ASK ALMOST ANY new mom what her biggest worries are, and getting high-quality child care when it's time to return to work will invariably rank among the top three. It's a huge hurdle for working parents.
For starters, infant slots are few and far between. (Just check out the waiting lists.) Good care doesn't come cheap. Relatives aren't always available to fill in. And a squeeze is being felt as day-care workers leave the profession for better-paying jobs in other fields. Yet the quality of care that children receive in their earliest years is a key predictor of not only their future academic achievement, but also their emotional well-being, researchers say.
I guess that's why I feel as lucky as a beneficiary of the Bill Gates estate whenever I think about my aunt's daily contribution to my growing family's welfare: a positive environment for my 11-month-old son while his dad and I work to make ends meet.
"Auntie," an in-law and recent retiree, agreed to baby sit for Garvan about a month before he was born. She didn't ask my spouse or me for any money, but I insisted on paying for her time. In Auntie's first week on the job this year, she and I quickly reached common ground on three important issues:
Garvan would sleep on his back to reduce the risk of crib death.
I'd bring plenty of expressed breast milk each day because, as she likes to point out, her mammary glands are off duty.
And although she'd enjoy playing with him, I certainly couldn't expect her to glue the tyke to her hip all day.
Fortunately, things have gone really well. For about the first three months, she prepared thorough reports on Garvan's activities -- written in long hand and chock-full of details about everything from the frequency of bowel movements to his telephone "conversations" with friends. She's even organized his toys and supplies in special areas around her Northwest Washington home.
Garvan's daily itinerary -- which includes rounds of Patty Cake, neighborhood strolls and play time in one of those "smart baby" kiddie centers -- is a rich blend of old- and new-school child rearing.
Without question, Auntie is the only bright spot in my hour-long commute from Glen Burnie to work in Washington -- with her gentle smile, delicate beads and red curls framing her face. Moreover, at the end of each day, I've always found a bright-eyed little boy who clearly was at ease in her care.
Our relationship hasn't been all sugar and spice, however. We're both pretty bossy at times. But minor differences aside, my son, my spouse and I are blessed to have Auntie in our lives, especially given this country's grossly uneven child-care "system."
Foremost, top-notch services are hard to find. Recent studies have concluded that the quality of much of the nation's child care is mediocre to poor -- not exactly the way to ensure that all kids start school ready to learn.
When they are able to find a high-quality setting, many families soon realize that they can't afford it. Full-day child care easily costs between $4,000 and $10,000 per year, which is as much as tuition at some public colleges. Still, such fees seldom cover the full cost of providing decent services, experts say.
At the same time, caregivers' wages remain dismal because their salaries primarily are based on what parents pay for the work. Nationwide, child-care teachers in day-care centers earn, on average, $7 an hour, according to the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.
Family child-care providers -- "non-relatives" who work out of their own homes -- often make less. Not surprisingly, about a third of the country's child-care workers head for the exits each year, usually in search of better pay or benefits.
For children, a revolving door of caregivers has been linked to delays in both social and language development.
All told, roughly 5 million preschoolers with employed moms are in day-care, nursery school or the home of a family child-care provider on any given workday, Census figures show. Yet "the number of quality child-care facilities that meet high standards and offer employees a livable wage remains woefully inadequate," U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said in a speech last year.
These days, whenever people marvel at how happy my own kid seems, I often find myself reflecting on the impact of Auntie's special touch. I thank God -- and Auntie -- every day for her support. I also wonder why our society, which claims to value children, tolerates a child-care infrastructure with huge potholes and frustrating dead ends.
Vanee' Vines is a press officer for a Washington think tank and writes freelance articles from Glen Burnie.