— Like others at the candlelight vigil this week, Patty O'Brien had been outraged by what she called the "stupid and thoughtless" remarks of two county officials who voted to cut off funding to the Head Start preschool program, declaring it was better if women stayed home with their kids.
But now, O'Brien, a working mother, was shocked at something much closer to home. Her 9-year-old daughter, who accompanied her to the Thursday night vigil, had a declaration of her own.
"I wish she didn't work," Loretta Donaghue said, "so I didn't have to go to day care."
And so continues the work-vs.-stay-at-home debate for mothers, one that seemed to have been settled long ago, if only by economic necessity: More than 70 percent of mothers work outside the home, the U.S. Department of Labor says, and, as the recession put more men out of work, increasing numbers of women are their family's sole breadwinner.
But the debate was revived here after a newly elected Board of County Commissioners voted two weeks ago to cut the county's entire $2.3 million share of Head Start, about half of the program's budget. That was shocking enough to some county residents, but what ignited a fierce dispute was how two of the commissioners took the opportunity to say that it was preferable for women to stay home with their young children as their wives did.
"As many of you know, I had a lot of kids, and my wife stayed home at significant sacrifice during those early years, because she knew she had to be with those kids at that critical age," said Commissioner C. Paul Smith, the father of 12. "I know everybody isn't able to survive doing that, but clearly, as we can strengthen marriage we can decrease the children that we have to reach."
Another commissioner, Kirby Delauter, offered a similar view: "I'd just like to say I had four kids that graduated from Frederick County public schools. My wife, college-educated, could go out and get a very good job. She gave that up for 18 years so she could stay home with our kids, we had to give up a lot to do that. ... I never relied on anyone else to guarantee the education of my kids."
To many, the comments smacked of cluelessness and sanctimony, with their assumption that the strongest marriages and the best parents were those in which the mother stayed home. Others in this largely conservative county rose to defend the commissioners, who said the funding cut was needed to help close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
Some residents said the words and actions of the board starkly illustrated the impact of the November elections, in which, here as in elsewhere across the country, conservative Republicans swept into office with agendas they now are rushing to enact. Frederick County's Board of County Commissioners went from a 3-2, Republican-Democratic split to all-Republican.
"That's how we got to where with are with this board," Cheryl Dapsanski said with a sigh at Thurday's vigil. There, in a crowd of about 150, some of whom waved hand-scrawled protest signs, Dapsanski, a graphic designer, held up a professionally printed one that said, "2011 Frederick BoCC: My family may not look like yours but my kids grew up to be productive taxpayers."
Dapsanski is married, but for a time when she was raising two sons, now both in the military, she was a single working mother. She is particularly angry that commissioners targeted a program for the impoverished — families below the federal poverty guidelines, $22,050 for a family of four.
"The people least able to defend themselves are the ones affected first," she said.
Commissioners say they were elected with a mandate to cut taxes and government spending. Since taking office in December, they have embraced a slew of conservative issues, from studying how to privatize some government services to cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Then on Feb. 8 came the 4-1 vote to discontinue funding for Head Start, started 45 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. In Frederick County, about 280 3- to 5-year-olds attend Head Start classes designed to help them prepare for school.
The decision to cut county support for Head Start came as part of efforts to close an $11.8 million budget deficit, and commissioners said the program would continue, but with about half of its current funds, mostly from the federal government.
The program tends to get targeted during budget-cutting times. The current Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, included a $1 billion cut to the program as part of a plan to slash about $60 billion in federal spending.
The White House and other supporters, however, say the program is needed to help level the educational playing field for disadvantaged children. Coincidentally, on the same day as the Frederick vigil, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited a Head Start center in Adelphi to highlight sections of President Obama's recently released 2012 budget that call for $8.1 billion for Head Start and an additional $350 million for an early childhood learning fund.
Frederick County's funds will stop flowing to Head Start at the end of the month, and a federal contractor has been named to run the program for now. The contractor, Community Development Institute, has said it hopes classes will not be disrupted. It expects to rehire most of the current 80 employees — although at lower salaries and benefits, given the reduced funding.
"We don't know how it's going to fall out, happening in the middle of a program year," said Pat Rosensteel, the Head Start director. "They're still crunching the numbers."
Supporters remain stunned at how quickly the board moved to cut off Head Start.
"It was a rumor, and then it was done," said Nikki Wachter, a member of the county's Head Start Policy Council, a parents' advisory group.
Wachter, a Walkersville resident, says Head Start gave her now-first-grade son such a boost in social and academic skills that he reads above his grade level and is enrolling in his school's gifted-and-talented program. She placed her son in Head Start as a 4-year-old because she works and her husband is retired on disability.
"My son would have sat in front of a TV all morning," she said.
She believes the commissioners were criticizing the wrong parents, making it sound like those who opted for Head Start were somehow the negligent ones.
"The whole point of Head Start is to encourage families to be involved with their children," she said. "Obviously these families care enough about their children to have them in the program."
As the uproar continues, Commissioner Smith has tried to further explain his remarks, although he stands by his original point. Commissioner Delauter did not respond to a request for comment.
"I think the ideal situation is for parents to take care of their own children," Smith told The Baltimore Sun. "The mother is the one to be the best situated to take care of small children. I believe that."
Smith sounds a bit surprised by what he stirred up, particularly since, as a lawyer, he has occasionally represented women in divorce and custody cases, sometimes pro bono or at a reduced rate.
"It was not my intent to pile on people whose circumstances are already difficult. I understand their plight," he said. "I understand people can't have the ideal I describe, but we should still strive for the ideal."
Board President Blaine Young supports the decision and the commissioners' right to "their personal perspective." He maintains that the cut is necessary and vows that the board will continue slashing the budget to make up the deficit.
"We ran on the fact that we would balance this budget," Young said. "That's my Number 1 concern: compassion for the taxpayer."
Despite the outcry, Young says he has received a lot of positive responses, which may have something to do with his being the host of a conservative call-in radio show.
"A tremendous amount of people are thankful we're making tough decisions," he said. "Many aren't — they're either users or customers [of the cut programs], or of the liberal mind-set."
A few supporters of Smith, in particular, turned up at the vigil, even though its organizers, the county's Commission for Women, took pains to say this was not an us-vs.-them dispute.
"He's a good guy," said Jennifer Charlton-Shuldes, president of the women's group, which is appointed by the county commissioners. "He has a point of view, but that doesn't work for everyone. The diversity of choice is a good thing, and we should honor everyone's choice."
The vigil, held outside county offices in the historic Winchester Hall building in downtown Frederick, played out largely along those lines, with Charlton-Shuldes talking about choices and flexible work schedules. About 150 people lingered as their candles burned down, chatting and enjoying the unseasonably warm February night.
If anything, the group that gathered reflected the complexity of family life — and how the decision to work or stay at home often isn't a voluntary one.
Gil House, a retired engineer, came out to defend Smith and his ideal of stay-at-home mothers. But his own life is testament to how life can conspire to frustrate such ideals: After he and his wife split up, he became his two children's custodial parent, raising them with the help of his parents and, yes, day care.
"I was Mr. Mom," said House, who lives in Urbana. "But the mother traditionally has been the one to nurture the children."
For Patty O'Brien, who is married and works as a home health physical therapist, a job is a necessity on several levels. She believes, she says, that "women have a moral obligation to work."
Her daughter plans to work — as "a professional soccer player," Loretta says — but doesn't think she can do that and be a mother. O'Brien hopes that one day she'll realize that the current fight in Frederick County is part of a continuing battle for her to have the right to do both.
"When I was playing soccer, I had to play on the boys' team because there wasn't a girls' team," O'Brien said, gazing at Loretta. "They take so much for granted at this age. They don't understand how quickly it can be taken away."