Universal Childcare Would Have Changed My Mom's Life

Universal Childcare Would Have Changed My Mom's Life
Photo:Joan Summers

Earlier this week, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, she told me a secret. For the past three months, she has been waking up around 4am to drive to Whole Foods, nearly an hour away from her house, to deliver groceries for Amazon customers.

Having grown up without much money, with a mom who provided the bulk of our family’s income, it wasn’t surprising to me that she has picked up an extra job. Over the course of my life, she’s had many: real estate agent, receptionist, nanny, hair model, product tester, something that involved a nebulous form of data entry. What did surprise me, though, is the extremity of the job she has taken on, considering she already works over 40 hours a week in real estate. Two of her three children have moved out and are self-dependent and married. Her third, my younger sister, will soon leave. Perplexed why she would extend her days to almost 20 hours for a job that only paid $14 an hour, I asked her why. She told me, fighting back tears: “This is just what I have to do.”

In the days since that phone call with my mom, I’ve thought quite a bit about the impact that universal childcare would have had on her life as working mom, stretched between extreme workdays and three kids she had to feed, drive to school, and help with their homework. In the meantime, Elizabeth Warren has finally dropped out of the presidential race, her ambitious plans for universal childcare ostensibly leaving with her. And in the wake of her exit, as her base considers whether to throw in with Biden, I worry that an important progressive policy will lose out, yet again.

I remember the first time my dad lost his job, in the lead-up to the 2008 recession. An engineer, nobody was buying the extremely specific hardware parts his company was manufacturing. Wall Street didn’t just kill the housing market or the hopes and dreams of working families across the country; it also killed the need for machines that blow the dust off computer chips. To compensate, my mom began taking on a variety of jobs.

Most nights I would fall asleep to the sound of her still clacking away on the keyboard.

As a new real estate agent, there weren’t many homes to sell, so she took a turn testing products for new companies for low wages and long hours. I remember her coming home and telling us about a television she’d seen that could let you video conference someone in another room. (That company later became Zoom.) She also began doing data entry for banks, which consumed much of her waking life. The emails began before the sun was up, and most nights I would fall asleep to the sound of her still clacking away on the keyboard. Sometimes, on our way home from school, she would park somewhere she could get free wifi, just to eke out a few more spreadsheets. “If you’re good, I’ll get you Slurpees!” she’d usually tell us. Most days, I wanted a Slurpee, so I was happy to curl up with a book in my corner of the minivan, tracing shapes on the window when I got bored.

As kids, we were used to living in the car with mom. When real estate was still a viable career choice for her, most afternoons were spent driving miles and miles across the suburban sprawl of the South Bay Area. Sometimes she would have clients with her; sometimes she would meet the clients at whatever home she’d be looking at with them. Most days, she asked us to sit as quietly as we could in the minivan, promising she’d be out as fast as possible. As the responsible sibling, she always trusted me to leave the keys inside, so me and my sister could sing along to Britney Spears on the radio.

Once, I had to pee so bad I thought I’d explode, which would undoubtedly get me in an incomprehensible amount of trouble with my mom. My siblings were asleep, so I snuck up to the condo she was showing to a young couple, prepared to make a mad dash to the closest bathroom I could find. When I cracked the front door, the squeak it made immediately alerted my mom and the couple. The woman stood there, eyes wide. “I had no idea you had children!” My mom smiled, and grabbed me by the hand. The couple couldn’t tell that she was squeezing it just enough to let me know I’d made a mistake.

In the car ride home, my mom told me that we were not supposed to intrude on her clients. As the well-behaved one, I should have known this, but still I was confused. Her reasoning comes back to me, some 15 years later: “Nobody will hire me if they think I can’t handle my kids.”

And so we learned to sit quietly and smile widely when clients would ring our doorbell, asking after my mom. She trained us to always answer the phone the same way, in case there was new business on the phone. And on the rare chances we dropped in on her open houses with my dad, I would have to leave the Gameboy in the car, lest I look too roguish or ill-behaved. When she had to work from her office, she’d sneak us through a backdoor, and we’d hide under her desk, licking stamps and folding slips of paper we’d later pass around to neighbors on the weekend.

Too young to understand the world my mom was struggling to navigate as a 30-year-old woman with three kids, I often resented these strictures that guided my childhood, these arcane rules and rituals. Now, she sometimes cries on the phone when we talk and asks if she had been a bad mom.

I often resented these strictures that guided my childhood, these arcane rules and rituals

Some time into the recession, around 2009, my siblings and I were almost teenagers, and old enough to work odd jobs around the neighborhood. Together, we mowed lawns or cleaned homes or wiped down windows. (People in our suburb cared greatly about these things, as the world around them fell into disrepair.) Eventually, my enterprising 8th-grade self saved up enough to buy a small laptop of my own, which I used to help my mom handle the data entry. It had eventually swallowed her real estate business as her primary source of income, taking up almost 20 hours of her day. My siblings and I knew the toll it took on her, and I wanted to do what I could to help. Before I’d even do my homework, I’d sit down at the kitchen table with her, plugging numbers I did not understand into spreadsheets I could barely read.

Sometimes she’d put on the radio, and we’d sing especially loud to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” still her favorite song. When she’d get too tired, or find herself falling asleep at the computer, she’d drag me out of my seat and dance around, doing what she could to make our lives fun. When the sun began to set, I’d head to my room, and lay my homework out on my bed. Eventually, my dad would get back from whatever new job he was interviewing for or temp-ing at. Before long it was dinner, then sleep, then school, and then we’d all together do it again.

After my mom divulged to me her secret, grocery shopping for Amazon customers in a wealthy neighborhood in the Bay Area, I couldn’t understand her reasoning that “This is just what I have to do.” In the six years since I lived at home, her real estate business has picked up enough for her and my dad, once more working as an engineer, to live with some comfort in the rural suburb where we grew up. But she told me about the fears that have persisted in her for almost 20 years: fear of not being able to provide for her family, fear of being seen as a failure, fear that she had damaged her kids because of all the work she’d done. She’d never spoken so candidly before. Of course, I’d pieced together some of this already, navigating my own feelings about the childhood my siblings and I went through. But hearing it out loud, with the decades of stress and heartbreak in my mom’s voice—no amount of therapy could have prepared me for that.

Universal childcare, undoubtedly, would have changed my mother’s life. With Elizabeth Warren out of the race, working mothers like her who stood behind Warren for her progressive policies—especially on childcare—now find themselves with eyes fixed on Bernie Sanders, who has long talked up his policies for safeguarding and uplifting the working people of America. But it was only last week, amidst national speculation that Warren would drop out, that his campaign announced a concrete plan for universal childcare. It includes a budget of $1.5 trillion dollars, which would fund national child care centers adhering to strict federal standards, as well as bolstering organizations like YMCA and home-based daycare providers.

While my political affiliations reside—rather nakedly—with Bernie Sanders, I’m finding myself demoralized by Warren’s absence from the race. I am not here to make the case for who had the more progressive policies, or who deserved the nomination more. But I am firmly of the belief that this race should have always come down to Warren and Sanders. Warren leaving the race removes her focus on the plight of working mothers, who still—like my own mom—find themselves trapped by the lack of affordable childcare, left to choose from a variety of bad options.

Joe Biden, around whom a perplexing number of Warren supporters are planting their flags, has yet to offer up a plan for universal childcare at all, his only proposal to date being for pre-kindergarten. It is not promising that Biden has continually reminded his base that his presidency will be “business as usual” for the Democrats; as he told rich donors last year, “nothing will fundamentally change” were he elected.

I believe Bernie Sanders when he says he will fight for universal access to safe and free childcare. But unlike Warren, who has pushed for this since the very first day of her campaign, I’m disheartened by how long it took for his campaign to roll out anything concrete, coming after his only other progressive rival had decisively lost her shot at the nomination. Maybe if childcare had been incorporated into his wide gestures at the working class—of whom mothers and young children are often the most vulnerable—the results of Super Tuesday would have been different. It’s important that Sanders not let the nuances of the lives of working-class people get collapsed to the point the commitment is just a campaign gesture.

Even though my mom could probably survive without dragging herself from bed at 4am to buy luxury granola for uncaring Amazon customers, she believes this is what she must do. She is still haunted, and shaped, by the life she has lived since she was 23, wondering how she would possibly provide for the children she was bringing into such an uncertain world. Like so many other women across this country, some part of my mom knows that there yet to be an elected official who delivers on their promises to women. Warren, for many, looked to be that person. And now she is out.

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