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The Parents: : The Child’s Care Is a ‘Constant Preoccupying Force’

Times Staff Writer

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz has studied the problem of child care from a series of vantage points--mother, author, psychotherapist. She has concluded that “neither wealth nor fame nor competence nor access to resources guarantees anyone anything in regard to child care.”

Shaevitz, 42, author of the best-selling “The Superwoman Syndrome” and mother of two children, ages 9 and 11, said of the child care dilemma, “I hate it.”

“Your toilet is broken, you call a plumber,” she said. “Food for a party? Call a caterer. Child care seldom offers such simple solutions.”

When Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell, 41, first had children, “I didn’t want to leave them with anybody ,” she said. So, she didn’t. Then an attorney, McConnell took her first child to work, even to depositions across town.

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“It wore me out,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave those little ones, but my second child hated the office. I couldn’t understand it. She was quiet at home and a monster at work. It was not a workable solution.”

The unworkability of the child care dilemma has left millions of parents stranded without answers. For parents whose careers show promise but who want children as well, child care looms as a maze of confusion and angst. The key, many say, is money.

For Shaevitz, affluence is the dividing line between sanity and what Shaevitz calls a life of complete chaos.

“What are the symptoms?” she asked. “Helplessness, panic, a life out of control. If it stays that way for a period of time, a woman may start to show physical trauma--sleeplessness, insomnia, anxiety. She may be able to afford it, but even if she can, she and her husband have to set the criteria. That can be hard.

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“Nobody trains child care people. Can you imagine what would happen if you and I had to find teachers for children--if there were no public school apparatus? We’re not just talking about ‘birth to 5' (years of age) here. It goes beyond that. It’s enormously difficult for a number of years.”

The responses from one parent to the next are as varied as the people themselves. Some prefer live-in nannies, others abhor the loss of privacy (and the cost) such a scenario demands. Still others see the need for couples--two-career couples, especially--to find help in maintaining a balance among marriage, family and work.

Shaevitz called it the most vexing issue of the times.

It may be most vexing for single parents, whose numbers tend to rise in direct proportion to the staggering divorce rate. Kathy Earnest, 28, knows of the sleepless nights, the depression and guilt Shaevitz describes. The mother of two children, ages 6 and 2, she was left by her husband, whose whereabouts are unknown and who doesn’t pay child support.

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After trying various child care scenarios, Earnest found that “taking welfare paid better.” In other words, working a full-time job and depending on baby sitters cost more than going back to school and using governmental aid to meet the big-budget tab of child care.

Earnest has suffered the “quintessential bad experiences” that most mothers fear in leaving children in the hands of someone else. One baby sitter’s child played with Earnest’s son, four years younger. Months later Earnest discovered that the older boy had taken to locking her son in a closet. She also learned that both children played in the street, unsupervised.

Making ends meet, making sure her children are cared for, has left Earnest--a young woman--with “ no social life” and almost no hope of finding a husband “who’d be willing to take on such a brood.”

Welfare has allowed her, however, to leave her children with a part-time sitter and pursue a dream of becoming a doctor.

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“I’ve got to have a job that pays something,” she said. “It’s a necessity. I’d always wanted to be a veterinarian, but it doesn’t pay. I’ve got to do this.”

In the meantime, she and the children live in cramped quarters with her mother, their grandmother, a woman with worsening medical problems.

“I see a lot of depression among women in my situation,” Earnest said. “If anything like an emergency comes up, it knocks you right off your feet. Sure all of this stress makes you stronger, I guess . . . . But you need a hell of a lot of support from everyone you meet.”

Elliott Levin, 33, knows of the maddening uncertainties, the “end of a normal life.” He’s raising a 4-year-old boy whose mother joined a religious commune shortly after his birth. Levin works as a respiratory therapist. His career has been affected, perhaps forever. Having a child has kept him from rising in the ranks, as he might have had he had the time to be obsessed about work.

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Now the obsession is making sure his son is cared for every second of the day.

“I often feel like a taxicab waiting at the curb with the meter going,” he said. “I’m always conscious of the child. His care is a constant preoccupying force.”

Part of the time Levin leaves his son at the Children’s Learning Center. The rest of the time he depends on friends and “a stable” of 14- to 15-year-old girls. He estimates that he spends $225 a month just on child care--in addition to food and medical costs.

“I go through periods of incredible despair,” he said. “I once saw a study that said men do poorer emotionally with this sort of thing. They’re less inclined to ask for help. I’m reticent about leaning on friends. I mean, they’ve got their own trips going. I’m conscious of wanting to do well for the person I love the most, and here I am leaving him with sitters all the time. Hey, I want to be hangin’ out with him. But I have to work. I can’t bring him with me.”

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Levin said the glamour of the “Mr. Mom image” may fly in Hollywood, but in North Park, on his income, it’s like trying to hot-wire reality. He agrees with Earnest that a social life, the swinging times of a single man, are as good as gone.

“The high points?” he asked. “The high points are doing it, actually pulling it off. Taking him to swim class, getting him there on time. It’s the reward of being able to juggle it all and still have a healthy kid. It’s a feeling of real competency, like managing a large corporation and making the stockholders happy.”

Bonnie Reading, a San Diego divorce lawyer, differs from Levin and Earnest in having more money. But the juggling act Levin seeks to master is one she found maddening for years.

Guilt was the reason, she said. It is the best way of hyping a new parent’s fear, she said. And the main fear? That child care reduces a parent to secondary status.

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“That’s strictly an issue between your ears,” said Reading, mother of twin sons who are now 17. “If you’re feeling guilty, you will be vulnerable.”

Reading says her children benefited greatly from outside care.

“It’s given them a fair amount of independence,” she said. “My children, relative to their friends, are more independent all the way down the line. If I had not worked outside the home, I might have driven the kids crazy. I would have applied the same standards to them I do to my job.”

Her kids benefited from the viewpoint of a live-in nanny. “If you get someone loving and sensible, they can learn a lot from that person,” she said. “My primary housekeeper for six years was a big believer in reincarnation. It was not something I shared, but during the years the kids were concerned about death, she provided a lot of comfort.”

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Reading said the advantages of having a live-in--which an Earnest or Levin clearly can’t afford--"should be obvious. One is flexibility. You can make breakfast meetings, stay at work late, without having to be somewhere to pick up your children. When you have live-in help, you can go out of town, do the things a really professional job will require.”

As early as 1979, Reading was paying $500 a month for live-in care.

Others who can afford live-in care choose not to.

Jeanne Lott, 35, is a writer of grants for the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. She has a boy, just over a year old. She and her dentist husband rejected live-in help. Their response was to juggle their schedules, providing plenty of time for baby and work.

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“A live-in housekeeper just wouldn’t fit with our life style,” she said. “We enjoy our privacy too much. Also the money . . . There’s no way we’d want to put that much money into a live-in. The downside of our argument is that, eventually, I’d like to work more than 20 hours a week. It’s hard to have a big career-level opportunity. I wouldn’t know how to do that for several years. We’re looking to have another kid. So I’m looking for a serious career . . . maybe at 40.” She says it almost as a question, as though she isn’t sure of the answer.

Bonnie Reading said that the influence of outside care providers can add a dimension to children’s lives.

“If I had tried to work without outside help, it would have taken all my energy,” she said. “I would have raised two very neurotic children. Smothering is something a mother worries about, or ought to. Turning out good adults is what we ought to be doing here, right? The goal is to let them go. It’s hard to do, especially when you’re looking down the barrel of it like I am.”

McConnell prizes the knowledge an outside person can bring. McConnell’s son uttered his first words in Spanish--his mother’s live-in help was Mexican. She said the obvious drawback to a live-in “is the privacy issue. You have another adult in the home. You have to fit that person into your life. So much depends on the personalities of the people involved. If you get someone who’s basically quiet, then it’s no problem.”

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Live-in help poses other problems. “Every working mother will tell you horror stories,” McConnell said. “I had one housekeeper hired through advertising. She left in the middle of the night one night, just left the door wide open. I was left at the crack of dawn, having to find child care for the day. I later found a bottle of booze under her mattress.”

Reading said interviewing each candidate thoroughly is a must, as is a careful reference check. (This applies to any type of child care, she says.) Shaevitz recommended as a guideline tolerating only “the rave reviews. If you detect the slightest bit of hesitation (in a reference’s voice), don’t hire them. You don’t need the grief it could cause.”

McConnell agreed that “child care is the most important issue of the ‘80s.” She wondered why the United States, which is so advanced, can’t compete with a host of other nations in meeting the issue head-on.

“Our society just hasn’t caught up to the need,” she said. “Denmark has wonderful child care, which isn’t so sexist. In Norway parents leave work by a certain hour--they’re required to be available for the kids. The system builds it in.

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“Unfortunately, our society just hasn’t reached the point where children are treasured above all else. We still have that menacing work ethic--above all else. If you want to be a successful woman in this country, you’ve got to put your career first. Now we’re left with a situation where women and men are making incredible sacrifices to have it all--kids, work, and somewhere along the line, if they can fit it in, each other.”


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