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The child care single story is not helping Utah

Instead of judging women who work, we should support their decisions and make it easier, not harder, to find child care.

Preschool students play a game at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is sponsoring a bill that would create a tax exemption for child care centers.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In a recent series of guest opinions, I assert that when we rely on a single narrative to create our reality, we end up with stereotypes and half-truths about people and ideas. And, when we try to make universal solutions to particular problems, it can keep us from acknowledging other people’s realities and improving our world.

This month, I want to challenge some of the narratives around child care. When we assume the solution to child care issues is that “the wife and mother should just stay home,” we reveal the belief in a single story that is not a reality for many families, no matter how much we want it to be. The truth is much more complex.

Despite a lingering perception that most Utah mothers are not employed, a 2018 Utah Women & Leadership Project report showed that 52% of Utah children under age 6 had all available parents in the workforce. While that is lower than the national average of 65%, it shows that child care is a significant concern for more than half the families in Utah with very young children.

Furthermore, Utah Census data show that 59% of mothers with children under age 6, 50% of mothers with both children under 6 and between 6 and 17, and 73% of mothers with children between 6 and 17 are in the labor force. And in many of these households, “all available parents” means one parent, and that parent is more than twice as likely to be a mother than a father. There are 37,690 households in Utah headed by a woman with no husband present, living with her own children under age 18. That’s a lot of working moms.

Increasingly, many families find it necessary for both parents to work, and securing child care can be difficult. In Utah, if you are looking for child care for children under 6, there is only one slot for every 3.7 kids. To make it worse, child care for one child costs more than a year of college tuition.

In a recent study examining Utah’s family policies at “Utah’s Best Places to Work,” we found that child care ranked high among those surveyed and was consistently recognized as the most significant barrier to working mothers’ professional progress. And yet child care support was one of the least common benefits offered by companies in our study (likely because of complexity and high costs).

The pandemic has exacerbated this challenge, and the necessity for good child care will continue long after the crisis is over. Support can come in a variety of ways, including on-site care, subsidies, back-up care assistance, and child care FSAs. Organizations like Care About Childcare and the Utah Child Care Cooperative can provide valuable support for organizations looking to assist working parents.

I can still hear people clinging to the single story that for most families, child care is optional. This ignores the truth that we are all more than one thing. A man can be a scientist and a father. A woman can be a doctor and a mother. Education, enrichment and work are not incompatible with being a good, hands on parent. This single story also ignores the truth that “a man is not a financial plan.” Anything can happen over a lifetime, and women need to cultivate skills and experience to support themselves and their families. It is also true that whether or not mothers get paid, they are working.

Instead of judging women who work, whatever their motives, we should support their decisions and make it easier, not harder, to find solutions to the child care issues facing Utah. Policies that address the minimum wage, affordable housing, maternity and paternity leave, remote working, equal pay, and more are all measures that will support women and men trying to earn a living while raising a family.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.