Thursday, August 04, 2005

Institutional Living

My sister called me last night raging. "People say this is the best day care center," she spit, "but I go there and it smells like shit and kids are crying and the worst is, that the sign of success is when kids don't cry--when they are totally spaced out and 'good' and in their own world. Do a column on day care, Melissa. They SUCK!"

She went on to note how politically incorrect it is to say that Day Care Centers, even the best ones, blow. She overheard women around the corner in her office saying, "Oh they cry at first, but then they get over it. Kids are okay. It's better not to visit, it's just too upsetting for them."

Normally, my sister, who is a single mom (ease up Dr. Laura her ex is a psycho), has a family member watching her kid. The kid is growing up fine, smart and sweet, precocious and funny. Two days at day care has him sobbing the minute he rises and the last thing before bed. My sister is a mess.

This vacation for her child care provider is lasting only a week, thankfully, and then the routine will be back to normal.

So, let's examine day care for a moment, shall we? My sister called them "modern orphanages". I looked around the upscale area I lived for a nice place for mothers morning out--a day or morning or two a week--and looked and looked before I found some suitable. Most smelled, had spaced out kids with runny noses running amok or zoned in front of a TV.

I have never had a child in day care at six weeks old, the normal amount of time an American woman is given to stay with her baby before solving the world's problems back at work. I worked with one woman who came back to work in three weeks exclaiming, "I just can't take it anymore! I've got to come back."

It seems to me that the way our society works now is this: 6 weeks old start in the Day Care Institution, 3 years old join the Pre-School or Early-Intervention Institution, 5 years old join the public/private school instition, 18 years old join the College/University Institution, 22 years old join the Masters/Med/Law School Institution, 25-26 years old join the Profession in a Corporate or Academic Institution, work for 40 years, join the trendy "no-kids" community Institution, age 65 join the Retirement Community Institution, 85 (or younger) join the Old Folks Home Institution, Die, join the Cemetary aka the formerly living Institution.

Today, we are literally institutionalized from birth to death. There is a uniformity of thought and training. There is a disconnection from family and community except through organized activity.

The whole thing feels unnatural and weird.

In 25 years, things have changed a lot. When I was a kid, we would run around until dinner time. Mom knew we were in the neighborhood or at a friends. No one had fenced yards. We ran from yard to yard. And we lived on a busy street in a suburb.

Today, children are indoors. Why? Well Day Care is one reason. But crime is another. Neighborhoods are quiet now because at least half the people are gone. Eyes and ears aren't everywhere. There are men working from home now and that is good and bad. I'm sorry to say this, but I just don't trust men, like I trust women, with children. Guys know this, too. A lot of men don't want to be alone with kids because of what people might think. Thanks to the pedophiles among us, everyone is suspect. It's horrible.

Parents have different standards, too. I don't let my kids watch TV and most movies. I don't let my kids goof on the computer when they can color. But my neighbors do. So it limits freedom--my kids and mine. Friendships are sought out with parents whose standards mirror mine. My mother-in-law said that when she raised the older boys, divorces were rare, moms were home and she didn't worry about other parents standards differing from hers. But 10 years later, my sister-in-law faced a myriad of problems that didn't exist for her brothers: single moms out of the house while her kids were at home doing what kids do alone, music TV (just started when I was in HS), etc.

I know this makes me sound like a prude, but man, do kids really need to be immersed (not just aware, but immersed) in not-stop sexualized music and violent video games. It's like a conversation I had with one of my patients who was complaining that pot wasn't that bad. I agreed with her. But tell me, I said, what great work do you accomplish while you're high? It's so great right? It makes you a better, more intelligent, creative person, right? B.S. And that's the category I put the modern mind-candy in--no it's not the worst thing in the world, but tell me, what exactly does this garbage help you accomplish? And, how does it help your mind grow? Or, how about just resting your head and walking in the grass and looking at the sky or going to the beach and swimming or taking a hike or even walking the dog to the park. Do I sound reactionary?

Child care advocates insist that our children are fine. That the child needs love--it doesn't matter from who. How can we be sure? This is a social experiment of major proportions, as far as I can tell and one that has never been done before.

Also, because of institutionalisation, children are sick more inspite of a zillion immunizations trying to prevent illness. Children are alone more.

The thing is, I'm not against women working. I understand there are single parents who must use child care because there is no way to be at home. I understand being invigorated by interesting problems to solve (Big Bird Puzzles do NOT come to mind).

Improving child care is the logical answer, but how? How can you replace a ratio of 1:1 or even 1:4 by a parent who understands the rhythms of the child, who feeds the kid when he or she is hungry, who gives extra cuddle time when the kid is "puny".

Does it sound like I'm romanticizing stay-at-home moms? I'm not doing that. The housework never ceases, children's needs are constant and immediate and quiet time for reflection or actually finishing a task rarely occurs before 10 p.m. It's the hardest job I've ever done. (I know that comes as a shock to the cut-throat interns I worked with.)

The problem with Day Care won't be solved with money. You could pay $200,000 a year and I wouldn't want the job. It takes a special person to do that work, but even the best human can only surrogate-mother five children as best as she can (10 if her co-worker is on a break).

Women feel punished either way. If they take a break from a career, they must work really hard to sharpen back up. Many don't want to work that competitively again. Some say it is because they've gone soft. From experience I can say it is because I have perspective. Let's see, I thought one day, I can treat some one else's child or I could be holding my own.

For a woman, having a child can be a life-changing experience where the urgent crisis that used to keep her after hours just doesn't hold the same urgency. A kid with a bumped head who wants his mom? Now that's urgent. An employee who dropped the ball on a project that will get done--maybe just not today. Big deal.

I'd like both. Working part-time, consulting on my terms, that's nice. But my kids are my first priority. I had one potential client when I gave my available appointment times (one even on the weekend) said with more contempt than I can adequately convey here, "What are you, a stay-at-home mom or something?" What do you say to that? I was blind-sided.

My husband and I discussed the incident later. He said, "You don't want a client like that, Melissa." Sure, I thought. But how many more people think, but won't say, I'm a moron for trying to balance professional and personal life. Really, the contempt is for motherhood in general.

The contempt for child-care, the derisive view of motherhood as a state of weakness and momentary lapse in dignity rather than a job full of dignity is why child care centers are mostly vile institutions. When we are ashamed of motherhood, and caring for children is the essence of motherhood, we will be ashamed of all it's derivatives--nannyhood, babysitters, day care centers--whatever you name it. We want to minimize the role because we want to pretend the job really doesn't matter.

Our kids will be okay, we tell ourselves. They're okay. Link
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