By MARY HOOD HART
I am a strong advocate of stay-at-home parenting — particularly in a child’s first year, ideally years beyond. With that said, I can not understand the public outrage directed at the parents of Matthew Eappen, shaken to death by his family’s 19-year-old au pair, Louise Woodward. I’m surprised people believe the Eappens were at fault when they hired an au pair and pursued their careers as physicians; Deborah Eappen working only three days a week. In a culture that celebrates juggling work and children, this arrangement seems socially acceptable, if not enviable.
Indeed, what strikes me as ironic about this hostility toward Matthew’s parents is that if Matthew had been the child of a family who was financially strapped, his death would have been seen as tragic — but unavoidable. His parents would not be blamed for leaving him with a low-paid sitter as they worked to buy diapers and formula. Yet because Matthew’s parents were professionals and better off financially than most, they’re depicted as selfish Yuppies willing to sacrifice their children’s welfare for luxuries.
How many of those who condemned Deborah Eappen would be willing to support a single mother who chooses to stay home with her baby rather than leave the child in the hands of an unqualified, underpaid caregiver? Yet aren’t both babies, aren’t all babies, deserving of the best possible care?
In light of such contradictions, it’s no wonder so many mothers are torn between caring for their children and pursuing professional and financial goals. It’s no wonder so many children are placed in inadequate care while their parents work to maintain a standard of living they consider “just getting by.” What some people deem necessities, others see as luxuries. At what point do we start judging parents for working to make ends meet? Do we judge them if they’re putting the baby in day care to provide food and shelter, but they indulge in cigarettes and coffee, too? Are we still talking necessities if both parents work to finance two cars, a vacation, the children’s college tuition?
It becomes complicated and absurd to judge most parents’ child care decisions based on what they can or cannot afford. Ask five different families what constitute their necessities of life, and you’ll get five different answers. Let’s face it, a lot of people rationalize that they need things they really don’t. A lot of families could afford for one parent to stay home or work less — although they’d never be convinced of it. People become accustomed to a comfortable standard of living and do what they must to maintain it.
Instead of arguing over what parents can and can’t afford, let’s focus our energy and outrage on something of substance, something we can change. Let’s start identifying, training and valuing qualified caregivers for young children. Let’s start helping all parents, not just Yuppies, to prioritize their needs and wants so their children’s welfare is always at the top of the list. Let’s start teaching teens, long before they become parents, that sacrifice does not mean forgoing an expensive car and designer clothes. It means giving up much, much more.
If we paid attention to them, the parents who support several children on one modest income could teach us something about sacrifice. So could the parents who choose to work split shifts so one of them can always be home. So could the professionals who surrender the power and prestige of their positions to become undervalued, unpaid caregivers. So could the grandparents who provide child care and living space for grandchildren when their own children are single parents and need their help. These families provide examples of what can be done for the sake of children.
Until more parents appreciate the nobility of such sacrifice, until we start offering incentives for people to stay home, until we provide well-qualified, well-paid care givers to those who have no other options, children will be shortchanged. Children will suffer. Blaming Matthew Eappens’ parents for his death, apart from being mean spirited, serves only to obscure a larger problem. The moment we’re honest enough to examine how this nation treats its children, we’ll discover there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C, with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield — Cape Girardeau, Mo.