SAN DIEGO — Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz has studied the problem of child care from a series of vantage points--mother, author, psychotherapist. She has concluded that "neither wealth nor fame nor competence nor access to resources guarantees anyone anything in regard to child care."
Shaevitz, 42, author of the best-selling "The Superwoman Syndrome" and mother of two children, ages 9 and 11, said of the child care dilemma, "I hate it."
"Your toilet is broken, you call a plumber," she said. "Food for a party? Call a caterer. Child care seldom offers such simple solutions."
When Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell, 41, first had children, "I didn't want to leave them with anybody ," she said. So, she didn't. Then an attorney, McConnell took her first child to work, even to depositions across town.
"It wore me out," she said. "I didn't want to leave those little ones, but my second child hated the office. I couldn't understand it. She was quiet at home and a monster at work. It was not a workable solution."
The unworkability of the child care dilemma has left millions of parents stranded without answers. For parents whose careers show promise but who want children as well, child care looms as a maze of confusion and angst. The key, many say, is money.
For Shaevitz, affluence is the dividing line between sanity and what Shaevitz calls a life of complete chaos.
"What are the symptoms?" she asked. "Helplessness, panic, a life out of control. If it stays that way for a period of time, a woman may start to show physical trauma--sleeplessness, insomnia, anxiety. She may be able to afford it, but even if she can, she and her husband have to set the criteria. That can be hard.
"Nobody trains child care people. Can you imagine what would happen if you and I had to find teachers for children--if there were no public school apparatus? We're not just talking about 'birth to 5' (years of age) here. It goes beyond that. It's enormously difficult for a number of years."
The responses from one parent to the next are as varied as the people themselves. Some prefer live-in nannies, others abhor the loss of privacy (and the cost) such a scenario demands. Still others see the need for couples--two-career couples, especially--to find help in maintaining a balance among marriage, family and work.
Shaevitz called it the most vexing issue of the times.
It may be most vexing for single parents, whose numbers tend to rise in direct proportion to the staggering divorce rate. Kathy Earnest, 28, knows of the sleepless nights, the depression and guilt Shaevitz describes. The mother of two children, ages 6 and 2, she was left by her husband, whose whereabouts are unknown and who doesn't pay child support.
After trying various child care scenarios, Earnest found that "taking welfare paid better." In other words, working a full-time job and depending on baby sitters cost more than going back to school and using governmental aid to meet the big-budget tab of child care.
Earnest has suffered the "quintessential bad experiences" that most mothers fear in leaving children in the hands of someone else. One baby sitter's child played with Earnest's son, four years younger. Months later Earnest discovered that the older boy had taken to locking her son in a closet. She also learned that both children played in the street, unsupervised.
Making ends meet, making sure her children are cared for, has left Earnest--a young woman--with " no social life" and almost no hope of finding a husband "who'd be willing to take on such a brood."
Welfare has allowed her, however, to leave her children with a part-time sitter and pursue a dream of becoming a doctor.
"I've got to have a job that pays something," she said. "It's a necessity. I'd always wanted to be a veterinarian, but it doesn't pay. I've got to do this."
In the meantime, she and the children live in cramped quarters with her mother, their grandmother, a woman with worsening medical problems.
"I see a lot of depression among women in my situation," Earnest said. "If anything like an emergency comes up, it knocks you right off your feet. Sure all of this stress makes you stronger, I guess . . . . But you need a hell of a lot of support from everyone you meet."
Elliott Levin, 33, knows of the maddening uncertainties, the "end of a normal life." He's raising a 4-year-old boy whose mother joined a religious commune shortly after his birth. Levin works as a respiratory therapist. His career has been affected, perhaps forever. Having a child has kept him from rising in the ranks, as he might have had he had the time to be obsessed about work.
Now the obsession is making sure his son is cared for every second of the day.
"I often feel like a taxicab waiting at the curb with the meter going," he said. "I'm always conscious of the child. His care is a constant preoccupying force."