Lilith Feature

Motherhood in the “Lean In” Era

When Ronit Sherwin moved to Delaware in 2011 to become executive director of the University of Delaware Hillel, she decided to enroll her now three-year-old twins in a daycare program at a well-established Jewish organization. But as a single mother and her family’s sole breadwinner, she couldn’t afford the $2,200 monthly bill for nearly 10 hours a day of childcare for her daughter and son.

“I couldn’t buy groceries if I had to pay that,” Sherwin, 40, said.

She explained her situation to the daycare provider, and was assured that she would be given time to pay off any outstanding balance. As an in-kind contribution, Sherwin offered to teach a class at the organization housing the daycare.

Each month she wrote a check for what she could afford. But six months in, owing some $6,000, Sherwin received a call from the facility, asking how she planned to resolve her debt. Sherwin, who rents a small house and drives a 13-year-old Honda Civic, explained that she was doing the best she could, and promised to pay off the balance eventually. “I really felt shamed,” said Sherwin, who has a master’s degree from Harvard, and has worked for Jewish non-profits for the past 17 years.

The plight is not hers alone. For single parents and dual-income families alike, decisions about how to care for one’s children during working hours can be fraught with anxiety and second-guesses. And then there’s the fact that full-time childcare expenses can be staggering: the cost of infant care today exceeds the median rent in 22 states, and daycare for two children costs more than the median rent in all 50 states.

Sheryl Sandberg has been framing today’s conversation on what holds women back at work. The Jewish Facebook executive’s bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, urges young women to pursue their professional ambitions without worrying that, down the road, they won’t be able to balance work and family. The book explores the ways professional women hinder their own career advancement: by downplaying their skills and forgoing challenging assignments even before they have their first child.

Young Jewish women—many raised by Second Wave feminist mothers, and disproportionately represented at elite colleges—are particularly well positioned to lean in to demanding careers. These positions often require long hours and round-the-clock connectivity. For those professionals who also choose to become parents, keeping pace at work often requires non-parental childcare, and lots of it.

Sandberg acknowledges the high cost of childcare among the hurdles to getting ahead. But she encourages professional women “to measure the cost of child care against their future salary, rather than their current salary.” The flaw here is that you can’t pay your current bills with your future earnings. In some families, like Sherwin’s, the cost of childcare outstrips a parent’s ability to pay. (Sherwin was able to settle her daycare debt, thanks to a salary increase and an anonymous donation. It’s a happy ending, but hardly a scalable solution.) In two-income families the expense often exceeds the take-home pay of one parent, making “opting out” a decision driven by finances rather than by a desire to leave the workforce.

In generations past, many Jewish working parents could rely on their own mothers to help look after the children. But today, those grandmothers, however doting, are more likely to be contending with their own demanding jobs, living beyond easy commuting distance, and possibly delaying retirement because of their own economic concerns.

Without nearby family to help, Joanna Smith Rakoff, the author of the 2009 novel A Fortunate Age, has struggled with finding and funding daycare for her two children, now 8 and 4. Smith Rakoff, 41, was dissatisfied with the Jewish early childcare options on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she lives. Many cost much more than she and her husband, an editor at a literary non-profit, could afford. Yet they didn’t qualify for government-subsidized daycare programs run by Jewish organizations; those primarily serve low income youngsters who are not Jewish.

Because the family was able to afford only very part-time childcare, the timeline for Rakoff’s forthcoming book—a memoir about the year she spent working for the famously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger—“was magnificently derailed,” taking some eight months longer than expected. “Had we been able to afford childcare, we’d be in a much better financial situation,” Rakoff, the family’s primary breadwinner, said. “My ability to produce is greatly decreased by the constraints on my time.”

For Smith Rakoff, “leaning in” while also tending to the needs of two young children means waking up at 5 a.m. every day, even on the weekends, trying to work at the playground after school, and always feeling “exhausted and behind,” she said.

Despite the collective hand-wringing over the costs of Jewish life—see Elizabeth Mandel’s sidebar on the complicated calculus she does and sacrifices she makes to send her children to day school—there has been less attention paid to the availability and affordability of Jewish daycare for children too young for school.

The good news is that in and beyond the Jewish community, changes are afoot. For the first time in decades, the issue of childcare is permeating the national conversation, and inspiring ambitious proposals from the White House on down. In the Jewish community, the pressing need for daycare has synagogues and community centers upending longstanding preschool models and rethinking their strategies for engaging young families. Alas, funders have been slower to get (and stay) onboard. Some of the largest foundations funding Jewish education have devoted only a small fraction of their resources to early childhood, a recent Jewish Week article noted. Meanwhile, the Steinhardt Foundation-funded Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative shuttered last year. One philanthropy stepping up is the UJA-Federation of New York, which is exploring ways to expand the number of Jewish daycare facilities in its catchment area—as well as how to ease the financial burden of this childcare.

Forty years ago, legislation that would have created a national network of daycares, with a sliding-scale fee structure, sailed through the U.S. Senate—only to be stopped with a presidential veto. President Nixon, bowing to Cold War politics and pressure from the rising religious right, said that he couldn’t sign off on a bill that backed “communal approaches to child-rearing” over a “family-centered approach.” In the decades since, childcare has been mostly absent from the federal legislative agenda. (A block grant funding daycare subsidies for low-income families and a relatively small childcare tax credit have provided only a little relief.)

President Obama revived the issue in his 2013 State of the Union address, in which he called for a larger government investment in early childhood. Among his policy proposals: universal pre-K, the expansion of early intervention services, and additional investments in Early Head Start, which provides daycare services for infants and toddlers. Were his proposals to become law, childcare centers —including many run by Jewish organizations—could see an influx of government funding. But the President’s pitch comes at a time when there is immense pressure to cut federal spending. The automatic, across-the-board budget cuts brought on by this year’s sequester threatened to cost as many as 70,000 low-income children their Head Start placements.

“Whether out of reluctance to acknowledge a fundamental change in the conception of parenthood—especially motherhood—or out of a fear of expanding the role of government in family life, we still haven’t come to terms with the shift of women from the home to the workplace,” wrote Jonathan Cohn, in his recent New Republic cover story “The Hell of American Daycare.”

As a result, Jewish families with children from infants to preteens are faced with Solomonic choices at every turn. To leave a more expensive urban setting for suburbs where childcare is cheaper, when the commute means longer stretches away from home? Scale back at work to spend more time with the children and to save on childcare, when it means less pay, prestige and opportunities for promotion? Hire a nanny who will come in even when the kids are sick, and pay her “off the books”? Or shell out more money to pay her “on the books,” and put her at risk of losing the government medical benefits she relies on? View the high cost of childcare as an investment in future earnings, and go into debt right now? Opt for a partial-day Jewish program and cobble together afternoon care, or choose a non-Jewish program that provides the needed coverage?

The Jewish community is suddenly taking these decisions seriously, whether out of enlightened self-interest or out of a genuine desire to nurture the next generation of Jews. Whatever the motivation, it’s good news for working families who want Jewish experiences for their children, but are unable to drop them off at 9 a.m. and pick them up at noon.

“We’ve asked, ‘What do you need from us?’” said Mark Horowitz, vice president for early childhood education at the JCC Association (JCCA). “It’s moved from just wanting a place to get to know other moms or to hear speakers talk about toilet-training or sleep problems to ‘We really need fulltime care’.” To that end, the number of their affiliated community centers offering full-day care has risen dramatically in the past five years to about two-thirds of its 157 “early-learning” centers. (Horowitz avoids the term “daycare.”)Similarly, the ubiquitous synagogue nursery schools are starting to morph into “early learning” centers offering full-day care. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is encouraging more of its 900 North American synagogues to reevaluate their existing preschool programs. The organization has designed an 18-month course for synagogues looking to develop a more “comprehensive approach to early childhood education,” and another for those exploring ways to engage more young families in synagogue life. Both look at how providing full-day care for children may fit into that equation—despite the daunting financial planning, real estate retrofitting and state licensing that may be involved.

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