Recently, a young mother from North Lawndale said something that has since had a profound impact on me. “Moms stay home with their kids all over, and it’s seen as a good thing. Not us, if we’re home with our kids, then we’re lazy.” The African American woman had two children, no partner in the picture, and worked part-time. Her two boys were in preschool and kindergarten. She’s worked hard to provide for them and yet, she has a point: she is constantly stigmatized for staying home with her children. Wherein lies the double standard?
From an early childhood development standpoint, having an engaged and loving mother or father home with a child for the early years of his life is the best possible scenario. It’s in these early years that babies are learning to understand the world around them and when they form healthy attachments to their caregivers. As the esteemed child psychiatrist, Dr. Bruce Perry says:
During the first three years of life, the human brain develops to 90 percent of adult size and puts in place the majority of systems and structures that will be responsible for all future emotional, behavioral, social, and physiological functioning during the rest of life. There are critical periods during which bonding experiences must be present for the brain systems responsible for attachment to develop normally.
Basically, in the first three years, a child learns to trust that her caregiver will provide her with everything she needs including: nourishment, a soothing touch, and a clean diaper. Without a healthy relationship with one’s caregiver, a baby can grow up into a less stable and more developmentally delayed adolescent and adult.
Nowadays, however, fewer mothers and fathers are staying home with their young children, generally due to both partners working. This is not a problem as long as the family has a backup plan; nannies, preschool, and daycare are a few options. Yet, these options are expensive and sometimes out of the question for poorer families. In fact, according to a US Census Bureau report on childcare arrangements, families living in poverty spend 30 percent of their income on childcare. Thus, the already poor and disadvantaged parent instead drops the children off at the grandma’s, the neighbor’s, or the uncle’s house. It’s often not educational, developmentally appropriate, nor socially engaging, resulting in a much less school-ready child.
Let’s say that Jane Doe works as a security guard for a hospital. She makes a decent wage, but suddenly with a baby on the way, she realizes that her company does not offer paid maternity leave. In fact, she doesn’t even qualify for unpaid maternity leave since she hasn’t worked 1250 hours in the past twelve months. She’s suddenly jobless with a costly little bundle on the way, one that’s costlier without insurance, which she doesn’t have.
Once she has the baby, she goes out to find a new job to pay off the hospital bills while she leaves her infant child with Grandma. Jane gets hired as a third shift security guard making good money. She tries to receive child care assistance but since her night work hours don’t overlap with the childcare hours, she is ineligible. Now she’s taking care of the baby during the day with little sleep, and thus, little patience. As if the rest isn’t enough, her body isn’t producing enough breast milk, probably due to the stress, thus tacking on another expense: formula. Slowly but surely, Jane Doe slips into welfare to improve the life of her baby with the hopes that she’ll get a leg up on her expenses in the future.
Jane Doe is clearly fictional, but these experiences are all too real. I’ve heard from too many parents who have tried, I mean really tried to make things work, but eventually they gave up. They begin to receive assistance and instead of working to overcome that assistance, they fall into the narrow, welfare-eligible limbo. It’s a place where a person is eligible to receive benefits, but where they aren’t encouraged to make any more money for the fear that their benefits will be taken away. Add to the fact that many childcare centers are low-quality, and many preschool centers are “half-day” (2.5 hours), it is no surprise that these single-household families choose to stay at home with their children instead.
How can we change these policies to assist those in need? How can we empower families to work beyond government assistance? How can we improve child care facilities and make it more affordable for the masses? And how can we change the stigma attached to young African American women who stay home with their children?
Our representatives need to educate themselves and have more deliberate conversations around these topics. Cutting food stamps is not the result of a deliberate or educated conversation. The problem with this policy is that it’s not going to stop people from needing food; it’s simply going to create more hungry children and families. Let’s instead work to lessen the demand for assistance by creating independent families. This can be done by not only offering financial/food assistance, but also by offering job-readiness training, meal-planning, family-planning, and budgeting courses. It’s quite the opposite of cutting food stamps; instead, it’s putting a lot more money and focus into the welfare program. But I think over time, we would achieve what government assistance is really meant to establish: independence and initiative.
“You cannot build character and courage by taking away people’s initiative and independence.”
Laughlin, Linda. Who’s Minding The Kids? Childcare Arrangements: Spring 2011. Publication. United States Census Bureau, Apr. 2013. Web. Dec. 2013. <http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p70-135.pdf>.
“Managing Your Maternity Leave.” What Are My Maternity Leave Rights. Familyeducation, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <http://pregnancy.familyeducation.com/postpartum/maternity-leave/40392.html>.
Mustich, Emma. “Child Care Costs: ‘Who’s Minding The Kids?’ Report From Census Bureau Shows Rise Since 1985.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/child-care-costs-census-report_n_3015607.html>.
Perry, Bruce. “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood.” Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood. Scholastic, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/bonding.htm>.