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(This column was published in The Sunday Daily News, July 23, 1989.)

There was a recent news story about a Dartmouth day care centre that plans to hand children over to the police if their parents are late picking them up. When I first heard about the memo the parents had received to that effect, I thought there were two very obvious observations to be made on this subject.

The first one is that our society still doesn’t see child care as an essential service. The second is that the people in power don’t recognize the true nature of most women’s work and the lack of control that most working women have over their work lives.

The day care centre in question is government funded. Many of the clients who use the service are single mothers trying their best to make a go of it, perhaps having managed to get off social assistance and work toward some financial independence. It surely won’t come as a surprise if I point out that most of these women are not bosses; indeed, most of them are at the mercy of bosses, many of whom have little understanding of the other lives that so many women lead.

Imagine the predicament of a woman who works as a waitress, or a secretary, or a nurse when a situation arises that is going to keep her late. What if a party of eight arrives at the restaurant just as her shift ends and her replacement hasn’t shown up? What if a new client arrives at the office while the boss is still involved in a previous appointment? What if there’s been a fire and a number of victims are being carried into emergency just as the nursing teams are changing?

In cases like these, women would be risking their jobs to walk out and say “well, excuse me, I have to pick up my child before she’s placed in the custody of the police.”

But there are also more subtle instances where workers are placed in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between staying late or losing favor which may ultimately lead to losing the job. If there’s a special project going on at work, for example, and co-workers have all agreed to stay on and do extra work after hours, how does the mother in the crowd feel about being the only one to leave? How does the boss feel when one employee always seems to be the first one out of there?

I don’t for one minute mean to suggest that I excuse or condone the way employees are treated but that’s the reality of work life and mothers should not be automatically placed at a disadvantage by having a set and inflexible schedule.

Now of course, I don’t blame the child care workers at the centre for this situation. They are absolutely right to point out that they too have families and private lives and should not be required to stay after their day is finished to wait for parents who are late.

But I do blame the whole system, most particularly our provincial government which is responsible for this centre. Surely the government has to take the lead in changing the perception of child care so that it’s not seen as a favour being done for rich professional women so they can pursue a high-powered career but is, in fact, an essential service for women of all classes and ages who work outside their homes for a great variety of reasons.

Surely the government has to set certain standards so that centres can be somewhat more flexible through a system of shift work (with differentials paid for those who work outside normal business hours) so that the service really works for its clients rather than against them causing further stress and anxiety.

Certainly we’ve come a long way since the days when my own sister — a divorced single mother — used to frantically drop her daughter off at our mother’s house at 8:30 a.m. after yet one more babysitter had turned out to be unsatisfactory, undependable or both.

We do have some good child care centres and many well-trained child care workers — dedicated and underpaid. What we don’t have is the right attitude, an attitude that would recognize the community care of our children to be as natural and essential as the outpatient clinics in our hospitals, or school libraries, or museums.

One Response

  1. #1
    Milie Vanillie 

    I liked this article. No easy answer to this problem.

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