As a mom, I was overjoyed when the U.S. Senate allowed senators to bring their babies onto the floor, a move spurred by the April birth of Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s daughter. While we applaud Duckworth and her colleagues for this action, we must be realistic that working families like mine have challenges that require more significant action by Congress. My wife and I have a son, Graeson, and a daughter arriving any day now. A challenge we face is finding affordable, high-quality infant child care.
As a developmental psychologist, I am well-versed in what to look for when researching child care, but there is a dearth of care, especially for infants and toddlers in Chicagoland.
We felt this acutely when the care arrangement we depended on had to close suddenly. With only one week’s notice, we researched a dozen places to find an opening that was licensed, physically safe and affordable. Unfortunately, it was not emotionally supportive enough, and for seven months, Graeson cried each morning we left him. I knew that the caregivers’ social-emotional practices were developmentally inappropriate, expecting him to manage his feelings and behaviors like a much older child
My wife and I constantly doubted ourselves, wondered if she should work part-time. But the financial and professional ramifications were too high - we had just bought our first home. Ultimately, we waited out the lower-quality care arrangement until he turned 2 and could enter an amazing program nearby.
With a new baby coming, we are back in this turmoil and have been looking for infant care since we got pregnant. We are lucky to have supportive employers and, if need be, we can keep her home for several months, but it will be logistically and financially difficult. For many families the strain would be untenable. Paid family leave would offer young families a real solution for these precious first few months; it’s the law in some states right now, but not in Illinois nor across the entire country.
Our story is just one example of why we must make investing in babies and toddlers our national priority. A national paid family leave program would mean that all parents have time to bond with their babies without sacrificing financial security. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have committed to this issue, but it needs more support.
Our country can do more to increase access to quality, affordable child care for working families. Congress recently passed a historic increase in child care funding for low-income working families. But this is only a down payment on what is needed to ensure that all babies and families who need it have access to high quality care.
The science is clear - babies’ brains grow faster between birth and age 3 than at any later point in life. In fact, their brains form more than 1 million new neural connections every second, laying the foundation for all future learning and development.
Sadly, if we don’t focus on childhood development, there are consequences, such as life-long developmental, educational, social and health challenges.
On Tuesday, Graeson and I head to Washington, D.C. We’re hoping to meet with Sen. Duckworth. We will join families with babies like us from across the country to raise our voices for what working families need to nurture our children and America’s future.
We call our effort Strolling Thunder and are ready for Congress to see us for who we are - proud Americans and proud parents who want Congress to know that the future begins with babies.
Kate Zinsser is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lives in Oak Park with her family.