Regardless of the answers I will never have, the question I now ask is: Should parents have to play this roulette with their weeks-old infant? To do all they can possibly do to ensure that their baby is safe, only to be relying on a child-care worker’s competence or attentiveness or mood that day?
This article isn’t about day-care safety. This isn’t an indictment of the company I work for; I had one of the better parental leave policies of anyone I know. What this article is about is that my infant died in the care of a stranger, when he should have been with me. Our culture demanded it.
A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn’t feel right to her. Or at 6 weeks old. Or 3 weeks old. I would have stayed home with Karl longer, but there just didn’t seem to be a way. And I knew well enough that a million other mothers in America before me had faced the same choice and had done the same, even earlier than I had, though it tortured them emotionally, or physically, to do so.
Of course, had I conceived in my wildest nightmare that leaving Karl might mean losing him, I would have sacrificed anything. I would have quit my job. I would have carried him around on my back collecting recycling cans and bottles. Endured any economic hardship. List all the wildest alternatives, you’re not coming up with anything that isn’t on my list of “if onlies.” But the sad truth is, even though I am possibly one of the world’s most imaginatively anxious mothers, I never thought of the possibility that my baby would die that morning. And no wonder, because unexplained infant death is rare, and parental leave in the vast majority of cases is not an issue of life and death. But I am now asking: Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care —- or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?
I wasn’t just up against the end of my parental leave. I was up against an entire culture that places very little value on caring for infants and small children. Parental leave reduces infant death, gives us healthier, more well-adjusted adults and helps women stay in the workforce. If we truly valued the 47 percent of the work force who are women, and the value of our families, things would look different. Mothers could go back to work after taking time off to recover physically from birth and bond with their young children. Health care could be available to bridge that return to work so that our children could get their wellness checkups and vaccinations.
Yes, it’s possible that even in a different system, Karl still might not have lived a day longer, but had he had been with me, where I wanted him, I wouldn’t be sitting here, living with the nearly incapacitating anguish of a question that has no answer.
There are plenty of good examples of how to create a national parental leave system that works. Our children can’t afford lobbyists. It’s up to us parents to demand more.