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African American young mother with daughter drawing together

Source: eli_asenova / Getty

I didn’t set out to be an activist. I was a single mom studying at my local community college to be a certified public accountant. I was trying to better myself and uplift my family. I needed child care and quickly realized that adequate funding for providers and families was elusive. When I found myself unable to afford child care but I still had school and work responsibilities, I realized that not only did I need to raise my voice, but I needed to inspire other women to do the same.  

In America, many people underestimate or do not see working mothers’ struggle when it comes to accessing high-quality early childhood education and care. And many people take for granted the hurdles working moms must clear to get to work at their assigned time. Often, by the time we reach the work site, we’ve already cleared more barriers than the average person; we’ve researched appropriate people and centers to care for our children, identified centers and providers whom we can afford, found transportation to get our children to said center, and met our and our children’s physical and emotional needs. By the time we arrive at school or work, we’ve already cleared an emotional and logistical to-do list and want nothing more than a fair shot at meeting our current and future needs.   

Whether society sees mothers’ struggle doesn’t diminish the load we carry. Not having childcare completely destabilized my life. I had a child but limited funds. Consequently, my life was disrupted. I wasn’t lazy, nor did I lack motivation. Like most people, I just needed extra help – help that was hard to come by. Lacking early childhood education isn’t a personal problem but rather a societal challenge.

Early childhood education increases opportunities for children and their parents.

When parents can’t afford early childhood education, they cannot work. And worse, their children may struggle to learn. When children start out in life lacking basic educational support, they are set up for a life of hardship. What’s more, how can our nation credibly say it values fairness yet not ensure all children receive the early education they need to lead healthy lives?   

It is unconscionable that we live in a country with so much wealth, but policymakers can’t figure out how to prioritize education and care for young children. Beyond parents wanting and needing to go to work, forcing them to choose between their children’s safety and feeding their families is inhumane. This is not just my story – it is a collective one. A fall 2021 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “34% of families with young children are facing serious problems finding child care when adults need to work.”  

I’ve spoken to many families who would have been just fine, but a governor or a council member slashed funding for early childhood education or didn’t invest in it in the first place – that upended their and their children’s lives. Families already struggling were thrust deeper into a survival game that impacts not just the adults and children but the entire community. Educational disparities begin long before a child enters kindergarten. The majority of brain development occurs from birth to age 5, so quality care during that time frame is critical. For instance, when it comes to literacy and lifelong learning, it is important to begin reading at birth.

The U.S. must make a meaningful investment in early childhood education

Zero to Three found that “Beginning early is important because the roots of language are developing in a baby’s brain even before he can talk! The more words your baby hears over time, the more words he learns.”  Unfortunately, the U.S. is falling behind in investing in children. NPR reported that “the U.S. spends less public money on early childhood education and care than most other wealthy nations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”  

Because there isn’t adequate funding for early childhood education and care, centers cannot keep care workers, limiting the number of families who receive care. Early learning centers are competing with retail establishments that can offer a higher hourly wage.   

It is important that all of us understand these milestones so we can organize in support of our children. We must organize to ensure that childcare becomes a bigger priority in this country. By not letting this issue fade from the headlines and engaging mothers, policymakers and community members, we can ensure that our voice is louder and stronger. In fact, one of the ways we are organizing is by highlighting my story and other mothers’ stories in the film about my work, “Clarissa’s Battle.”

The film is meant to name and notice families’ challenges in securing high-quality early childhood education and care but also highlight what’s possible when we work together. More than anything, I want mothers to know that they are not alone and that when we come together, we can make an impact on our families as well as our neighbors. There is inherent hope in the act of organizing, and I want all of us to understand that until our children have what they need, our organizing must never cease. 

Clarissa Doutherd is the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland

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