This Mother’s Day, Get Your Mom What She Really Wants: Some F*cking Child Care

America used to have universal child care. What happened?

“Do you know who else liked universal day care,” tweeted Sen. Marsha Blackburn with a link to an article about the Soviet Union.

Blackburn was responding to the Biden administration’s push to remake the American child-care system. Blackburn’s response is an ahistorical bit of propaganda, which ignores the fact that universal day care actually helped America win World War II.

Here is how it happened: with men fighting in the war, America needed women to fill the gap in the workforce. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of women who held wage-paying jobs grew from 27.4 percent to 37 percent. And 75 percent of all these women were married. 

In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act, under which the American military began setting up child-care centers to support the war effort.

There was a lot of opposition. When Eleanor Lowthian Clay organized an effort to show movies about these child-care centers to working women, she was shut down by her father-in-law, Henry Ford. But because child-care centers were tied not to the liberation of women but to the liberation of America, the centers gained public policy backing, and over 600,000 children received care through the centers during the war.

But the moment the war was over, the centers began to unravel. And they unraveled because once the war was won and men returned, women were seen not as a necessary part of the workforce, but as an accoutrement. In America, working for men has always been a necessity, an important part of their identity. For women, it’s framed as a choice.

Or, I should be clearer, for white women, working is framed as a choice. Women have always worked in America. And I don’t just mean the fact that women have long supported the entire American endeavor with unpaid labor. What I mean is, Black women have always been a vital part of the American workforce. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that the child-care centers created by the Lanham Act often discriminated against Black families.)

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “In 1880, 35.4 percent of married black women and 73.3 percent of single black women were in the labor force compared with only 7.3 percent of married white women and 23.8 percent of single white women. Black women’s higher participation rates extended over their lifetimes, even after marriage, while white women typically left the labor force after marriage.”

Staying at home, leaning out, is not an option for many families. Framing women as wage-earners as a choice ignores the fact that race and class issues impact whether a woman can or should stay home.

As the EPI points out, only white women are seen as mothers first; Black women are seen as wage-workers.

Discriminatory public policies have reinforced the view of black women as workers rather than as mothers and contributed to black women’s economic precarity. This has been most evident with protective welfare policies that enabled poor lone white mothers to stay at home and provide care for their children since the early 20th century. These policies were first implemented at the state level with Mother’s Pensions and then at the national level with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. Up until the 1960s, caseworkers excluded most poor black women from receiving cash assistance because they expected black women to be employed moms and not stay-at-home moms like white women.

In sum, Black women were denied benefits and help that were given to white women, because Black women were expected to work.

It’s not much different now. As the fist of the pandemic squeezes American families, it’s women who are opting out of the workforce to fill in the gaps. A recent article in The Atlantic is notable only in that it shows privileged white women who can quit their jobs and frames the issue as one of taking care of children, rather than an economic choice. The article dances around, but never answers, what are their husbands doing for work that they can make these choices? Or, more accurately, what are their husbands not doing at home that the women have to make these choices.

In these stories and in our culture, white women leaning out of the labor force is framed as a choice. Men not doing child care is framed as a necessity.

But this framing privileges one kind of woman over another. The kinds of women who can lean out for a bit and do so at the expense of other women. And it’s simply not necessary.

Take your Mother’s Day cards and shove them. Just give us some child care. 

After WWII, the government cut funding to child-care centers, but women pushed back. Organizing sit-ins and protests. The result was that the program was shifted into other welfare programs. But it was always piecemeal, a tax credit here or there, and always woefully inadequate. David Brooks wrote in defense of the tax credit, but a tax credit is so far removed from the realities of our lives. If you are earning minimum wage and your kids’ school is closed, no one is thinking about how lucky they are for a tax credit to hire a nanny. A tax credit means nothing to people who need help now, right this minute. And also, laugh-sob, hiring help in a pandemic? I would have loved to write off some child care to help my tax bill this year, but it simply wasn’t available, and if available, it wasn’t affordable or manageable. The reality is, that without help, child care is pieced together with low-cost day care or family help. A tax credit? Give me child care.

Also, arguments about the necessity of women focusing on their children ignore the fact that it’s only recently that raising children has been the job of just two parents. Or, more accurately, a harried, stressed-out mom and a man who can’t remember to wipe the counters.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that America even came close enough to pushing through what most developed nations have: affordable universal child care. But the efforts were defeated once again by that idea that women are not a vital part of the workforce, but only its delicate lacy fringe. The very fact that offering universal child care is a debate is an acknowledgement that we do not value women in the workforce.

The phenomena of the stay-at-home mother who takes tender care of her children is simply an invention of modern life. As Stephanie Coontz points out in her book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, at no point in history did children ever have a parent whose sole job was to sit and attend to their every need. For all of history, children were part of the labor force or raised by communities. Even wealthy white families had domestic help. Help has always been an essential part of the creation of a society. But it’s help that is being dangled over the heads of women in America, a moving target that keeps us trapped in a cycle of work, exhaustion, and more work. We never get free. 

And now, once again, as America tries to grapple with the creation of universal child care, we are at risk of losing our shot at it, not because of inadequate policies but because we refuse to see the problem for what it is: a vital piece of economic infrastructure.

And every story that frames women’s work as optional and motherhood as essential ignores that for so many women there isn’t choice, there is only making due. There is only scrambling and cobbling and surviving, and that’s how it’s been forever.

So, take your Mother’s Day cards and shove them. Just give us some child care. 

More reading:

Lydia Kiesling on the Lanham Act. (Always read Lydia on everything, btw. Lydia is an amazing novelist and an incredible activist for universal child care.) NPR also had this story on the Lanham Act, and I also read Freedom from the Market by Mike Konczal. Thank you to the reader who told me to read that book. It was very interesting. Also, this is an important article on the origin of the race divide in the labor force. I found this history of federal funding for child care a very useful guide

P.S. I sold a third book! It’s called This American Ex Wife and it’s about the dumpster fire of American heterosexual marriage. It’s like if Jaws were a book and the shark was the institution of marriage and I was the old man saying “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Okay, I haven’t seen Jaws. So imagine Dolly Parton meets Rebecca Traister. Imagine “Goodbye Earl” but a book. And yes, I’m still writing it.

This is the free weekly edition of the newsletter Men Yell At Me, which is a collection of journalism, essays, and interviews that sit at the intersection of our bodies and our politics. If you like it, please consider becoming a paying subscriber. Subscribers get to be part of the community and receive a Friday “Dingus of the Week” email where we laugh about the dinguses in the news and mix drinks. But there is always a free Wednesday email.