The program helps you think about alternative perspective.
by Dr. Rebecca Noel
What a wonderful treat to win this award, and what an extra pleasure to accept it on this momentous occasion, in the presence of PSU’s two female presidents, President Steen and, of course, Theo Kalikow herself. From the moment I learned of the Theo Kalikow Award’s existence, I’ve thought it was an award I’d love to deserve.
The founder of Mount Holyoke Seminary, Mary Lyon, lectured her young female students in 1843 about staying focused on work. She told them, “Ladies are turned aside by a thousand things, wh[ich] never interrupt gentlemen.” I’ve thought often of Mary Lyon’s words since I started teaching here. Although I’ve got a decent record on women’s issues and scholarship and teaching, the women’s work I’ve focused on lately is about helping women and men stay focused on work by securing more childcare for working parents in the Plymouth area. This is an initiative I didn’t plan or want. My family and I moved here in August 2004 from Montpelier, Vermont, a town only a little bigger than Plymouth. There, school-age childcare is available until 5:30 every weekday of the year, and many parents count on that. But in Plymouth, I was whacked again and again by shortfalls in childcare, starting with the month of August itself. How was I supposed to write syllabi, attend Faculty Week, move into my office, and meet my advisees when the town’s summer daycamps and the Child Development Center were closed? Then it turned out the afterschool program didn’t start until three weeks into the school year, and it didn’t meet on Fridays. In the spring semester came the February and April vacations, when the bottom dropped out of childcare completely. Another working mother here told me that a year earlier, her home afterschool provider had abruptly closed up shop, leaving several families high and dry. Every woman in those families cut back her work hours. In theory, childcare isn’t primarily a women’s issue. In practice, it frequently is.
Perhaps this explains why I did a lot of crying the first year—crying, followed by whining, fulminating, and hopping up and down. But although parent feedback, and I guess mine was among the noisiest, resolved a number of problems by my second year, the February vacation predicament was more stubborn. After another meltdown, I wrote a deceptively restrained email to all faculty and staff, asking how many people were frustrated by childcare gaps and what remedies would help. Within an hour, I had a dozen resounding replies from both moms and dads, and they kept coming. That quick, voluminous response was both gratifying and effective. I sent out a questionnaire to this circle, which was also distributed to parents of children at the Center, surveying interest in school vacation daycamps. Armed with persuasive results, I met with the elementary school principal over the summer and followed up later. In January, we enlisted the Parks & Recreation program director, and the daycamp was on. Still, we had to get enough kids to make the camp happen, and I got pretty busy with this part too. During an excruciating cold snap in early February, when the wind chill was something like -20, I found myself charging up the hill to stuff mailboxes at the Center with another copy of the daycamp flyer, thinking against that wind, This is so important to me that I am not actually cold! It was a little like being in the Salvation Army. The good news is that the daycamp ran with double the number needed, in only its first year. Yes, there were lots of other parents in this fix. By the way, the kids loved the camp.
Although I’m pleased with what’s been accomplished, this drive for more childcare feels selfish at times. It sounds as though I’m trying to spend less time with my kids, whom I love to infinity and beyond; and I know it’s not as urgent as many other women’s issues, like violence or inadequate health care or racism or not being able to eat. Of course, many women have to work for financial reasons, but staking demands for childcare purely on necessity carries an implied apology. It suggests that working mothers would not work if they could avoid it, which is close to agreeing they shouldn’t work if they can avoid it. That’s not true for me. When my kids were younger, I was underemployed, and I absolutely shriveled up. Even if I won the lottery, I’d keep this job, and I wouldn’t apologize. I know lots of women feel the same. Men don’t have to address this question at all.
Many parents at PSU and throughout this region struggle with childcare problems on an individual basis, and worrying about one’s own precious children and tricky workday often feels like personal small potatoes. But childcare is a big potato, with political, societal, economic, and historical dimensions, and it deserves a solution of commensurate seriousness and scope. I hope we can stay vocal and active in creating social solutions for this problem, as for others, until no one gets whacked by them anymore.