Monday, May 17, 2010

I expected more than a vegetable garden

For the first time in my memory, elementary school children live in the White House. They have a Secret Service detail and their grandmother helping to look after them. As they should. But I'm afraid their mother will squander a golden opportunity, one for which she's uniquely qualified and positioned. Here's the deal: She has unbelievable childcare. Most parents in this country do not.

I wish the First Lady would use some of her time and clout to direct the nation's attention to the debacle that is America's child care situation. Michelle Obama has a tremendous platform from which she could plant the seeds of change to correct a problem this country has stubbornly ignored, despite its great strides on various women's issues.

Federal law mandates a pathetic six weeks of maternity leave with pay.

I challenge anyone to explain to me how it can possibly be in the best interests of any six-week-old infant to be left in a day care setting. Let alone for the entire work week.

Day care providers vary in quality, from exceptionally good to plain awful. States have different minimum standards. The most progressive regulations require a ratio of one staff member for every three infants, which isn't horrendous but nor is it ideal. For too many women, mostly those at the bottom of the pay scale, six weeks at home is all they'll get. Busy day cares with exhausted, spottily trained employees are the only economically viable option for many who cannot afford to miss a single pay check.

Countless people rely on grandparents or other family members to provide regular baby sitting. I would argue it's fundamentally unfair to place the burden of full time child care on the backs of the retiree generation. Many grandparents lack the physical stamina to mind children full time. Many more would rather spend their golden years doing something other than changing diapers and chasing after tireless toddlers, but in too many families it's the only feasible way to make ends meet.

Professionals with higher incomes tend to have a bit more flexibility. Unpaid leave laws vary from state to state, but no state requires an employer to grant more than four months' time off for maternity. Not so kid friendly, in my estimation. To say nothing of what this draconian approach does for the mother's physical or mental health. The quickie maternity leaves prompt many financially secure women to opt off the career track, because while they'd like to go back to work, they'd rather have more time with the baby.

Things are different in Western Europe, where a new mother gets at least six months, and in many countries a full year, of paid maternity leave. Unpaid leave in some places can last up to twenty-four months on top of that. Which means while you're home, your job is secure, and you don't have to go back in a hurry in order to keep your health coverage. Nor do you have to burden your aging parents.

In Scandinavia, when you're ready to rejoin the workforce, your child is guaranteed a day care spot until school age, where he or she will be supervised by teachers with advanced degrees in child development, in clean and welcoming facilities with outdoor playgrounds, brimming bookshelves and meals cooked on the premises.

You and your partner can both pursue careers during normal business hours, knowing that your two to six year old is in capable hands. What a concept. So many lawyers, engineers, academics, doctors, office workers and teachers opt out of the work force when they become mothers because they can't bring themselves to leave their kids during that first year, when babies change and develop at light speed. Imagine how our workforce might look if we gave mothers the option to have a year off? It's not a stretch to think it would look more productive. Happy workers who occasionally sleep at night tend to make good employees.

Some new moms in Europe go back to work before exhausting their benefits, but the vast majority elect to use the time to stay home. It's a choice that's available to everyone, be they surgeons or waitresses, judges or store clerks. Here in the States, such a choice exists only for those moms on the top of the socio-economic scale. In the alleged land of opportunity, that fact ought to be a national embarrassment.

I'm not holding my breath for American employers to start offering reasonable maternity benefits. Such extras cost money that would have to be pried from the fists of both business owners and taxpayers. Maybe we need to start thinking about early child care benefits and maternity leave as a solid investment and not a mere fringe benefit. For all the talk about Head Start and Pre-K and Leaving Nobody Behind and whatever other initiatives the politicians roll out, perhaps we should consider that the infant-toddler years matter, too.

That's why someone with the First Lady Michelle Obama's smarts, platform and 82 per cent approval rating must lead the push for better benefits. American families need longer paid maternity leaves and top notch, subsidized day care options.

Sadly, Mrs. Obama seems too busy planting vegetables to tackle this much thornier problem. Don't get me wrong. I'm all about eating greens, getting outdoors and embracing healthy living. But unless the First Lady has an appetite for taking on the factory farms that are literally poisoning our children and our land, her nutrition awareness campaign seems almost as quaint as her backyard garden.

The First Lady would serve the country well by at least starting a national conversation about child care for the preschool set. It would be a courageous move befitting an impressive woman. Should she succeed, she would leave a legacy far greater than a couple of bushels of green beans and tomatoes.

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