You know, when I wrote that last post, I was zoomed in on my own emotional state, and forgot that daycare is a hot button issue, with strong feelings in various camps. Hence the little throwdown in my comments section. And it makes perfect sense–what could be more emotionally charged than considering how this choice might impact THE REST OF YOUR CHILD’S LIFE, particularly in a community where people waited a long time for this baby and where many face the possibility of never having another. And where the choice is so tied up with one’s identity as a person, a woman, a mother.
I don’t pretend to have expertise in this area, and I know enough ink has been spilled on the topic to replace all the water in all the oceans. So please forgive me from writing about this from a place of relative ignorance. But as part of my Psych Ph.D., I did take developmental psych courses, and I wanted to share a couple of things.
First, the issue of whether daycare is good or bad for infants (focusing just on infants) is not settled. How could it be? It depends on what you mean by good and bad and how you’re assessing. For example, are you measuring effects on cognitive development and later academic performance? Are you measuring physiological markers of stress like salivary cortisol*? Are you measuring levels of aggression or other behavioral problems? Are you measuring attachment or other social/emotional indices? The truth is, you can find evidence FOR and AGAINST on every one of these dimensions. Partly because effects depend tremendously on quality of care, quality of the parent-child relationship, and a ton of other shit. It’s a complex multi-dimensional space, AND it’s constantly in flux as attitudes change and as care gets better. So the point is: if you want to prove that daycare is bad, you can find evidence, and if you want to prove it’s good, you can find evidence. People in both camps are highly motivated to find support for their choices (e.g., as someone who must use childcare, I’m motivated to find proof that it’s okay for Bun Bun), but I think we are all obligated to consider the whole picture.
(I highly recommend this lovely review**, though it’s got a bit of a metatheoretical take that might not be of much interest if you’re just looking for an answer.)
The second thing I want to share is a beautiful study** that I think illustrates just how little objectivity some of us have on this topic. In this (2006, i.e., RECENT) study, college women (you know, modern, educated women) were shown videos of mother-child interactions and asked to rate them on a number of dimensions to do with quality of care (e.g., “The stimulation/encouragement that the mother provides”). Half the participants were told the mothers were stay at home mothers and half were told the mothers were working mothers. There’s a lot more to the study, but the finding I want to share is this. Stay home mothers were rated higher overall than working mothers. In other words, being told these are stay at home mothers! led modern, educated women to perceive the interactions as indicating better care than being told these are working mothers. Please read the original study as it’s not perfect, BUT, I think anyone who believes there’s an objective truth to this question should consider that finding very carefully.
I want to stress that I’ve written all of this from the point of view of someone who is ambivalent about the whole thing. Plenty of women are eager to return to work and thrilled with the experience of daycare or in-home care. I am delighted for them, and would hate them to think I’m suggesting they should feel bad about their choice. In many ways, I envy them.
Let me end by saying this. Maybe you believe women who can’t afford to stay home for 18 months shouldn’t have children. I’d say you’re only entitled to that opinion if you yourself have elected to forgo reproduction for that reason alone. In reality, it’s awfully sad how little choice many of us have in the matter. There’s the fact that many of us spent years building our careers and these careers won’t wait for us (academia perhaps being an extreme case, where there’s no getting off the carousel and then hopping on again–not if you want to ride the same brightly-colored pony). And issues of personal fulfillment and shit aside, there’s pure economics. One persistent finding is the BAD effects of non-parental care (in multiple dimensions) often emerge for women who have jobs they don’t like and who can’t afford quality care. Just think about the size of the segment of the American population that describes, and weep. If you truly believe daycare is evil, take that passion and use it to help these women.
*Want to get FUCKING DEPRESSED? Read a bunch of papers about STRESSED BABIES.
**Leave an e-mail in a comment if you want the full papers and have no way of accessing them. I’ll send them if I don’t think you’re some hater who’s just going to plague me with mean e-mails.