Single-mother bashing

August 05, 1994|By Diana Griego Erwin

JUST WHEN you think things might be getting better, that the playing field in America is leveling, you hear about Jennifer Ireland.

Ms. Ireland was a 15-year-old cheerleader when she became pregnant by her boyfriend, captain of the high school football team. Unlike many pregnant teens, Ms. Ireland had the baby, graduated third in her class and earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

The obstacles facing young single mothers in our society are many, but she refused to become a stereotype. Instead, she proved she was smart enough -- and persevering enough -- to earn a spot at one of the nation's respected schools.

Arriving in Ann Arbor last fall, Ms. Ireland did what many single parents -- students or workers -- do. She enrolled her child, Maranda Kate Ireland-Smith, 3, in a licensed family day care home.

It is not a preschool, but a home in which a licensed individual cares for children, often alongside her own. In this particular setting, the woman cared for five children. One of the five was Maranda.

Or was.

A judge recently stripped Ms. Ireland of custody, awarding Maranda to her father instead. Macomb County Circuit Judge Raymond Cashen said the father, Steve Smith, 20, could provide a better environment because his mother is willing to care for Maranda. Ironically, but apparently of little concern to the judge, Mr. Smith plans to attend college, too.

What this comes down to, then, is rewarding him for farming out his domestic concerns and penalizing her for juggling life alone.

Mr. Cashen, 69, doesn't see it that way. "The mother's academic pursuits, although laudable," he wrote, "are demanding and in order to complete her program it necessitates leaving the child for a considerable portion of its life in the care of strangers."

Now grandmothers are wonderful. But I wonder why Judge Cashen thinks relatives are automatically better care givers than those who care for children as a profession. And how are day-care workers strangers to the children they nurture? Seems to me that such thinking is a slap in the face to every caring, loving day care worker in the nation -- and there are plenty.

Take Mimi Vega.

It is 9:30 a.m. and the day is in full swing when I arrive at Ms. Vega's house in south Sacramento, Calif. Pieces of toy roads and bridges clutter the living room carpet where four children, ages 5, almost 4, 2 1/2 and 2, play.

Songs from a "Pooh Corner" tape drift softly through the air as two of the children decide, vehemently, on the same piece of road. Ms. Vega suggests a book and they all scramble for a spot on her lap.

Ten minutes later, after a book on turtles -- during which they all become turtles using clear Rubbermaid bins as shells -- the children are painting, gluing and glittering in a wonderfully stocked art center that has taken over Ms. Vega's breakfast nook.

Fifteen minutes later, the children are outside playing -- swinging, running, sliding, climbing and washing tot-sized Little Tikes cars with water and bubbly soap. And so the day goes.

Quality day care can provide enriching group environments that relatives often can't equal, although relatives have much to offer, too. But are relatives patently better?

Actually, among the "surprising" findings of a recent study by the Families and Work Institute in New York was the fact that children "were not more likely to be securely attached to providers who were relatives than to nonrelatives." One explanation says a lot: Sixty percent of the relatives studied became care givers to help out family members, not because they wanted to care for children.

"I bet the judge has never seen family day care in action," said Ms. Vega, a former elementary school teacher and mother of three who opened her family day care about five years ago. "This decision just seems so out of step with the reality of what people's lives are like these days. . . . For him to make a blanket statement that because [Maranda's] in a child care setting her life is somehow diminished, it makes me, well, it makes me mad."

Since the decision, Mr. Cashen's colleagues have gushed about what a fair judge and all-around great guy he is, but that doesn't mean he knows one thing about day care.

It was bad enough that he validated the outdated notion that mothers belong in the kitchen and in the bedroom, not in the office or off earning college degrees. That those women are somehow lesser mothers; somehow second-rate.

Then he went and disparaged day care workers, too. Good grief.

Diana Griego Erwin is a columnist for the McClatchy News Service.

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