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In Praise of Daycare

by Meg Urry

January 2009

Meg Urry is the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University. She is the current Chair of the Physics Department at Yale and Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. She is a former member and chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, and remains active in efforts to achieve gender parity in science. She wrote this article in an attempt to broaden the usual discussion. She and her physicist husband Andrew Szymkowiak adore their amazing daughters, Amelia (17, high school senior) and Sophia (14, high school sophomore).

Amelia and Sophia (Photo Credit: Meg Urry)


How many times have you heard “I don’t want my child raised by a stranger?”

A recent study at Yale University finds that among undergraduates, women and men share the same career aspirations. They also in equal numbers hope to have families. Where men and women differ is in their perception of how possible it will be to balance career and family. Few men appear to question their ability to do both; many women are very worried about it.

When was the last time you heard a man ask, “Gosh, I wonder if I can manage to have a family and a career?”

Women and men in an introductory physics class at Yale were asked about their future plans for having a family. The five multiple choice responses (limited by the number of buttons on the electronic polling device) were:

Men and women were queried separately. The vast majority do plan to have a family. Of the 42 women planning to have children, only two said they intended to stay at home and be the primary caregiver, three said their partner would be, and more than half the women in the class (26) said they planned to share parenting responsibilities with their partner.

In marked contrast, fully one-third of the men (24 of 71) said their partner would be the primary caregiver, while only one-third (22) planned to share the responsibilities of being a parent.

Why is sharing parental responsibilities less expected for men than women? Why do women accept child-rearing as primarily their problem? Sure, biology is different, and pregnancy and nursing can have a physical effect. Barring rare complications, however, it isn’t anything women can’t handle, nor is it qualitatively different from, say, a man’s bout with, a hernia repair.

Instead, women allow this inequity to happen. They accept their greater share of the responsibility the raising of kids. It is a mother’s responsibility but it is the father’s as well. Why do we give fathers a pass on this?

Why do women fear or suspect daycare? I was well-trained as a Ph.D. astrophysicist, not as an early learning specialist. What do I know about teaching the alphabet, toilet training, eye-hand coordination? Turns out daycare providers often know way more than we do. Every first-time parent knows he or she is a rank amateur. (And by the time parents figure things out, they’re probably done raising the kids. Those who do it a second time around – usually guys – probably aren’t any better off, since times change. Sigh.) But daycare providers are well trained, and they are self-selected to like kids and to enjoy the craziness of 20 toddlers rushing around.

My kids went to daycare in someone’s home from the time they were about 2 months old until they were 2 or so, at which point they attended a wonderful YMCA daycare. People used to say to me, How do you manage it, working full time and having a family? I thought to myself, My God, how would I manage taking care of a baby all day long? Now there is hard work. Being at “work” was a breeze in comparison. (Although sometimes filled with its own version of childish behavior). Turns out, daycare providers are really good at this stuff, much better than amateur parents. After all, they’ve raised dozens of kids.

What about the “stranger” thing? Sure they were strangers at the beginning – and I defy any CEO to take their 6-week-old baby to someone else’s house and not, within weeks, initiate an on-site daycare facility at their company – but in a very short time they become friends, second families – they add love. Some people think of it as a zero-sum game, as if the baby has only so much love to share, so it’s going to be divided between mom and daycare provider. (Dad’s rarely figure in this calculus, tellingly enough.) But the reality is, love adds. As a parent, you love your kid to death – you couldn’t possibly love them more – and they love you back the same. And your daycare provider loves the kid, and gets loved back. There’s just more love. It’s a real plus.

People ask, Aren’t you devastated when she calls the daycare provider “Mom”? Did that happen? Sure it did. Didn’t really bother me at all. It felt like a natural mistake, like you might mistakenly call one daughter by the other’s name. You know darned well who is who but you have a slip of the tongue. My kids were in full-time daycare from an early age but they always knew exactly who their mom was. (Nursing may have helped with this.) We each had a role, the roles were well identified, and we were their parents and the daycare providers were their daycare providers.

Some personal thoughts on timing (but of course everyone should make their own choices): Many young women have told me, I’m going to stay home for 6 months, then go back to work. (Or, for 6 months substitute 1 year or 2 years or whatever.) What’s the effect? Read your child psychology texts. I’m no expert, but kids are born not knowing what to expect, and they construct their world view based on experience. If their experience is that mom takes care of their every need for a period of N months or years, and then disappears for long stretches of the day – I imagine that can be disconcerting. Newborns sleep a lot. (So should their moms.) If they sleep at Miss Jane’s house instead of with you, and you are off doing something you love, how can that harm a 2-month old? And your 6-month old might be happier with this routine than if it changes suddenly.

Some thoughts about Dads: Mothers who stay home take control of their sphere: the kids. Dads lose control of that sphere and take a larger piece of some other (finances, family decisions, home repair, whatever). Dads then become less involved as parents. Nowadays, some major institutional changes are coming about because dads are insisting that they want more involvement in their families.

Power. Money equals respect in our society. Women at home don’t make money, so they lose power within the family and they are lumped together in an undifferentiated class. They may themselves feel powerless. A friend – highly intelligent, accomplished, way brainier than her spouse – once explained to me that she had to ask her husband for permission to buy big things (more than household items) because “he makes the money.” He, of course, was free to run out and buy a new stereo, regardless of the state of the budget. Why did this woman acquiesce in such a patently ridiculous assignment of ownership? As an unpaid laborer she provided countless services to her husband: daycare, nursing, cooking, cleaning, etc. Her salary, as calculated by many different groups over the years, should have been enormous. (One husband of another friend laughed out loud when his wife quoted an article that put her salary at over $100,000 per year. Right then she learned – or should have learned – what her value was to him.)

Back to daycare: Not everyone’s experience is the same, and bad events do happen, with daycare as with everything else. But disasters are rare, however overrepresented they may be in the newspaper. Few nannies shake babies to death, many more love them to bits, and teach them things, and make their lives joyful. The other children in group daycare become close friends. The social interactions, the motor skills, the learning that goes on – there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my daughters were far better off in daycare than they would have been with me at home. And yet, they also loved to be at home with us (as they were most of the time, 15 hours a day on weekdays and 24 on the weekend).

To denigrate daycare is to buy into a stereotype that only a mother can raise a child well. Or that a mother, working alone and in some cases, bored and under-stimulated and under-utilized and over-tired, is somehow better for her children than a mix of loving-parent-who-is-happy-and-fulfilled-at-work and well-trained-daycare-provider-who-loves-to-do-projects-and-sing-and-play. Let’s get off this crazy kick. Let’s figure out how to make affordable, excellent, convenient daycare available to mothers. Let’s help mothers who do want to raise small children develop their own businesses, to reap from their talents the recognition and joy that other women get from physics or business or interior design. Let’s each do what we love, not judge others for choosing what they love. Daycare is a lovely thing. Thanks Miss Lisa, Miss Marsha, Miss Jen, the other Miss Jen, and Miss Betty – my kids are really great kids, and you did a lot to make them that way.


Addendum from Editor Fran Bagenal: I noted this summer a debate brewing in the UK about maternity leave (up to 1 year) vs. parental leave (13 weeks). One result has been that employers are reluctant to hire women – any women – because they fear they might take off for a year. Such an asymmetry in leave also enforces the cultural expectation that women take on the main domestic role.

A better system is that of Sweden where, to quote Chris Cully (US father and post-doc living there) “The actual rules governing the Swedish parental leave are way more complicated than those governing, say, a kinetic plasma system. But the basic gist of it is that each parent gets 240 days of leave (480 days total, ~16 months), which can be taken out at any time and in any number of days per week until the child is 8 years old. Up to 180 of these days can be transferred to the other parent. The employer usually has no right to refuse a request to take parental leave. Leave is paid at 80% of salary by the state, although many employers top this up (my fellowship tops my leave up to 90%). One catch, though, is that only one parent can be on leave at any one time. In practice, the mother usually takes about 10-12 months, then the father about 4-6 months (neither at the full 7 days/week), and then they spread the remainder of the time (usually several months) over the next 5-6 years.” Many US universities have instituted parental leave policies that offer fathers and mothers the same leave options and tenure-clock stoppage.

I also showed Meg’s article to a couple of women who got PhD’s from the University of Colorado ~15 years ago, both with children. A fierce argument some years back with Sarah (solar physicist at HAO/NCAR) had convinced me (who chose not to have children) that family issues are a critical professional issue. Leila, who took time off and then worked part-time (among other things, authoring of book Minding the Heavens: The Story of Our Discovery of the Milky Way) sent me her comments:

“I just wanted to let you know that I applaud Meg Urry’s article in praise of daycare. I did not use daycare for Alicia (now 7 ½), and I was quite prejudiced against it when she was very young. I do not know if I would use daycare if I had to do it all over again, but my prejudices have largely fallen away as I have gotten to know satisfied parents (mostly mothers, in my social circle) and very competent daycare providers. I think parents or prospective parents should take some time to research their local options, in particular by talking to parents of slightly older children who have been in day care or had nannies. Visiting a daycare center is not enough, probably—if you are on your first child, you really have to have the opinion of experienced parents. It can be hard to meet these experienced parents, by the way—I don’t think I knew very many when I was pregnant, never mind in grad school! Meg’s experiences are interesting and important reading material for men and women contemplating the work-family balancing act.

To use or not to use daycare is often a question of working or not working. Here again I have changed my mind a bit about the impact of staying home. I have worked since Alicia was born, but always part-time and from home, and outside the realm of academic research. (In the beginning I worked very, very few hours.) Many friends have commented on how lucky I am to have found interesting work that I can do from home, and I do enjoy the work and the flexible hours. But now I find myself pointing out that it is a big struggle to get paid decently for part-time work. I still do not earn enough to live on (though I’m beginning to contribute significantly to the family budget). I did not expect this whole issue to be so problematic. I figured I would go back to work (perhaps outside the home) when Alicia was 3 or 4, and certainly by the time she was old enough to go to school. I didn’t know Kindergarden (at least where I live) is only 3 hours and 20 minutes, for one thing. I also didn’t know how scarce part-time jobs are. Putting your child in day care means you can continue working, and that is huge, because it is so hard to “get back in again” once you are out.

The other thing I wanted to comment on is the survey of men and women undergraduates. Yes, it is disgraceful that so many young men expect their partner to stay home and be the primary caregiver, but I think (and hope) that 18 or 19 year old young men have just not given this question serious thought yet and will soon be educated on this issue. They are just picking the answer that seems most appealing on the basis of quality of life. We all (including us women) wish we had someone to stay home and run the domestic side of things for us. I would be interested to see the results of this survey among older men and women who have had a taste of reality and grappled with the issues first-hand! I am not trying to say that the results of the survey are not important, however. It is probably difficult to get 18-20 year olds to delve into the nitty-gritty of work-life balancing, but it would certainly be valuable to do so.”

This is clearly a major topic of our profession. I look forward to reading the response of STATUS readers on the CSWA discussion board.

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