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Sandy Banks

Looking for Validation in War Over Child Care

April 24, 2001|Sandy Banks

They were still talking about it on Saturday at the birthday party, as they herded their 4-year-olds through the maze at Chuck E. Cheese. And on Sunday, outside the church nursery, as their 5-year-olds lined up to leave. And on Monday, as they trundled off with their toddlers to the park or kissed sleeping babies they were leaving with nannies.

For stay-at-home moms, this latest salvo in the child-care wars was validation of the choice they've made. For working moms, like me, it was one more arrow in the quiver of guilt, fired straight into the heart of our insecurities.

In case you missed it, child-care researchers declared last week that kindergartners who have been in day care full time have more behavior problems than those who have been cared for at home full time by their moms.

According to the largest long-term child-care study ever conducted, three times as many day-care kids--17% versus less than 6% of those whose mothers stay home--demonstrate "demanding and aggressive" behavior in kindergarten. They are more likely to defy their teachers, boss other kids and talk too much in class. . . . normal kid stuff for sure, but seen more often.

The experts are not sure what it means. Is it time away from mom that causes behavior problems, or the stresses that overworked, exhausted parents bring to bear on families? And who knows what these kids will be like later, in first grade or fourth or junior high? What's considered "demanding" at age 5 might translate to leadership at 13.

Indeed, two years ago this same survey also found that these day-care kids were, at age 3, better adjusted than their homebound peers. Even now, in kindergarten, they continue to score higher on tests of language and cognitive ability.

What's more, the study found, day care doesn't make or break a child: "Researchers found that the characteristics of the family--particularly the sensitivity of the mother--were stronger predictors of children's behavior than their child-care experience."

But those caveats seem to matter little to mothers, who have made the study's findings a lightning rod for regret, guilt and self-righteousness.

It's a snapshot of our children at one moment in time . . . no more a harbinger of who they'll become than the predictions of scribbled messages in our high school yearbooks about the women we'd become. Yet we are so desperate for status reports, for some way to measure our mothering, we turn a peek at kindergartners at play into a referendum on our parenting.

*

On the day the study hit the news, I slipped away from work to join my 12-year-old daughter and a friend--and her stay-at-home mom--at a restaurant for lunch. I tried not to watch the clock, as we chatted about "Spy Kids" and science fairs.

As I rose to return to work--and the other mom headed with our girls to a movie--I heard snatches of conversation from a table across the way. The speaker was yelling above the din created by half a dozen toddlers and their moms.

"You have to see this article in the paper. It's frightening," she told them, putting her own spin on the child-care findings. "These kids, the ones whose mothers work, they're violent by the time they get to kindergarten!" she declared. The other mothers tsk-tsked and shook their heads. "I'm not surprised," one said, as she tried gently to shush her crying child. "I don't know why these women have kids if they don't want to raise them."

I slipped past them burning with envy and shame, wishing I had the luxury of a full afternoon in a restaurant with my daughters.

And I realized that our angst over this study has less to do with bossy kids and busy moms than with our need for validation in the face of our vulnerabilities.

What stay-at-home mom hasn't felt like a martyr--isolated, unappreciated, overwhelmed by fussy kids and sticky floors and dirty laundry? What working mother hasn't stared down guilt, no matter how satisfying the job, how great the nanny, how happy the kids?

And so we face off across a chasm of resentment and misunderstanding, each side desperate for proof that the choices we've made will serve our children well.

*

News of the study lit up the radio airwaves.

Mostly it was stay-at-home moms calling in, grateful for a chance to gloat about the sacrifices they've made. They clip coupons and shop secondhand stores, so they can have happy, well-behaved kids.

Occasionally, a father was on the line, convinced the study gave him bragging rights. "My wife and I made a choice when our first child was born," announced one proud dad. "She would stay home with the kids, and I would support the family."

It hasn't been easy financially, he said. "Each month, we wind up about $500 in the hole. And we have to dig into our savings to make up the difference. But it's worth it. Our kids are great."

And I laugh as I click off the radio.

So that's the simple route to perfect parenting, the solution to making ends meet for moms like me who are juggling work and kids: land a husband with a high-paying job or amass a bank account big enough to absorb the cost of raising kids.

I swing my car into the lot of a 7-Eleven. It's time to buy a ticket for the lottery.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Fridays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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