring women to the operating room in the first place. Labor can take a look time, and that’s not inherently a sign of distress. So let’s let it take a long time, if it needs to.

Thankfully, new guidelines issued in February by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists aim to decrease the number of C-sections by having doctors allow healthy women to spend more time laboring. While I don’t know if these guidelines could have saved Rinat Dray from any of her three C-sections, I hope hospitals turn these suggestions into policy quickly.

Women in labor are too often shepherded into the operating room for no reason other than that they’ve been in the hospital too long. When you are admitted to the hospital in labor, the clock starts ticking—labor too long, and you’ll be told you must have a C-section. Partly because of this artificial deadline, nearly one third of all American babies are born via C-section, resulting in longer recovery times and other risks for those women.

In Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America, Theresa Morris calls for the C-section rate in America to be “publicly recognized as an epidemic threatening the well-being of women, babies, and families.” Morris, a sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., details why C-sections have become so prevalent, and her focus is on the structural, organizational reasons. For the most part, it’s not individual mothers or doctors who are choosing this route. Rather, it’s a combination of hospital rules, fears of litigation, and the like that are conspiring to lead so many laboring women to the operating room.

Doing a C-section has become a way so that everyone involved in the birth did everything they could to deliver a healthy baby.  “Hospital administrators, ACOG [the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists ], courts, malpractice insurers, and reinsurers have defined C-sections as the best practice to protect themselves and maternity providers from blame in the case of a bad outcome”, Morris writes.

There is nothing inevitable about a C-section rate of over 30%. My wife delivered our first baby via a C-section that we believe could have been avoided with more effort by our nurses and doctors. For our second baby, she switched to a practice that advertises a VBAC success rate of over 90%. She went on to have two healthy vaginal births, the first of which took more than 24 hours and involved a huge dose of patience alongside some creative interventions—the right dose of the right medicine at the right time, a variety of labor positions, massage by our doula, etc. (Our third was born moments after we entered the hospital.)

To truly reduce the C-section rate and return more decision-making power to women and their doctors, both the rules and the culture in hospitals will need to change. Too often, women are treated as selfish for wanting to avoid a C-section, with nurses condescendingly “reminding” women—as if they needed any reminder—that giving birth to a healthy child is the most important thing. But a C-section is major surgery done at a time when women need their strength and stamina to care for their soon-to-be newborn. There is no shame in trying to avoid it, if possible.

Of course, not all C-sections are frivolous, and plenty of them save lives, of the baby and/or the mother. Let’s not lose sight of that or vilify doctors or hospitals for focusing on the high success rates and low rate of complications C-sections carry. But that doesn’t mean the status quo is acceptable, either.

Are you ready for another child? Find out!

Labor & Delivery: Unplanned C-Section
Labor & Delivery: Unplanned C-Section
Labor & Delivery: Unplanned C-Section

Image: Pregnant woman in delivery room via Shutterstock

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Stroller Man’s View From Paternity Leave

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Paternity Leave BabyI am just back from five weeks of paternity leave, and now that I’ve hung up my weekday dad jeans, I thought I’d offer some reflections on my experience as a temporary stay-at-home dad with that little cutie you see in the picture (and her two bigger sisters). I started my leave when my wife returned to work after her own maternity leave, so it was a period of transition and new routines for all of us, which we’re dealing with again now that I am back at work.

The experience was, not surprisingly, as much—or more—about my older kids as it was about the baby. And that was just fine with me. It was amazing to spend the extra, relaxed time with my older kids, and I did still have plenty of bonding time with Sophia, the baby. Being able to pick up or drop off my older ones at school, or cook dinner with them, or just be around for the late-afternoon homework-dinner-bath mania was important and memorable to me, as I hope it was to them. As my leave neared an end and my 7-year-old asked if I could teach our babysitter some of the recipes we cooked for dinners, I knew it had had an impact. Same with my 3-year-old, who regularly asks in the mornings, heart-breakingly, whether we’re staying home with her, even as she sees us getting dressed and ready to leave for work.

Still, I realized I do not aspire to full-time SAHD status. While I do wish I could have more time at home with my kids and spend more of their waking hours with them, I am not the guy who would become a full-time dad if I won the lottery tomorrow. I cherish the balance in my life between home and work, kid activities and professional pursuits. Needless to say, it’s a personal choice and I mean no judgment on those who choose otherwise—quite the contrary, I love hearing about the choices so many men have made to be SAHDs—but it’s important to know what is right for you.

I was (happily) shocked at how many dads I saw out and about. I don’t remember feeling the same way the last time I took a paternity leave like this, seven years ago. My memory from then is of feeling like the only dad around during weekday work hours. Not this time: Dads—and grandpas—were present with their kids/grandkids everywhere. It was great to see and made me feel like less of an outlier.

You can’t be partly on leave and partly working. Like being “half pregnant,” it just isn’t possible. For the first half of my leave, I did a decent job of staying away from email and really unplugging, at least when I was with my kids. But when my team here at work experienced upheaval, I found myself drawn back in and wanting to be back at the office to help, and truly felt torn between work and home. It led to the more-than-a-little absurd afternoon when I dropped my oldest at gymnastics and drove on the highway for the sole purpose of getting the two younger kids to fall asleep—at which point I pulled over and called into a meeting. In the middle of the call, my 3-year-old woke up, noisily, understandably demanding to know what we were doing and when we were going home.

Life happens whether you’re on leave or not. Duh, no surprise there, but I still found myself extra resentful when my basement flooded and I needed to spend several of my precious paternity-leave days dealing with the fallout. Not that I expected all bliss and sunshine, but really? A flood? Of course, the stay-at-home parent inevitably also must take the lead on shopping, cooking, waiting home for the repairman, and all things homemaking, regardless of the fact that my leave was intended to be about spending quality time with the kids. When it came to day-to-day tasks, I was more than happy to do them, and still got plenty of great moments with the little ones. But at times, like when I was sloshing through my flooded basement, my focus had to be elsewhere temporarily.

People seem to assume I took leave for my wife, to ease her return to work. Several people made comments to this effect. But while helping her was a nice benefit, it takes a very mom-centric worldview to make the assumption that that was my primary motivation. I took this time to bond with my baby, and to prolong the time that she spends full-time with a parent before our nanny became her primary caregiver during workdays. I took the time to be a full-time parent for a short period and spend more time than I otherwise could with my older girls. I took it so that I could have some time when they, my daughters, were the center of my day. Yes, it helped my wife and put her mind at ease, but she would have been fine without my taking leave, and this was not among the top reasons I took the time off.

I am Stoller Man. Yes, it’s true: I earned a new nickname (and a new beard, but that’s a different story). Perhaps it’s my new superhero identity. It came from a moment of absent-mindedness, when I stopped at the bakery with Sophia asleep in her stroller, and in my haste to get out before she woke up, forgot my order on the counter after paying for it. I returned to find this note:

Paternity-leave-note

All in all, I feel like paternity leave accomplished what I wanted from it. Despite the intrusions I mentioned above, I was able to focus for this period on spending quality time with my three children in a (mostly) relaxed environment where they were my main concerns. Not to imply that it was all peace and bliss–I do have three children, after all, and we had our share of tantrums, yelling, fights, and frustration. But I wasn’t seeking some fairy-tale existence: The point was that I was there. And, of course, happy as I am to be back at work, I miss the girls during the day. When it comes to work-life balance, finding that happy medium remains an elusive goal.

Download our free checklist to make sure you are prepared for your own maternity or paternity leave.

How to Pick the Perfect Stroller for Your Baby
How to Pick the Perfect Stroller for Your Baby
How to Pick the Perfect Stroller for Your Baby

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