Ooh La La: Why Can't We Be More Like France?

While I like a good croissant as well as the next person, what I really like about the French is that they get the importance of supporting working families and their children. We remember when one of our colleagues (a single mom at the time) did a sabbatical in France while she was pregnant. She received home visits and information and felt very nurtured and calm about the impending birth. But it got even better after the baby made its appearance. When she went to work, she enrolled her child in a crèche: a day care right in her neighborhood, staffed by people who knew how to rear children -- with the added bonus that they spoke French.

An article in The New York Times by Pamela Druckerman describes the crisis that we create for young parents in the United States. One of us is a grandmother to the world's most beautiful and talented 4-month-old. (She is even vocalizing and rolling over!) Her parents are struggling with what to do with her when her Mom goes back to work. An in-home nanny? A home day care? A day care facility? And how to choose between these with any feeling of confidence that they would be making the right choice for their precious progeny? A substantial portion of their income will go toward day care and yet there are vanishingly few signposts they can follow about how to choose between alternatives. And these are two exceedingly well-educated parents. What they are quickly learning is that even a gold clad education does not prepare you for making day care choices.

We remember going through this too, as working mothers. With all that we balanced the one thing that could tip us over the edge was when something went wrong with childcare. One of us had a wonderful, loving, and warm in-home nanny who called late one night to tell us that she could no longer come to work as she had cancer. The next day, with a curly-haired, exuberant 13-month-old tyke in tow, we gave a test to a class of 200 people as the little girl danced on the stage to the amusement (and distraction) of the students. They received extra points on that test.

Why can't we make it easier for American families where both parents work? And what about those families where there is but one parent? The United States had the opportunity under Nixon to pass a day care act and we didn't. Now families struggle to make ends meet and to meet the needs of their children when sometimes they aren't quite sure what those needs are. The childcare scene -- especially for infants -- is in shambles. We trust childcare workers with our nation's most precious resource -- our children. Yet, we pay only a pittance for their services -- even in more formal settings. Is it little wonder that staff turnover is so high? In-home care at Aunt Sally's or the neighbor next door at least provides more consistency. But beware the home -- relative or no -- where the kids are arrayed in front of the tube like so many ducks in a row.

Obama claims to understand the importance of early care and good early experiences. The research is solidly behind him as children from disadvantaged homes are behind middle-class children by 9 months of age. And with one in five children slipping into poverty, middle class children are suffering too. But the political times don't seem right for considering infant care. Infants? Yes. When it all starts. To give all kids a leg up on life, they need excellent early care. Infancy is when babies need to be talked with and read to, shown their reflection in the mirror, cooed over by consistent caregivers, given opportunities to explore and move around, and introduced to the exciting world of objects, events, and animals. We don't even have universal preschool in this country. When will we recognize that babies need great care too?

Even if they can't consume croissants, babies need amour -- love and attention from nurturing caregivers who know what children need. Our future depends on it.