How to Make the U.S. a Better Place for Caregivers

How to Make the U.S. a Better Place for Caregivers

The above-linked article by Anne-Marie Slaughter for the Atlantic on May 14, 2013 is a dead-on follow-up to the panel presentation I attended on Monday at The New America Foundation about the “hell of American daycare.”  Slaughter’s article brings to light “an inventory of strategies that could improve the situation of America’s working parents, from the beginning of their children’s lives to their end of their own.”  Here is the opening paragraph to her article (I place it here as a temptation to read the rest of the piece!  It’s a must-read as we continue the conversation about how America can advance as a nation in this global economy.):

Breadwinning makes no sense without caregiving. Someone must transform income into the food, shelter, clothing, nurture, discipline, education, minding, nursing, transportation, and emotional support that creates life outside of the office, permits survival of the race, cares for the ill and disabled, and makes life livable when we can no longer care for ourselves. Yet the United States lags behind almost all other industrialized countries in providing the goods, services, and incentives that make it possible for women and men to be caregivers as well as breadwinners. What mothers need, as well as fathers, spouses, and the children of aging parents, is an entire national infrastructure of care, every bit as important as the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges, tunnels, broadband, parks and public works.

Slaughter reveals that “the United States joins Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea as the only countries in the world that do not mandate paid maternity and paternity leave” and that “many Western European countries provide generous maternity and paternity leave  (Britain, even under austerity, provides 280 days of leave for either parent at 90 percent pay),” as do Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.  In the United States, where there is a “private voluntary approach” to paid leave, “only half of U.S. first-time mothers get any paid leave at all, and they are much more likely to be the more privileged half.”  Slaughter rounds out her statistics by asking us the following question:  At a time when 71.3 percent of American mothers are  in the workforce, who is supposed to care for children in their first few weeks and months of life?

It’s an important question since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement in the March 2012 issue of Pediatrics titled “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk,” which reaffirmed its recommendation of “exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.”  The policy statement emphasized not only the health benefits, protective effects against illnesses, diseases and adolescent/adult obesity, but also the unique and emotion connection that ensues between mother and baby during breastfeeding.  The point is made by the AAP that “choosing to breastfeed should be considered an investment in the short- and long-term health of the infant, rather than a lifestyle choice.”

Although I digress from Slaughter’s article, it is an important point to consider, along with the point that trust, attachment, and emotional bonds are formed during infancy.  When a child doesn’t receive the opportunity to develop the skills to trust, attach and bond with grown-ups around him, either through breastfeeding, bottle-feeding or whatever method is used to demonstrate that grown-ups will do whatever it takes to make them feel safe, secure, loved and well-cared for, that child will grow up to believe that grown-ups, including teachers, police, and many others, do not have their best interest at heart.  We know this to be true in research, as well as by way of real-life stories (e.g., I was told by an African-American, male teacher, who taught third grade in an inner city public school, that no matter how hard he tried to convince under-performing students that he “had their back” and “wanted what was best for them” as their teacher, that these students “didn’t trust” him or “grown-ups, in general”).  

Slaughter’s article, stories, research, the AAP and more tell us that we’re doing a less than adequate job caring for our youngest of citizens.  We know that our schools are failing because children arrive unprepared with regard to academics, but also with regard to vocabulary and language development, social-emotional skills, and sensory processing skills.  We can’t continue to blame schools for failing students, when the work of readying them to learn happens in the first three years of life.  

Slaughter lists many measures (see below) in her article that are worth discussing right now by every stakeholder in American society, rich and poor, old and young, men and women, politicians and constituents, to improve our schools and our society:

  • flexible work schedules
  • paid sick and family leave when a child is ill at home
  • paid maternity/paternity leave that actually meets the needs of developing infants
  • a system of high-quality, government-rergulated, affordable day-care
  • equalized Social Security for spouses (Slaughter states: “allowing both spouses automatically to earn equal Social Security credits during their marriage, which would increase benefits for working and stay-at home mothers alike, and for divorced women, who are among the poorest old people in the country”)
  • universal pre-school for all three- and four-year olds
  • payment of a child allowance to all primary caregivers of young children
  • free health coverage for all children an their primary caregivers
  • addition unpaid household labor to the national GDP

I’ll leave you with the powerful words of Slaughter’s last paragraph, since I began with those in her first:

 All those measures, as far-fetched as they may seem to our breadwinning-obsessed society, reflect the reality of the human, economic, and social need for care. Women have long been socialized into providing such care without recognition or compensation, something that a growing number of men are discovering as they become primary caregivers in their turn, either inside or outside a marriage. But care is not “women’s work.” It is human work, work that embodies and expresses the love and connections to others that make us human in the first place.

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