As a grad student, working on a master’s in counseling psychology, I once argued that childcare was a couples’ issue, not a women’s issue. We had come a long way baby! We were living in a new age: Men and women shared equally in domestic responsibilities –didn’t we?
I was living the dream. In my first job out of grad school, I earned $4000 more than my finance! Yes sir, women could compete in a man’s world!
My husband and I continued on for a few years in a fairly level field. And then he went back to grad school for a doctoral degree while I worked two jobs to pay his tuition and our living expenses.
Then, just before John’s graduation, our first son was born. No one told this infant that men and women share childcare responsibilities equally. He knew, right from the start that men and women were not created equally. He was committed to nursing and would have nothing to do with a bottle. He voiced his protests loudly and incessantly. In fact, once he learned to speak, son #1 articulated his preferences quite clearly, “Not you, Daddy; I WANT Mummy!” was his first full sentence.
Still physically drained after a very difficult pregnancy and complicated delivery, I took a job as a research assistant for an injury study. Babies are only infants for a very short time, I reasoned. This break would present but a speed-bump in my career path. I went to the office once a week for a staff meeting and to gather up my case files for the coming week. I planned that I would interview patients over the phone while the baby napped. My son never got the memo.
He had colic.
He was active and very alert.
He did NOT nap!
I interviewed patients while the baby nursed on my lap, played with toys I dangled in front of him or while pacing with the baby strapped to me in a sling.
Just as I was preparing to return to “real work,” my husband finished his doctorate and accepted a position–in Minnesota, a state where my counseling degree was not recognized as licensable.
Without a license, the only jobs I could find paid less than the cost of childcare! I reinvented myself again as writer. It would only be a year to two, John said, ’till he got established. Then we would move back East.
So, I managed to carve out a career that I worked around child care. I would put my son and my husband to bed and then “go to work.” I would work until I fell asleep at the desk or finished the assignment. I managed to publish a slew of articles and my first book came out. I had a lineup of book signing events scheduled and was on my way!
And then we got the call to adopt our second son. They told us he was aged three and a half, but he came with a whole host of undisclosed special needs–one of which was that he was actually six. While I canceled my book tour, my husband took on more responsibility at the hospital and more patients in private practice and finished a national board certification in forensic psychology.
Son #2 and I played “doctor-of-the-day” seeking out an ever expanding array of medical experts to get his issues straightened out. It seemed that for every career step forward John made, I took three steps backward. Now 15 years past grad school, John made more than four times what I did so it only made financial sense that he left all these doctor and therapist appointments to me. In the first year, #2 had three outpatient surgeries requiring extensive day and night followup at home, and two hospitalizations requiring one parent to room-in for a week at a time.
Have you ever heard a sick or hurt child sobbing for his daddy? Nope, me neither. Though postoperatively stoked with pain killers, this child managed to repeatedly whimper the only English word he knew, “Mama!”
I continued the daily rounds of doctors, therapists and advocacy groups trying to get help. I researched and implemented every diagnosis and treatment plan. I lobbied against state budget cuts for special needs children’s programming.
The urologist, engaged for #2 in the midst of a bladder stone crisis that we hadn’t been apprised of prior to adoption, said that I asked better questions than his medical residents. I should consider going to Medical School. He would write a recommendation. I was stunned. How would I pay for that? And, if I couldn’t afford child care for a typical child when I was working, how would I afford child care for six years for a special needs child when I wasn’t working?
I carried my laptop everywhere and wrote in waiting rooms and on playgrounds. I hired babysitters on an as-needed basis and led workshops for would-be writers on weekends when my husband was home, organized writing conferences and networked with writers around the globe. To keep my counseling skills active, I taught active listening skills to church outreach groups and taught parenting skills to mother’s groups.
When the preschool refused to take #2 because of his by then well diagnosed multiple special needs, I agreed to sit in the hallway outside the classroom in case I was needed urgently. I sat on a classroom chair with my laptop for three hours every day, five days a week for two years because this child NEEDED to be in preschool more than any other child I ever knew. Still, I produced hundreds of articles for Harcourt Educational Testing.
And then we got a phone call that our daughter was waiting for us to fly to China to adopt her.
Unlike Son #2, this two-year-old child was physically sound, not a scratch or parasite or undiagnosed anything! But she was emotionally traumatized. For a full year she did not let go of me. She clung like a baby opossum. I wrote with her sitting on my lap, clinging to me and with my arms wrapped around her. She screamed in terror if I stepped out of view even for a second. I even learned to perform a full regimen of bathroom activities with a second person attached. We moved her toddler bed next to our bed because she would not sleep unless she was touching me. If she woke in the night and my hand was not on her she would have dissociative panic attacks that lasted hours and were loud enough to wake at least the neighbors if not the dead.
I think now, that in my younger, less experienced life, that I had seriously miscalculated the impact of childbearing and child rearing on a woman’s life. Although I still believe, in an egalitarian society, it should be a couple’s issue, biology and the structure of the American workplace conspire against women to keep this a women’s issue. Not all women bounce back from life threatening complications of pregnancy able to plow fields the following day –or even months later. It was nearly a year after I had given birth before I began to feel “normal” again.
I know that other countries do a much better job of this. China, for example currently has a proposal under consideration to extend the mandatory maternal leave to 3 years. Onsite childcare and employer sponsored sick childcare would help nursing mothers and ease the separation of anxious toddlers and sick children who know “that mommy is just upstairs.” Mothers who know that if their child needs them, taking a break to stop down-stairs to the daycare center is a very real possibility. Such a scenario would be free them for real work-place productivity.
So, if it’s not too late, I’d like to take back that assertion about childcare being a couple’s issue. I concede that, in America, it is still very much a woman’s issue–though I wish it was a couples issue or even an issue that society and more policy makers as a whole took seriously.