I am a single mother by choice. A year into my new dream job at a major university in New York City, I decided to start a family. I felt financially stable and believed I could do it all and have it all. Shortly after I gave birth, reality set in, and I quickly realized that the road ahead would be rocky and a bit unpredictable.
Following my maternity leave, I searched in vain for high quality, affordable childcare in New York City for my newborn twins. The sticker shock — about a third of my salary at the time — and the years-long waitlists made me wonder how other moms and families did it. Was I missing something? I couldn’t afford to stay home, but I couldn’t afford care either.
A couple of weeks before I was scheduled to return to work, my paternal grandmother flew in from California to help care for the twins. She became their full-time, unpaid caregiver. The four of us, along with my cat and dog, lived in a tiny, one-bedroom flat in Brooklyn, New York, making it work the best way we knew how. She stayed with us until the twins were 18-months old. Without her, I would not have been able to return to work full time and to a career I loved.
More than a decade later, I still struggle with care. The twins are now sixth graders and learning virtually like millions of other kids across the country. Although I am fortunate enough to work remotely, I am their primary caregiver making sure they stay on task, complete their assignments, and have a good lunch. It’s been a roller coaster. Weeks into their first term, I received an email from their teacher letting me know that they were falling behind. I panicked and blamed myself. We worked on the weekends, early mornings, and evenings after I finished work to catch up. It was exhausting for all of us. I eventually hired an out-of-work college graduate to help us—an option many working mothers do not have.
Many women, including myself, have internalized the problem of care. We blame ourselves if we can’t do it all or make it work. I have apologized on more than one occasion to colleagues for having to leave work early to pick my kids up from aftercare.
It shouldn’t be this way.
In the U.S. child care is treated as a private obligation of families, rather than as a public good that benefits society and the economy, and that allows women to sustain employment and advance in their careers. The United States is singular among developed nations in terms of how much is invested in care and supports for families. As a country, we spend less than 1 percent of our GDP on child care and early education, only above Turkey and Ireland.
To be sure, the pandemic has exposed the fragility and brokenness of the U.S. care system. High-powered corporate moms and those on the frontlines working to ensure we have groceries and other essentials, have all struggled with care. It’s an issue that cuts across race, socio-economic status, and occupation—impacting some families harder than others. This is a unifying moment that we cannot turn away from.
During World War II, the federal government invested in childcare so that women could work in factories and outside of the home while men were away fighting the war. When the war ended, funding was diverted away from care and many of the child centers closed. In 1971, President Nixon vetoed a law designed to create a nationally funded child care infrastructure saying it would weaken families and was fiscally irresponsible. He called nationally funded, local child care centers “a long leap into the dark.”
Now is the time for us to step into the light and to make caregiving a priority. We should invest in a national care system where no family spends more than seven percent of their income on care, and high-quality care is widely accessible. Expanding availability and lowering costs of child care would help families’ economic bottom line and could deliver a $1.6 trillion boost to GDP. It not only makes economic sense, it is the right thing to do.
Investing in a national care system would also go along toward improving the working conditions and pay of care workers, many of whom are women of color. Right now, most care workers are underpaid, have few benefits, and were among the first to fall out of the workforce during the COVID-fueled economic downturn.
There is much work ahead of us and I don’t want to lose this momentum. There is an opportunity to build a more just and equitable society, where—whether single or married—no working mother will ever have to choose again between earning a living or taking care of her family.