ambition’s abilities

mixing sand soup on the playground.
mixing sand soup on the playground.

I recently read an Op Ed in the NYT written by a woman who, not unlike myself and many (many) of the women I know, decided after her children were born to return to work on her terms. It was a challenge for her, as it was for all the women I know (whether they returned to work or not) for many reasons: she felt judged and she judged herself; she felt left behind at work but not interested in leading the pack anymore; she had an identity that no longer seemed to fit, but which she wasn’t willing to entirely give up. Her ambitions had met their (7 1/2 pound) match. 

There are aspects of this article that resonated with me, and some that I take issue with, but it was a one-off comment that really got my attention: ” …I was able to visit my baby every day at his day care to nurse him for his midday feeding. ” What the author doesn’t say explicitly, but which we can certainly infer from her description, is that she had the luxury of having a day care where she felt comfortable leaving her son.

Regardless of the decision that any woman makes – or wants to make – about returning to work, it’s not an easy one. Every woman, or nearly every one (for surely there are exceptions) feels some measure of doubt about the decision that she’s making. And our public conversations are full of these expressions of self-doubt and guilt. What is conspicuously missing from the conversation – from public discourse, really – is how central the availability and accessibility to quality day care is to a woman’s ability, and right, to choose work outside the home.

When I was visiting colleges as a high school student I walked onto several campuses that immediately turned my stomach: it wasn’t that these were bad colleges, they were just bad for me.  But I was fortunate enough to have choices when it came to college, and I found a school that empowered and supported me (and didn’t make me queasy).  

Similarly, when it came to find childcare for my kids after our recent move, I had options. I found an amazing school that I could afford which offered my children an almost 1:2 child:teacher ratio, had an educational philosophy that believed in caring for the whole child, served meals that were more nutritious than I usually managed to get on the table for lunch at home, and encouraged my kids to fully engage with the world around them.

Daily, I take this for granted. There are women – no, there are parents – that drop their children in daycares that are suboptimal, for them. I don’t mean to suggest that there are childcares that are dangerous for kids, but certainly there are people that do not get to choose the daycare that their kids attend. They are limited by geography or economic means or needing to keep nontraditional work hours and as such they don’t have choices. They may even be forced to send their kids to care that turns their stomach because it’s the only option they have. 

Approximately 11 million children spend time in care outside their own home – some of them for a majority of their waking hours. While all of these care facilities – by state law – meet certain requirements, they are not all on equal footing. Many are amazing, some are not. Some have structured educational philosophies that recognize the importance of free play and have an integrated curriculum, others are simply places where children are watched by caring adults. I don’t meant suggest that one is good and one is bad: but one may be good for you that is not for me. And vice versa. 

I understand why we frequently discuss our conflicts with being a parent who works outside the home to one who only works inside it. But I’d love to see more people talking about what really allows them to experience these conflicts: the availability of highest quality childcare. Whether you lean into, back out of, or simply back down from work, your ambitions will only get you so far.

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