Preparing to attend the White House Conference on Families as a single parent is a lot like running for election to Congress: Without support and volunteer strength at home, you'll never reach your destination.
I was lucky. Some good friends volunteered to take care of the children, 6 and 9. I had tried for an appointment as a delegate, but despite some excellent bipartisan support, the governor chose some other folks to represent Virginia.
Still, I was determined to get to the conference. It was to be an important gathering because it was the first of its kind in this country. I wanted to participate and add something of value. And I wanted to meet others who felt as strongly as I do about preserving the wonderful, but troubled, institution called the American family.
Thursday morning, June 5: I shared a ride to Baltimore with a delegate from Northern Virginia. We talked of our hopes and expectations from the conference. She was interested in resolutions to seek more parenting skills and family life courses in the school system. As it turned out, recommendations for quality family sex education courses in our schools passed 5-to-1 at the conference.
Thursday afternoon: President Carter addressed the plenary session. He appeared at ease and relaxed about his own family experiences. He told about the time during the '76 campaign when a reporter asked brother Billy about his family: "Well," Billy drawled, "I've got a sister who rides a motorcycle, another sister who is out preaching the gospel, my mother is in the Peace Corps at 68, and I've got a brother who think's he's going to be president. Why, I'm the only sane one in the family."
It brought down the house. With the speeches over, the hard work of the conference began and delegates were assigned to individual task force meetings. c
I attended the session on human needs. The executive director of the Children's Defense Fund debated a representative of the Pro-family Coalition on the role of government in the family, public service programs and children's rights.
The so-called "pro-family" contingent didn't want any government intervention in the family. They felt that the government had no right holding this conference in the first place.
The voices got louder, more strident. I started to get a headache. A stout lady from Ludlow, Mass., demanded that the group establish a definition of the family before it proceeded. The voices were getting shrill. They decided they couldn't reach a definition of the family, since for years even the experts haven't been able to agree on it.
Thursday evening: The session on daycare took a while to get moving because of arguments about procedures. The moderator system, it is hoped, will be improved for the next two conferences in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
Still, the message on daycare came through loud and clear: We need quality daycare facilities, supported by a combined effort of government, industry and the community. This means tax credits, subsidies, and other incentives to encourage employers to either set up childcare centers in the work place or to fund existing centers.
Participants called for additional funding at all levels of government to provide compassionate, properly-supervised centers for children of working parents. These recommendations passed by 4-to-1 margins. It was inevitable. pMore than one-third of all families in America are headed by single parents. And 62 percent of all working women are mothers of schoolage children.
The experts at the session told us that 92 percent of parents who use daycare do so for working purposes -- not for socialization. Amen.
I called home to speak to the children. My oldest, Melanie, asked me to come home: "I miss you, Mommy. I'm lonesome." Guilt. The conference didn't say anything about how to deal with little kids who miss their mothers crusading for good causes, or trying to earn a living.
Come home tomorrow, Mommy.
Friday morning: Tracking the family's and human needs session, I picked up the other issues of concern to single parents. Housing is a big problem for us. All three housing measures were approved by 4- and 5-to-1 margins.
They asked the government to guarantee the rights of all families to safe, affordable and energy-efficient housing. They asked for more money for low- and moderate-income housing. They asked for subsidies for rental and mortgage payments. And for low-interest loans to encourage home ownership.
The conference demanded an end to discriminatory practices through the enactment and enforcement of fair housing laws.
I decided to stay at the conference. The children would survive another day.
The session on taxes held out hope for single parents and those who lack the necessary work skills to support themselves and their children. Recommendations were adopted asking government and industry to:
Enact the Humphrey-Hawkins Act guaranteeing full employment.
Develop skill-training centers under adult-education programs for underemployed family members.
Set up family-oriented personnel policies in the workplace, much as flexitime, job sharing, dependent care options and part-time jobs.
Ratify the ERA.
Increasing tax credits for the daycare from 20 to 35 percent was also approved, as was a federal income tax refund set-aside program to enforce child-support laws.
Saturday: I was impressed with the smooth and orderly way the convention was managed. I was impressed with the delegates themselves. Here were 671 people from 15 states representing diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds, educational levels and varying political beliefs. They sat down in a serious-minded effort to hammer out the blueprint of a legislative program which would make our families stronger.
That was the real news of the conference. It wasn't the reactionary forces who stormed out because they lost a few votes and grabbed all the headlines. The real news was the reaching out by caring, concerned citizens in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.
The important news was that 100,000 citizens were involved -- since the beginning of the conference planning last year -- in focusing on the needs of the family.
One delegate from Virginia summed it up when he said, pointing to the convention center: "Where else but in America can you get that many people together to discuss the problems of their families?"
And that is why this first White House Conference on Families was worth the time, money and effort spent on it.