The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why don’t Americans talk about child care?

Zulee Yusuf, right, attends to children at a day care that she runs in a residential neighborhood in Alexandria on Nov. 13, 2014.
Zulee Yusuf, right, attends to children at a day care that she runs in a residential neighborhood in Alexandria on Nov. 13, 2014. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Michele L. Norris is a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the founding director of the Race Card Project.

The Democrats recently held two nights of debate, each two hours long, and in both sessions the two words that most American families talk about, worry about and sweat about behind closed doors were barely mentioned. Those two words are “child care.” Finding it is a challenge; paying for it can be crippling; it’s an issue that resonates with voters regardless of party, race or geography; and, as of yet, we aren’t talking about it in a serious way.

It’s never been a top-line issue in presidential politics, but the relative silence on the matter this year is surprising. Most though not all of the candidates have children, and many of those are still young. And while most of the candidates are quick to praise spouses, aunties, in-laws and siblings who hold it down while they chase votes, few have talked candidly about their own reliance on outside help. And yet this quiet crisis percolates in millions of homes.

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Why don’t we talk about it? Because we don’t want to admit that we need it so badly. Every parent knows the terror that jolts through the body when a provider calls in sick or the day-care center has to close for a few days because someone sent their child in with a contagious illness. Women don’t talk about it because we want to project that we are fully in control of the work-life balance, that ridiculous phrase that calls to mind some kind of Zen-like pose when in fact the whole process is a constant clutch of nerves. Every parent knows this, and most employers know it, too. Almost half of all parents miss work at least once every six months because child care goes off the rails.

Why don’t we talk about child care? Because we take for granted the (mostly) women who are underpaid and overworked who care for our children — but not so we can march off to work in search of fulfillment. Nope. So we can keep a roof over our heads and save for college and participate in an economy that needs us. The women who care for our children come in all colors, of course, but are often brown or poor or elderly or dismissed in a culture that romanticizes motherhood but still disdains (and rarely discusses) the very real needs of working mothers.

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Men don’t discuss it and usually don’t help find it, but they should because they help pay for it, and I bet they have a lot to say when they’re late for pickup by 10 minutes and get smacked with a $15-a-minute penalty. The yearly cost of center-based child care for babies ranges from $6,615 in Arizona to $19,805 in the District of Columbia. In fact, infant care is more expensive than in-state public college tuition in 33 states and D.C.

When we do talk about child care, we do it privately: We argue at home when balancing the budget. We whisper about it at work with co-workers and quietly banter over doughnuts at church. But we don’t publicly engage in the way we talk about health care and economic equality and concussion safety in organized sports. We don’t and we should.

Child care needs to be easier to find and easier to afford. It needs to be better regulated with stronger local or state standards. And this is where things get really complicated.

In theory, we all like the idea of registries and background checks. But we also worry about availability. We nurse covert concerns that tougher regulation might force Shirley to shutter the Happy Times Day Care company she runs out of her neat little Cape Cod with a play set out back that looks like Noah’s Ark.

And we all know that without Shirley or Avis or Hilda or Lupe, we are lost. So we remain silent and we allow the candidates to remain silent.

Perhaps that silence is fed by unspoken gratitude. That, we can change. I’ll start: A heartfelt thank-you to Mrs. Duncan and Mrs. Gosset — women in my childhood neighborhood who watched over me while my parents worked the early shift and my much older sisters were off at college. Thanks to Miss Myrtle and Miss Mimi, who held it down in my house and gave my children the kind of attention they’d shower on their own brood.

The candidates all had or have a Mrs. Duncan or a Miss Myrtle, and they know it. They should talk about those women and trumpet their gratitude. Because something happens when you say “thank you” out loud.

Child care is creeping toward the surface in national politics in part because candidates have included language around the issue in their platforms. But language is not the same as conversation, and without an honest conversation, the current day-care structure — a fragile patchwork even for the most affluent families — will continue to teeter and wobble around the notion that “this is the best we can do” when we know our children need and deserve better.

The writer is a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the founding director of the Race Card Project.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Let’s fight for universal child care

Christine Emba: Elizabeth Warren could get America to have more kids again

Meghan Kruger: Good day care is hard to find. Elizabeth Warren’s plan might make it harder.

Jill Homan: D.C.’s degree requirement will be a disaster for day-care workers and parents

Rhian Evans Allvin: A victory for D.C. children, parents and caregivers