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What I Learned After A Week Of Free Childcare

Childcare is an accessibility issue. It determines a parent’s – let’s be real, a mother’s – ability to exist in the world and participate in society.
Happy preschool teacher educating large group of children in kindergarten.
Happy female teacher teaching group of small kids in a preschool.

Every summer I volunteer for a week at a day camp where girls learn to play music. It’s a beautiful oasis of art and feminism and love and empowerment, but there’s another reason camp week is my favorite of the whole year: Free childcare is provided for volunteers all week.

I am a work-from-home mother, and although I cling to that word “work” as a reminder that I still exist to the world outside my home, the truth is that the bulk of my time and energy goes to caring for my daughter. Sometimes it’s soul-drainingly exhausting and sometimes it’s a joy, and it is always the primary way I move through the world. Whether I’m writing, running errands, or trying to relax, the first thing I am constantly aware of is where my child is and what she needs – and if I’m in public, her effect on other people. Is she being loud? Is she making a mess? Is she sharing with other children? It takes so much energy, knowing in any space not specifically designated for children our presence is suspect, that I must make adjustments and apologies to justify being where I am.

For those busy, chaotic, over-scheduled, emotional, loud days in the hottest part of the summer, I get the incomparable blessing of not having to perform the mental and physical gymnastics to render myself as a parent who is socially palatable. I am allowed to be there, to participate fully while also knowing my daughter is safe with whichever of my fellow volunteers has the child care shift that day. Someone has my back.

I am so grateful for this it makes my eyes tear up. Then I’m annoyed by my gratitude, because this shouldn’t be rare.

Childcare is an accessibility issue. It determines a parent’s – let’s be real, a mother’s – ability to exist in the world and participate in society. Parents, again almost universally women, give up their careers after having children, not because they want to, but because day care costs more than they can earn. We push women out of the work force, out of the public sphere entirely, rather than deal with the fact that people with children have specific needs.

People who don’t want to deal with children in public places have a mantra: “Get a sitter.” For months, I’ve been trying to find a few hours of childcare a week so I can have some uninterrupted writing time. I am incredibly lucky in that I can actually afford this, or at least I would be able to if I could find it. Day care waiting lists are months-long; nannies and sitters are booked solid. For the many, many parents working hard to stretch every dollar, the price tag for even a few hours of babysitting is simply untenable. “Get a sitter” can sound like as fantastic a suggestion as “Get a jetpack.” So when I have errands to run, a doctor appointment, a coffee date with a friend, my daughter comes with me.

Any time parents talk about our needs, or merely act as though we have them, a certain vocal subset of our culture gets extremely upset. I vividly remember the time I saw someone arguing with apparent sincerity that it was never acceptable to take a child under the age of 5 on an airplane, never, no matter what. If you made the mistake of having children, this person asserted, you were socially obligated to drive everywhere you might need to go until they were in kindergarten.

I hope we can all agree it’s absurd to demand that a certain group of people not exist in public because others find their presence aesthetically objectionable. The limit of where you can bring a child should be whether or not it might be harmful to the child, not whether it’s detrimental to another adult’s enjoyment. Sex parties, bungee jumping, very loud concerts – leave your kid at home, because that’s in their best interest. Fancy restaurants? I mean, if you want to spend that kind of money to just to have someone three feet tall smear avocado on your dress, that is your right as a human being.

Children are people, and so are their parents — that shouldn’t be a controversial opinion. For me to actively participate in the world, my child needs to be welcome too. This is the case for so many mothers, and yes, some fathers and other parents too, but mostly mothers, and that means this is also a misogyny problem: Women’s contributions in the public sphere are viewed as less important than the inconvenience of having to deal with children. If children are not to be seen or heard, then neither are their primary caregivers. This worldview elevates my ability to keep my child from bothering people above anything else I might bring to the table. It treats my absence as my most valuable attribute.

Asking for access and support as parents gets broadly dismissed as seeking “special treatment.” But accommodating the needs of children and parents isn’t “special” any more than it’s indulgent to provide a wheelchair ramp or gluten-free food options: It’s simply making it possible for people to participate. Fairness doesn’t mean offering the same thing to everyone; it means removing as many barriers as we can.

Offering childcare, or explicitly saying that children are welcome, removes a barrier for parents like me. It invites us to move through the world as equals. It says, yes, you matter. We want you here. It allows me to glimpse the kind of world I want for my daughter – one in which we don’t have to atone for the space we take up, for the sound of our voices. A world that is listening to what we have to say.

 

This piece is co-published with Role Reboot, a nonprofit daily news site that specializes in telling the stories of people living their lives off-script.

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