A Speak-Out on Child Care

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 19, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Finally, we've got a keeper. Janet Reno is headed for confirmation hearings and a new woman for attorney general, a new standard for public judgment, and maybe even new tax rules for domestic workers.

But I hate to close the case of the nominees and the nannies on this minor note. We barely skimmed over the major subject.

For a few weeks, people were talking about child care that's legal and illegal. But what about child care that's good and lousy? They talked about the small absurdities in our tax policy for household workers. But what about the huge absurdity of our child-care policy, or should I say non-policy?

Two women flunked the nanny test and Americans argued about whether those families had done the right thing in the eyes of the law. But there was much less debate about whether we are doing the right thing in the lives of all our families.

What if an equal number of people -- equal to those who called a senator or a talk show host with their opinion of these lawyers and mothers -- told stories. What would happen if, instead of retiring this soap box, we used it for a speak-out on child care.

I'm not talking about a nice symposium where academics report on ''the problems of child care.'' I'm not talking about a White House conference on ''child-care policy.'' I'm talking about working parents who tell stories. About themselves and their kids.

Remember the speak-outs on abortion? It took a generation before women who had illegal abortions stood up and told their tales in public. If you think these women had to break through barriers of guilt, shame and sorrow, just wait.

Wait until you hear parents speak truth about their worst moments with child care. Wait until we air and exchange the horror stories and the small doubts, the terrors and even the insidious, tenuous sense of being ''lucky'' when our own kids make it through OK.

I still remember coming home to find that my 4-year-old had convinced a new sitter that she was allowed to walk to the supermarket alone. And that was 20 years ago.

I have a friend who found her snowsuited toddler put out on the steps of the baby sitter's house because she was late picking him up. The toddler is now 16; his mother is still shaky at the memory.

Until now, there has been a conspiracy of silence around such experiences, especially among working mothers who have -- in the much overrated word of the era -- choices.

In the '60s and '70s, working mothers of small children were a renegade minority. When a boss or acquaintance asked, ''Who takes care of your children?'' the real question was, ''Why aren't you taking care of them?''

Keeping quiet about child-care anxieties was the price we paid for the ''luxury'' of being ''allowed'' to work. We didn't tell them -- bosses or others -- when we worried. In return, they couldn't tell us that they told us so.

Working mothers who did find good child care were suspended in a state somewhere between fear and gratitude. Those who didn't, dealt with it quietly. Admit to trouble at home and you might be sent home.

By the 1980s, more of us were working. But the struggle over women's roles was fought out in the so-called ''mommy wars.'' Horror stories about child care were written by women who left jobs for home. The mothers who stayed at work stayed quiet. We were afraid to give the other side ammunition.

Now we are well into the '90s. The two-worker family is the norm. But so is haphazard, uneven, inadequate child care. So are our worries. And so is this silence.

Our reticence to speak out may be due, simply, to pain. The fear that our children are hurt -- whether by abuse or loneliness -- may in turn hurt too much to talk about. It may be due as well to the

lack of choices. To the lingering idea that child care is still, really, a mother's job.

But at some point, we have to get off this silent defensive. We can only do that by speaking out. By sharing thousands of personal stories of ourselves and our children until we have made that click of recognition -- I'm not the only one -- that motivates change.

Child care is not just a parent's problem, not just a family problem. Not just a problem of nannies and nominees. It takes a village to raise a child. First, the village needs to know.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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