Since grandson Austin arrived last September, I am getting a whole new appreciation of mothers.

I also am getting a whole new appreciation of all the people out there in our first-world American society who are devoted to helping our new human beings grow, learn and thrive. The folks helping us teach baby sign language — buy the flash cards! Swimming — join the Y! Baby yoga — get the CD! The magic sleep suit! The newest toy guaranteed to motivate crawling! The car seat they won’t outgrow until they are able to get their own driver’s license!

Welcome a new member of the family, and suddenly you find out about this whole swarm of small-scale entrepreneurs, service providers and specialized businesses mobilized around getting you to pay for important new things that you need all of a sudden. It is an awesome entrepreneurial display.

But along with appreciation of the network that is there, as a long-time feminist and educator I also have some new emotional understandings about the network that I always knew is incomplete in our country. Where’s the readily available and affordable childcare in neighborhoods, or at work? Where’s the paid parental leave? Why are the excellent school options and summer camp options too limited and expensive to serve everyone? How come not every child has books? Medical care? Food?

These concerns are not new. Certainly my generation of feminists has been raising them since the 1960s, and really, you can find the same themes going back to the very first modern feminists of the 19th century. The thing I find newly puzzling, though, is that it seems OK to many folks that we don’t have the social networks that parents and families really need. We have networks built around a lot of nice stuff that some of us can afford, but we leave big gaps in the very fundamentals that would improve life and prospects for every single child, and nobody seems to be worrying about this.

Maybe some of us are thinking that those are not real needs, so we can just ignore them. Or maybe we are not clear about the kinds of goods that actually can be provided successfully in a so-called free market in a society with widely disparate income levels. We are thinking that just as it does for sleep suits or roller toys, “the market” will work just fine to make child care and other basics widely available and cost-effective for everyone. But it doesn’t seem to.

It’s like potholes. “In Maine, it’s pothole season!” We use this fact to sell trucks. We assume potholes are inevitable, like snow. I bet your local road agent could tell you how we could have fewer of them. I also bet your local road agent may get more angry calls about those potholes than anyone gets about the lack of available and affordable child care options. But somehow, we haven’t yet concluded that because everybody has a truck, everybody also should provide and maintain their own roads.

Your local early childhood development experts will tell you a few things about how we could improve prospects for every single child. Just ask them: These experts are handy in your K-12 school system or local university education department. Other countries have figured out some things about child care, parental leave and income support that we could learn from. It is, however, not something that happens for free. So until we change our vision of how we organize and pay for our public life, and what our aims for that life should be, we are going to continue to have gaps in the fundamentals for children and families.

We get a gift every day when we get a new little one who is growing and learning. “We” is our entire society, and it’s time we paid attention. Meanwhile, mothers, we are celebrating you today! May someone, small or large, bring you breakfast in bed — and may you pretend to enjoy it.

Theodora J. Kalikow is interim vice chancellor and president emerita of the University of Maine System. She can be reached at [email protected]


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