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Pregnancy is a crash course on strategic thinking and decision-making. I know this because I am a mom who has previously had an abortion. Both were parenting decisions that I fortunately got to make for myself.
However, deciding when to parent is just one piece of the reproductive choice conversation. My motherhood journey has thrust me into the fragile world of parenting, where public policy limits, and sometimes outright denies, the options parents have to raise their families in comfort and with dignity.
The start of the pandemic coincided almost exactly with the end of my parental leave. At first, I didn’t mind the virtual work environment the pandemic forced upon so many of us. I wasn’t ready to leave my small infant in the care of strangers, so it was a benefit that I got to work from home. But, like many parents, as my infant developed into a mobile toddler, I quickly learned two things: Toddlers are curious tiny humans that move very fast, and day care is very expensive.
The first few places I looked into quoted me $700 to $900 per week. My salary was not enough to cover that cost, yet I made too much to qualify for assistance—a harsh reality for many working parents who earn beyond the shockingly limiting parameters for government support. The following few months entailed a pivotal job hunt, enlisting my grandparents as caregivers, and relocation, while also balancing the mom-guilt of having my child start school during the pandemic against the knowledge that socializing is critical for her development and my own ability to work.
I was exhausted. And I wasn’t alone.
Parents have been set up to fail. An overworked but underpaid workforce, the lack of paid family leave and universal child care, a health-care system that is difficult to navigate and impossible to afford, and an overwhelmed and underfunded public school system have all been exacerbated by the pandemic. We’ve seen a mass exodus of women from the workforce, forced out due to job closures, low wages that couldn’t compete with the cost of child care, and patriarchal expectations of women as primary caregivers. Black and brown people comprise much of the essential workforce, and, at the same time, Black moms are being criminalized for daring to provide for their families in the absence of government support that makes it possible to work and feel OK leaving your children in the care of others.
It is no surprise many parents and childless individuals have opted to delay or avoid pregnancy altogether due to the pandemic. The pandemic has shed light on how few reproductive options we truly have. Just as we should have accessible and affordable abortion, we also deserve the right to parent and the financial support to make it happen. Right now, we have neither.
While parents have been drowning, state and federal governments have ignored our struggles, instead spending money and resources to target people seeking abortions. Several states used the pandemic to ban or severely limit abortion access by labeling it an elective procedure. And in January, the Supreme Court granted the Food and Drug Administration permission to reinstate requirements forcing patients seeking medication abortion to make in-person appointments and risk COVID-19 exposure instead of using telehealth and prescription mail services, despite these requirements being lifted for many other drugs. Thankfully, in April the FDA waived the in-person visit for the duration of the public health emergency, a decision that affirmed the safety of medication abortion and expanded access to care—but even then, medication abortion isn’t available in some conservative states due to bans on telemedicine.
At the same time, states continue to funnel millions in state and federal tax dollars to anti-abortion pregnancy centers that mislead people about abortion, waste funds on outsized administrative costs, and require parents to attend religiously oriented classes in order to receive very limited support for diapers, formula, and baby furniture. Why are we funding deception and corruption when we could offer direct financial support that makes raising a family a tenable option to those who want it?
More than a year into a global pandemic, the continued work of advocates combating child poverty is finally gaining bipartisan support, but the discussions in Congress are far removed from parents’ reality. In exchange for giving households $3,000 to $4,200 every year per child, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed cutting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and getting rid of tax credits parents depend on. While the Democrats’ plan does not rely on cutting social safety net programs, their stimulus proposal would offer only $3,000 to $3,600 every year per child. Neither plan scratches the surface of what it costs to raise a child.
Before the pandemic, working families with children under age five spent an average of $250 every single week on child care alone, with lower-income working families contributing over 35 percent of their paycheck. That’s money many households, with parents out of work or working reduced hours, no longer have. Providing universal day care alongside robust cash payments would allow families to make unconstrained choices about child care and direct that income toward other necessities—housing, food, and health care—that are integral aspects of parenting and for which advocates are consistently working to win tangible government support.
Federally funded day care is nothing new. During World War II, with men overseas as troops and women homemakers working in factories, Congress created government-funded day care centers where working parents knew their children were safe, fed, and educated. Decades later, when the draft ended, the Department of Defense recognized the importance of quality child care for its workforce and launched what is now the largest employer-sponsored child care program in the country. The government clearly has the ability to prioritize and fund child care. Now they need the political will.
Transforming reproductive choice from theory to practice relies on shifting our culture to reflect the reproductive justice belief that everyone has the right to have or not have children, and the right to nurture the children we choose to have in a safe, healthy environment. As it stands now, inaccessible reproductive health care and a void of supportive policies for parents has left us all in a choiceless vacuum. We are not wrong for wanting our leaders to implement compassionate, people-centered policy, and we need to know we are not alone when we demand it.