Daycare is not a bad word

Today’s post was contributed by DrEvoEco, a tenured professor at a public research institution west of the Mississippi. 

As a scientist, a woman and a feminist, I always thought that the US should have a better family leave policy, and when I had my first child I was appalled that I really would have to return to work after about 6 weeks. I was the higher earning partner in my marriage, and taking 6 additional weeks unpaid didn’t seem tenable. Furthermore, I was pre-tenure, and even if we could have made it work financially, it did not seem like a good way for me to go about keeping my job*.

So, we planned ahead and found an excellent daycare. After some time home together, I finished out my leave, and then my husband took over, plus there were holidays, so all in all the baby didn’t start daycare until about 3 months old. Oof was that hard.  So so hard.  I didn’t know how I could bear such goodbyes every morning of every workday.

However, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Our daycare providers were professionals who took my baby’s development and health and happiness seriously, and who taught me so much. It was in many ways like having the extended family that used to commonly contribute to childcare. My daughter had more people to love and to love her, and she thrived.

I did, too. I taught well, and was productive enough to get tenure. As we all know, combining academics with having a family is not trivial to say the least, but it is also true that academia is one of the most flexible lines of work. I was able to spend lots of great time with my baby, and get my work done. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible, and even good.

I was awarded a nice grant for networking right after my daughter was born. When she was 8 months old, we held our first meeting and I had the pleasure of getting to work closely with an international group of scientists in my field. Most were men, and most were from Europe. Over the next few years, we continued to meet. One meeting took place when I was 7 months pregnant with baby number two.  With my wonderful husband in tow with number one (then almost three years old), I lugged my big belly to a meeting in Prague. I remember distinctly multiple men commenting to me that it was unusual to have a woman as a leader of such a group, and particularly a woman with not just one child, but with another on the way!

I started paying more attention, then, to the atmosphere for women in science in Europe, particularly in Germany, Switzerland and France. After getting tenure, I spent a year in France on sabbatical, and got to see all of it closer up. From what I observed in Germany and Switzerland, it seemed that access to luxuriously long paid family leave was not unequivocally good. Women scientists were judged if they did not take the maximum leave allowed to them. What kind of mother were they to not spend every waking moment possible with their child? Indeed, multiple people seemed to think that I was an indifferent mother because my daughters had spent substantial time in daycare before the age of three. Women I met who had “made it” in academia in Europe seldom had children. Early career women scientists were vocal about their plans to never have children. In contrast, a few others told me directly that they were getting their PhD because they loved the work, but that they had no plans to be professional scientists, because they wanted families, and to them, the two were perfectly incompatible.

Not reproducing is a valid choice, but I think that many of the women without kids might not have felt that they actually had a choice. They knew the penalty they would have to pay. To be a scientist meant just that, being a scientist. To be a mother would mean taking 42 weeks paid leave at a minimum, and likely over 2 years of leave to be with their children. That is a long time to be away from academia. Not an impossibly long time, but a very real barrier. Being a mother and not taking the maximum allowed time was, at least when I was there, considered a cold and heartless thing to do.

I was flabbergasted. I had always lamented that I had not had more family leave, yet it seemed to me that for those who had leave there were other problems to deal with. While having only 6 weeks paid leave is absurdly short, at least within my local scientific and academic circles, I have not felt judged for having my daughters in daycare. It was a fact of life, and besides, I firmly believe that daycare has been good for my daughters and for me. Daycare is not a necessary evil – quality daycare is a mind-expending and heart-expanding experience for children**.  Daycare rocks.

Clearly, to encourage equality in academia in the US and elsewhere, we need equal leave for mothers and their non-birth partners, and the partners need to actually take that leave. Also, we absolutely must find a way to subsidize daycare costs for graduate students and postdocs to put good daycare within reach. But another critical part of making it possible for women to stay in academia is embracing the wonderful things that quality daycare provides, and not judging families who have children in daycare, with or without leave to spare.

* To exacerbate that feeling was a statement made by a full professor after I had been on the job for two weeks. He opined that he hoped I was not planning to have children, because children would prevent me from doing cutting-edge science and getting tenure. Sigh.

** There is a lot of good research on the effects of time in daycare. As a scientist, I’ve tried to keep up with it, but surely have a very incomplete knowledge of this area so far outside my own field. What I have found focuses mostly on evaluating possible negatives associated with daycare, looking at a string of interrelated factors. Crime as an adult is associated with ‘externalizing behaviors,’ and some report that being associated with time in daycare (in Switzerland, interestingly), but most find no relationship. Instead, there is an association with insensitive maternal (which I read to be primary care taker) care and externalizing behavior, regardless of time spent in daycare. Lemay et al. (2012) provide a good overview, as well as a quantitative evaluation of internalizing and externalizing behaviors in relation to daycare and family status (vulnerable vs. non-vulnerable children). So, basically, results may vary, but high quality daycare generally helps, or has neutral effects on kids, and certainly helps parents!

23 thoughts on “Daycare is not a bad word

  1. My sister is a scientist in Germany. Childless. But she also said, it’s the women who say they want to stay with their children rather than pursuing science. The males in her field, even conservative married ones, actually wanted their wives to work and were very supportive of my sister’s carreer choices. I also know a male German scientist, who divorced his wife because she insisted in a conservative family structure. Obviously these are just anecdotes.

    • That is a really good point – I definitely don’t know very much about what the situation is really like in Germany or Switzerland, but I can definitely confirm that it was actually other women who were the most vocally judgmental of me having kids in daycare. I’m sure there are both men and women who are struggling against those attitudes, but in my (granted pretty limited) experience, there seemed to be general acceptance of the idea that moms should be at home. The experience made me realize more how key it is that not judge families using daycare, in whatever culture, if we want to see more women in professional fields.

  2. Yes… EXACTLY my experiences …..” who taught me so much. It was in many ways like having the extended family that used to commonly contribute to childcare. My daughter had more people to love and to love her, and she thrived.” – my experiences exactly, but with my son – a generation ago, when it was less ‘accepted’ for Mums to go back to work so early. Since then I have thought how unnatural it is to have one Mum and one Bub in isolation in every house along the street (exaggeration, but you know what I mean) and how much nicer it was that we could collaborate and share with people who knew more about babies than we did. And the kids benefitted too, from social interactions with other adults and with other kids of different ages who were in the daycare situation.

    • Thanks, d. And thanks for being among the ground breakers. Yeah, I think the multi-age mix is fabulous for the kids. Just found out about some new research today in that area that indeed shows that kids who do good quality daycare are in fact more easy going socially – have an easier time making and (importantly) keeping friends. They’ve learned from an early age how to negotiate desires and needs, how to make up, how to play and have fun. I love the vision of neighborhood daycare cooperatives!

  3. Six weeks paid leave? Sadly, that’s generous. At my university (public, state institution), we don’t get any paid leave unless we have short term disability insurance (an option to purchase, not a given) or banked sick and vacation time. Sure, we have FMLA protection so we can’t be fired for taking time, but that doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford it. Paid parental leave of any kind is a luxury in the US regardless of what kind of job you have, so it will take me some time to accept that “too much leave” is a problem worth complaining about. No system is perfect, but given the choice I’d rather have to deal with their parental leave situation than ours.

    Secondarily, daycare costs need to be subsidized for more than just students and post-docs. I’m an assistant professor and make less than my govt-employed husband, yet our dual income household can barely afford high quality childcare in our area. We almost stopped at one child due to childcare costs alone, and we certainly aren’t having more than 2 kids. Your tone and overall message in this post strike me as so amazingly privileged and naive. I agree completely that daycare isn’t a bad thing at all, IF you can afford to pay for quality. Many people, even in academia, not only can’t afford to take time off after a baby, but also can’t afford the kind of childcare that you’re talking about (thoughtful, caring, developmentally appropriate) for 6-week-old babies. Accepting the fact that daycare is okay is such a small part of the problem.

    All we have in the US is federal protection so we can’t be fired for taking 3 months of unpaid leave. The rest is up to each family to figure out on their own. Can’t we do better than that?

    • Hi Dr. Mom, You’re absolutely right that I’ve been privileged in my position, and that the problem is much larger than just the attitudes, but I do think the attitudes are an important component. Look at what inbabyattachmode is doing (comment below). She’s able to reduce her work week in part, I’m guessing, because she’s relatively privileged in going back to a ‘real’ job (according to her blog). If she were a postdoc it might be impossible to drop to 4 days a week, and dealing with the negative attitude really would add stress where it’s just not needed. The attitudes are a problem that should be able to be fixed easily (unlike the expense and leave), and I think it matters that they change. I think they are linked to the fact that societies are unwilling to pony up and make daycare accessible and affordable.

      Just as an FYI, my 6 weeks was “sick leave” as so often is the case if it is paid at all. Good thing no one actually got sick any time after that.

  4. Yes, I recognize this too! Here in the US we have our son in daycare five days a week. We are moving back to Europe soon and when we were checking out daycares there and asked if five days a week was possible we got surprised looks: “I guess it is possible but he would be the only child to be here five days a week” was the response. So we decided (like most scientists with children in my homecountry) to put the kids in daycare 3 days a week and each work 4 days instead of five. For now at least.

  5. I concur also on the wonders of daycare! Also, for me, I need to do research to be happy and be a better mom. I stayed home with my two children until they were 6 months old, and I was very happy to return to work after.

    Regarding availability of maternity leave and expectations that mom stays home, I admit that there is certain correlation. In Canada, I gave birth in two different places and I felt little pressure to stay home, although it’s true that I felt more pressure in the place that had the better benefits. It’s interesting that in my home country there is quite some pressure against sending children to daycare, and yet the maternity leaves are at most 4 months!

  6. This post seems strange to me, and I’m wondering if it is because the author’s experiences occurred some years ago? I can’t imagine anyone of my age and peer group judging any working woman who put their child into daycare. The current problem seems to be a lack of affordable daycare. If any feelings are directed to women that place their child in daycare it is more likely to be a mild sense of envy that a particular couple are able to afford daycare 5-days a week and that their child actually got a place in a semi-conveniently located facility.

    • In my experience, it’s not at all out-dated. Just look at the whole “mommy wars” phenomenon and the upsurge in attachment parenting! A number of my friends chose to stay home for all sorts of reasons, telling me “it’s better for my baby’s brain development” (implying that daycare means you don’t care about your child’s brain), or “you don’t want you baby to get nipple confusion if he uses a bottle,” or a host of other reasons. It may vary with social circle, socioeconomic status, or geographic region, but the anti-daycare sentiment is alive and well.

      • I still have one in daycare, so the experience isn’t all that old (my oldest is 8). And yeah, I get flack from neighbors about time spent/not spent with the kids. Sigh. But it is absolutely certain that we need subsidized, well-located daycare facilities – even if you can afford it, getting in is hard!

    • So, my youngest is 7 month old, he started daycare at 6 month old and I get “isn’t he too young?” “poor XY, already in daycare?” and “I’m so sorry you had to go back to work soon” (This is in Canada.)

      • @mathgirl … sometimes you just have to grin and bear it when others express their opinions… but stick to what you know is right for YOU. It is worth it in the end. Everyone is different, every child is different and every family finds its own way. No point arguing with these people, they won’t change and neither will you. I hope you feel comfort and support from people posting on this blog.

        • Thanks for your comment, d. I was simply illustrating what I experienced in light of NeuroJo’s comment implying that this kind of judging doesn’t exist nowadays. It exists in my world. I grew a thick skin (for this, at least) and it doesn’t affect me anymore, but I imagine other people being affected by this and other instances of the Mommy Wars. Thus, it is important to recognize that it exists…

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree wholeheartedly – interesting and depressing how that judgment falls on mothers/female partners and not their male partners/fathers about daycare or not.

    I hope someone can also share their viewpoint and experience from an institution or job level (e.g. grad or postdoc) that doesn’t have any paid leave. My large, “prestigious” R1 university has ZERO leave available for grads/postdocs for either partner — and not even an official policy or set of resources for those families. It’s entirely up to their supervisor, who could refuse to accommodate them, with the only option left of Leave of Absence: unpaid and unclear if they can remain on health insurance.

    • Yes, please grads, postdocs, adjuncts – tell us (faculty, grads, postocs, adjuncts) how you manage. And tell us profs how best to support you. Taking leave of absence thing without health insurance… ugh

      • I’ll tell you in ~1 month when I tell my advisor/committee I’m expecting, and in ~7 months when actually trying to manage the situation. In the meantime, there’s a lot of what-ifs and hand wringing.

        • Congratulations! And good luck. My current approach as an advisor is to just tell people to go for it and we’ll all manage together. Depending on lab situation (both social and physical lay-out) and field (cleanliness of space wrt chemicals etc.) I have seen folks set up a little nap spot and monitor for older babies, and just wear younger ones all day. I did that latter a bunch, too. Have even lectured with one strapped to me! Space is often limiting, but I hope office arrangements can be such that you can close and lock an office shared with only one or two reasonably close female colleagues for pumping and nursing.

  8. I’m a “second-generation” scientist: my mother was a researcher (in Germany and Hungary) and raised 3 girls. She had 1-3 months off with each of us, and then we were taken to day-care and Kindergarten (depending on the country). Also, my father contributed quite substantially to parenting (I’d say it was pretty much 50:50) and later we had au-pairs (in Germany school is only half-day). I even have vague memories of walking to my mums institute after school with our au-pair, when my younger sister was a couple of months old, so she could be breast-fed. It was all a rather unusual setup at the time, but we girls were all pretty happy, being together with other children from an early age onwards. Having said that there was a lot of social stigma: neighbours would make sly comments, because both my parents were working full time (they would half-jokingly comment on my mum being a “Rabenmutter”, which is German for saying she’s a bad mum). And I don’t think things have gotten much better: there are less and less places in daycare and Kindergarten, so if parents can’t pay for something private a mom might be stuck at home unwillingly. There was a promise for reform in Germany a couple of years ago, but then (particularly in the more conservative regions of Germany) there was a complete reversal, so instead of generating more day-care places, women are now encouraged to stay at home. I also see a similar trend in Hungary, as the old socialist childcare system is collapsing. Personally, I don’t have children, but more and more of my friends do have kids, and as far as I can tell, whether or not they stay at home is often less of a choice and more of a necessity (I know both: women who would like to return to work, but find it difficult, due to lack of childcare options and social acceptance, and women who would like to spend more time with their children, but can’t – mainly because of financial issues). I think what I’d like for if/when I have kids is to have that choice – but I think it will require both changes in government policies and social acceptance that working moms are not bad moms.

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  10. I think what is needed is less judgement about other people’s parenting decisions. Day care can be good or bad, depending on its quality and the specific needs of the child and parents. Same goes for having a parent at home full time. There are situations where one parent may be forced to work less or not at all due to a child’s illness or disability. That is unavoidable. But I think most of us would agree that people who want to pursue a career should not be forced out due a lack of high quality, affordable child care. Nor should they be pressured to meet someone else’s rigid expectations about how to structure their family life. We need to be gentle with each other and recognize that there are many, many different ways of being a good parent.

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