In a recent post about the economics of poverty, I mentioned the difficulty of poor parents being forced to put their children into childcare, further cutting into the little they are paid for their jobs. More recently, Tara Ann Thieke delved much deeper into the darker side of childcare in an article entitled Invisible Caregivers, Invisible Children. An ensuing conversation with a mom who in fact enjoys working outside the home led me to think more about the positives and negatives of this whole cultural phenomenon, but I found myself torn between two different strains of thought, which would sometimes agree with—but frequently contradict—one another. My internal dialog went something like this.

The Dialog

It really bothers me that both parents are frequently forced, by economic necessity or social pressure, to go to work and leave their children in the care of others all day, weakening family ties and contributing to an epidemic of troubled youth. We need to change the way we do and view things, to ensure that parents can freely raise their own kids, or society is bound to suffer more in the long run!

This is a little one-sided. In fact, many couples make a thoughtful decision for both parents to juggle family and career for the benefit of all. Mothers are able to get out of the house and spend time with other adults, keeping their minds sharp, and gaining a sense of self-worth beyond their identity as a parent. Fathers are relieved from the sense of being solely responsible to support the family. Children can still have quality child care, while benefiting from parents who set an example of holding jobs and from the added financial stability. How is this a problem?

I’m not here to judge every parent’s career choices. There may be cases where this works out great. But the point is, we shouldn’t HAVE to choose between financial (and perhaps mental) stability and spending quality time with our children. Family relationships are weak enough as it is—we don’t need to be forcibly making them worse!

Relax! This is nothing new. In fact, there have been many situations throughout history where parents have had to do work that was not possible with children underfoot. Kids were left with neighbors, nannies, grandparents, or perhaps older siblings (at one time, these might have been 5- or 6-year-olds), and families were not destroyed. Or the kids were put to work themselves. Yep, overseers instead of babysitters. We’ve actually got it a lot better now, with laws preventing many of these dangerous and abusive practices.

OK, but let’s not let “better” be the enemy of “best.” We cannot expect to farm our kids out to be raised by others and not end up with weaker relationships as a result. At least, in the past, culture dictated that families go through the motions of sticking together. Now when things fall apart, the results are often totally broken homes. The frequency of both parents working outside the home obviously isn’t the only reason for the breakdown of the family, but it’s still got to be a contributing factor. Is it really worth taking this risk just to have more people in the work force?

It depends on the specifics of the job. Are we talking about a day job that still allows families to have quality time together on evenings and weekends? Or a “flexible” job that makes family routines virtually impossible? Are parents taking turns watching kids, but never getting time with each other? Are parents being intentional in the time they do spend with their children? Let’s not oversimplify things here. There are problems, but it’s not as simple as whether or not both parents work.

True, we can and should maximize the time we do get with our children. But parents miss out on so much either way! Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who hear our children’s first words and see them take their first steps? Why should someone else get that privilege? Shouldn’t that at least bother us a little?

It could, but it doesn’t have to. It takes a village to raise a child. We don’t own our children. They are autonomous humans and it’s unrealistic to expect their entire early childhood experience to be tied up with their parents. There’s nothing inherently wrong with other people helping to raise our kids. In fact, it could be a very good thing, as children benefit from interacting with other adults who have a range of gifts, abilities, and interests. Would we want to deprive them of that?

If the point is to give our children added benefits, then why do we treat childcare workers like dirt? They are notoriously overworked and underpaid, not to mention totally underappreciated. And we expect them to care for our kids as lovingly as we would? Caring for children can be tiresome and seemingly simple, yet it is vital and challenging to do it well. At the very least, if we want our children to “benefit” from childcare, then we need to start treating childcare workers like the valuable contributors they are.

Yes, it makes sense that childcare workers should receive fair compensation. And not all of them work in childcare “sweat houses.” Many of those with the worst monetary compensation are actually family members helping one another out precisely because they do love each other. Sure there are extreme cases of parents farming out their kids into terrible situations, or getting quality care and then stiffing those who provide it. But what we need is for parents to make wise choices, whether as consumers or as employers. If they are failing to do so, that is not “society’s” fault.

We should certainly hold the wealthy responsible for how they treat their domestic employees. But how many of the poor are even able to make these kinds of choices? Most are stuck with whatever option they can best afford—whether it’s an ideal situation or not. And then they go out and work jobs that pay only a little more than what they are paying for childcare. It would be so much better for everyone if these moms could just stay home and raise their own kids—and in the long run, the social costs would probably be lower.

That’s assuming, of course, that all parents are well suited to raising children. Unfortunately, the ability to produce a child does not necessarily correlate to the ability to raise a child well. I don’t mean to be cynical—I strongly believe that most parents do want the best for their kids—but some parents are truly miserable in the role of full-time caregiver, and others think that being physically present is the only thing that matters. If this discussion is really about the children, then we need to take these situations into consideration as well.

Fair enough. I understand the need to “take these situations into consideration.” If there are cases where parents and children are truly that miserable with one another, then we need to make sure they are getting the support they need. Say parenting classes, Mommy’s Nights Out, better relationships with family members and neighbors, and so forth. Even plain old “respite” time, if you please. But we don’t have to pit one problem against the other. I’m talking about situations where parents desperately want and need more time with their children, but it simply isn’t an option.

OK, assuming that parents WANT to be at home spending more quality time with their kids (and by the way, this could be dads as well as moms), it would be nice for them to have that option. But, realistically, what happens when they do? Mostly, the moms are the ones who stay home “for the kids,” and ultimately their careers suffer. Because even if we somehow make this option affordable, it isn’t fair to employers to expect them to pay the same wages to someone who has taken 10 years off as to one who has spent the same 10 years keeping up with the industry. And then we wonder why we have gender pay gaps! We need to be careful that our zeal to help in one respect does not lead to harm in others.

Well, maybe we need to be compensating women for raising their own families, instead of assuming that stay-at-home-moms are just living a life of leisure, sitting around watching TV all day. Or stop acting like careers are the most important thing in life. (Isn’t that male-oriented thinking already?) Or maybe we just need to stop being so materialistic. Or at least do something about ridiculously bloated living costs! The problem is, we’re so steeped in a culture that tells us “this matters and that doesn’t” that we don’t even realize how messed up our priorities are!

Look, we just need to treat people fairly. Give them options. Stop shaming them for the choices they make (especially moms who actually enjoy juggling family and career), but take dire economic necessity out of the picture. Maybe with something like a UBI, more parents would be able to make better choices for their families. BOTH parents could work shorter hours and spend more time with their kids AND each other. People would get into child care because they love kids, not just because they need whatever job they can get. I think that would solve many of our most pressing problems.

Yes, I think we can agree on the need for options. And for options that stay “optional.” There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, is there? But we can at least work together to support healthy relationships within families, whatever those look like. And of course to be supportive of those who care for children, in whatever capacity.

And to support other moms, even when the choices they make are different than ours. We simply can’t know, or expect to know, everything that goes into the decisions they make. We need to give each other the freedom to pursue what works best in our unique situations, without fear of condemnation. And extend grace when things don’t always turn out perfectly.

And they never do, do they? Yes, we can certainly all extend more grace to one another!