Why "Lean In, Grandma" Is Not the Answer to Our Child Care Problem

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Every August, Washington seems to empty out, and you can do the unthinkable - drive from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes flat. It takes longer to shop at the farmers' market, selecting from the cornucopia of seasonal produce, than it does to get through the morning paper, skimpy without the political coverage. Happily, though, articles about mothers continue to appear, as our growing national conversation about public policy and private life advances.

Two articles appeared within a single news cycle about women in the work force and child care, from two totally different vantage points. The titles are revealing -- in the New York Times, Crushed by the Cost of Child Care, from the Washington Post, Lean In, and Lean On Grandma. Clearly, looking after the very young is a major problem for American families. If parents do it, their ability to earn an income is hit hard and may never recover, even if and when they do go back to paid work. If they pay someone else to do it, a different kind of cost is incurred. Child care is hugely expensive, the quality of care varies greatly, and work hours often don't align with the hours care is available. Not surprisingly, a mother alone cannot solve the dilemma, and she is the most likely parent to be on the front lines.

grandmother and child
Image by Sherif Salama via Flickr

The NYT piece points out that child care is as much a middle class problem as an issue for the working poor:

"The cost and the scarcity of day care has helped create what the sociologist Joya Misra calls “the motherhood penalty.” While women without children are closer to pay equity with men, women with children are lagging behind because they find that working doesn’t always make sense after considering the cost of child care. When women earn less than their partners, they are more likely to drop out of the work force, and if they do so for two years or more, they may not be able to get back in at anything approaching their prior job or earnings. The cost of taking care of one’s children outside the home is now so high that many women cannot be assured of both working and making a decent income after taxes and child care costs."

While more women than ever are primary or co-breadwinners, it is still true that many mothers of pre-school age children are holding on to their jobs, if not their paychecks, for fear that there will be no job to come back to if they quit to stay home. But the more children you have, the higher the cost of care, and the harder it is to protect your position in the paid work force.

Writing in the WashPost, Kelly Yang offers a solution she observed in China:

"All that’s needed is a simple cultural shift, and China can show them how it’s done. There, 51 percent of positions in senior management are held by women, and about 19 percent of its chief executives are women. In the United States, just 20 percent of senior managers and 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women. The explanation for China’s striking numbers is not the effect of some persuasive TED talk, best-selling book or even better access to affordable child care. Instead, it’s because, in China, the grandparents lean in."

Yang noted that, according to data from the city of Shanghai, 90% of children there are being cared for by a grandparent. Heavily invested in their grown child's success, Chinese grandparents are more likely to travel and spend considerable periods of time looking after grandchildren than their counterparts in the West. Apparently this is true even when the grandparent must abandon his or her spouse and employment, relocate and work without pay in the child's home.

I'm the first to agree that we are in need of a "cultural shift", but I don't think it involves grandmothers. What determines women's advancement towards economic security and parity in power and leadership? The presence of another female family member present in the household who will do the family carework without compensation - this looks like a dicey proposition to me. What happens if you don't have a willing grandma, healthy enough, rich enough, and inclined to leave her own home and/or spouse? And what if you don't particularly want your mother, as wonderful as she is, raising your children?

One reason child care in the US is so far behind is our framing of the issue as a family matter. Of course, family preferences and needs do vary, but we are also talking about women's status, family economic security, and the early education of our most precious national resource, our children. The NYT piece understands this:

"We see day care as a private responsibility.... Across the world, though, people count on the availability of day care and see it as a collective good: Americans don’t tend to do so as readily. More access to quality early childhood care would help. But those solutions go only part of the way. The most radical solution of all is the most obvious: we need high-quality, universal, subsidized day care. And we should not be ashamed to ask for it."

Or, perhaps, insist upon it.

'Til next time,


Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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