Parenting as a Public Service

We can’t simultaneously rely on parents to secure our collective future by raising the next generation of citizens and ask them to do it alone.

From the start of the pandemic in 2020 that women, most notably women of color, lost far more jobs than men. Lack of childcare has been a primary reason. (Xavier Donat / Creative Commons)

We’ve all learned a lot over the last two years. I’ll gladly welcome the day when I can free up the part of my brain now dedicated to knowing the difference between a surgical mask and a KN95. But there is one set of lessons I hope sticks with us: that moms, dads and caregivers are doing a vital public service—one that we too often ignore. 

During the pandemic, parents everywhere felt the bottom fall out of their support networks. School and child care evaporated, leaving parents suddenly working and parenting full time. There’s no question that the weight fell heaviest on momsWomen left the workforce in historic numbers. And as the National Women’s Law Center tweeted, a recent jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that “men have now recovered ALL of their losses since the start of this pandemic, while women now make up all labor force leavers since February 2020.”  

Over the summer, it seemed like things were looking up. Vaccines were approved for children as young as 5 and looked to be on the horizon for the younger set. Data generally seemed reassuring that COVID-19 didn’t affect young kids too badly, and schools and daycares reopened.

But as Omicron surged through the country, foundations shook again. Hospitalization rates—which had generally remained low for little ones—suddenly hit record highs. Schools and daycare centers returned to closing unexpectedly. Those that remained open applied changing and at times inscrutable rules that left parents again unable to work or plan their lives, and unsure whether it was safe to send their children when they could. Being unvaccinated, little ones were still subject to long quarantines when exposed.

Those in power understandably focused on getting as many people as possible vaccinated. But in the push for vaccination, solutions for people with children too young for the shot were largely absent. The CDC and WHO affirmatively recommend against having very young children wear masks. In December and again in February, vaccine trials were extended, prolonging the date when the millions of children under 5 might be eligible to receive a shot. Parents desperate for guidance were met mostly with silence and at times careless cruelty. Even as vaccination moved further and further out of reach for parents of little kids, President Biden warned of “a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated.” What parents of young children heard: Get ready for a season of severe illness and death for your little ones. 

None of us should have had to deal with the terrors of the past two years. But it is particularly unforgivable to hang parents out to dry, because they’re not just doing it for themselves. They’re not even doing it just for their children. They’re doing it for all of us. 

In January, data and parenting guru Emily Oster put out a survey asking parents of kids under 5 for information about their experiences during the pandemic. The responses were stark. As she reported in her newsletter, parents were struggling to “balance fear of COVID with fear of isolation,” overcome with frustration over child care closures, and battling sheer exhaustion. Perhaps most simply, parents felt abandoned.

It shouldn’t be this way. None of us should have had to deal with the terrors of the past two years. But it is particularly unforgivable to hang parents out to dry, because they’re not just doing it for themselves. They’re not even doing it just for their children. They’re doing it for all of us. 

Parenting is a public service. One of the oldest fundamental liberty interests recognized by the Supreme Court is the interest of parents in the care, custody and control of their children. In protecting this interest, the Court has recognized that with parenting comes the “high duty” to prepare children for “additional obligations.” What do those “additional obligations” entail? Chief Justice Burger wrote in 1972 that they include “the inculcation of moral standards, religious beliefs, and elements of good citizenship.” In other words, it lies with parents to bring up the next generation of healthy, well-educated, diverse-thinking and moral citizens on which our future depends. 

In truth, it should come as no surprise that parents feel abandoned during the pandemic. We ignore the value of this public service at virtually every turn. Motherhood in particular is treated as a luxury, a club to which those with means are invited and those without are condemned for seeking entry. Instead of supporting mothers in those first weeks and months, we deny them paid family leave, forcing many mothers back to work just days or weeks after giving birth. (One 2015 study reported that nearly one in four employed mothers in its sample went back to work within two weeks.)

Our social policy is infected with stereotypes and bias, with notions like the “crack baby” myth and the “welfare queen” trope motivating a safety net designed not to offer meaningful support, but instead to keep those deemed “undeserving” struggling to meet basic human needs. The result is that the supports we do provide—things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—require parents to jump through endless hoops to access, if they can even meet the stringent requirements to qualify.

If a family succeeds in getting these supports in place, the benefits themselves are so low that they don’t come close to meeting families’ actual needs. For example, the maximum monthly TANF benefit amount for a family of four in D..C, where I work, is $813. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $2,000

Too often, this lack of resources gets turned into an indictment of the parents themselves. Parents across the country are subjected to invasive “child welfare” investigations and prosecutions in which poverty is too often confused for neglect. As ProPublica recently reported, many states use the very same funds that could go to supporting families—federal block grants—to instead investigate and separate parents from their children. 

And even while we devalue parenthood, the Supreme Court is poised to force even more women into this unsupported public service against their will by overturning or severely limiting Roe v. Wade. As Justice Blackmun wrote in his concurrence in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (the case that followed Roe and solidified abortion rights): 

“[B]y restricting the right to terminate pregnancies, the State conscripts women’s bodies into its service, forcing women to continue their pregnancies, suffer the pains of childbirth, and in most instances, provide years of maternal care. The State does not compensate women for their services; instead, it assumes that they owe this duty as a matter of course.”

We don’t. 

Every woman should be able to freely choose whether she wants to become a mother. And that choice is only free if she can make it knowing that she will have support. Parenting takes intensive labor—literal and figurative. We can’t simultaneously rely on parents to secure our collective future by raising the next generation of citizens and ask them to do it alone. It doesn’t just take a village; it takes infrastructure designed to help families thrive.  

For parents of little ones, the pandemic feels far from over. But I still have faith that we will soon return to some semblance of normal—or at least arrive at a new normal. But when we do, I hope people remember the experience of cradling clingy toddlers while managing a full schedule of Zoom meetings, of juggling lunches and nap times and tantrums while on deadline. Because even in “good” times, parents in under-resourced communities do this vital public service every day without support. 

What would it feel like to live in a society that values the public service all parents provide? I hope one day to find out.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Stephanie K. Glaberson is an attorney and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where she directs the law school's Civil Litigation Clinic. She previously represented parents subject to state regulation of their families in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is also a mom to an energetic toddler.