A woman's place — at home or at work?

The old debate is revived in Frederick County

February 18, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK — Like others at the candlelight vigil this week, Patty O'Brien had been outraged by what she called the "stupid and thoughtless" remarks of two county officials who voted to cut off funding to the Head Start preschool program, declaring it was better if women stayed home with their kids.

But now, O'Brien, a working mother, was shocked at something much closer to home. Her 9-year-old daughter, who accompanied her to the Thursday night vigil, had a declaration of her own.

"I wish she didn't work," Loretta Donaghue said, "so I didn't have to go to day care."

And so continues the work-vs.-stay-at-home debate for mothers, one that seemed to have been settled long ago, if only by economic necessity: More than 70 percent of mothers work outside the home, the U.S. Department of Labor says, and, as the recession put more men out of work, increasing numbers of women are their family's sole breadwinner.

But the debate was revived here after a newly elected Board of County Commissioners voted two weeks ago to cut the county's entire $2.3 million share of Head Start, about half of the program's budget. That was shocking enough to some county residents, but what ignited a fierce dispute was how two of the commissioners took the opportunity to say that it was preferable for women to stay home with their young children as their wives did.

"As many of you know, I had a lot of kids, and my wife stayed home at significant sacrifice during those early years, because she knew she had to be with those kids at that critical age," said Commissioner C. Paul Smith, the father of 12. "I know everybody isn't able to survive doing that, but clearly, as we can strengthen marriage we can decrease the children that we have to reach."

Another commissioner, Kirby Delauter, offered a similar view: "I'd just like to say I had four kids that graduated from Frederick County public schools. My wife, college-educated, could go out and get a very good job. She gave that up for 18 years so she could stay home with our kids, we had to give up a lot to do that. ... I never relied on anyone else to guarantee the education of my kids."

To many, the comments smacked of cluelessness and sanctimony, with their assumption that the strongest marriages and the best parents were those in which the mother stayed home. Others in this largely conservative county rose to defend the commissioners, who said the funding cut was needed to help close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Some residents said the words and actions of the board starkly illustrated the impact of the November elections, in which, here as in elsewhere across the country, conservative Republicans swept into office with agendas they now are rushing to enact. Frederick County's Board of County Commissioners went from a 3-2, Republican-Democratic split to all-Republican.

"That's how we got to where with are with this board," Cheryl Dapsanski said with a sigh at Thurday's vigil. There, in a crowd of about 150, some of whom waved hand-scrawled protest signs, Dapsanski, a graphic designer, held up a professionally printed one that said, "2011 Frederick BoCC: My family may not look like yours but my kids grew up to be productive taxpayers."

Dapsanski is married, but for a time when she was raising two sons, now both in the military, she was a single working mother. She is particularly angry that commissioners targeted a program for the impoverished — families below the federal poverty guidelines, $22,050 for a family of four.

"The people least able to defend themselves are the ones affected first," she said.

Commissioners say they were elected with a mandate to cut taxes and government spending. Since taking office in December, they have embraced a slew of conservative issues, from studying how to privatize some government services to cracking down on illegal immigrants.

Then on Feb. 8 came the 4-1 vote to discontinue funding for Head Start, started 45 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. In Frederick County, about 280 3- to 5-year-olds attend Head Start classes designed to help them prepare for school.

The decision to cut county support for Head Start came as part of efforts to close an $11.8 million budget deficit, and commissioners said the program would continue, but with about half of its current funds, mostly from the federal government.

The program tends to get targeted during budget-cutting times. The current Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, included a $1 billion cut to the program as part of a plan to slash about $60 billion in federal spending.

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