We couldn’t afford for me to stay home with our children, but I did it anyway. My husband at the time worked a steady, full-time job with a decent salary, and we rented out the lower half of our duplex in Sanford. That income wasn’t enough for me to stay at home with our children. I did it anyway.
We tried to make it work. I did freelance work when our baby slept. For a short time, I held a part-time job with flexible hours. I soon decided that trying to juggle everything wasn’t good enough for my daughter. We couldn’t afford for me to be effectively a stay-at-home mom. We did it anyway.
Maybe we didn’t go about it in the right way, as my commitment to staying home with my daughters brought us to a financial crisis. But my gut told me my daughter needed peaceful one-on-one contact with me, a lot of communication and both emotional and intellectual stimulation. It turns out my gut was telling me what science has shown to be true. Disregarding the financial costs, I gave to my daughters what they needed for their growing brains.
“Healthy early experiences are essential because, by age three, almost 80 percent of neural construction is complete, and much of the foundation for lifelong learning is set,” says Former Attorney General Steve Rowe, an advocate for high-quality care for Maine’s youngest children. For healthy brain development, Rowe says, “Children need nurturing, stimulating and stable relationships with supportive adult caregivers as well as a sense of safety and security.”
What I wanted for my children, but couldn’t financially afford to give them, was exactly what they needed. So I did it anyway.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, shows that children whose lives include negative experiences, such as any kind of abuse or neglect, substance abuse by caregivers or the loss of a parent through divorce or separation, are much more likely to have poor physical health, difficulty completing school and a greater likelihood of problems with law enforcement.
The study also measured the effects of adverse childhood experiences on employment stability, productivity and absenteeism. “The negative influences of ACEs upon the health of all Mainers, the educational success of our children, workforce development, productivity and self sufficiency are all substantial and should be of interest and importance to Maine’s political, educational and business leaders,” notes Sue Mackey-Andrews, facilitator for the Maine Resilience Building Network.
I am lucky. While my current financial situation is still quite rocky, my family background of financial security and a lot of education puts me and my children at an advantage. Children born into real poverty are much more likely to have adverse childhood experiences that can lead to disruptions in their brain development, which can lead to trouble in school and beyond. Parents need help. All parents, not just those of us born into privilege, should have the chance to learn what I was lucky enough to know intuitively. Through parent education, programs such as Touchpoints, the Period of Purple Crying and co-parenting programs such as Kids First, we can reduce children’s adverse childhood experiences.
“Effective parent education strengthens and builds on the relationship between parent and child,” reports Candace Eaton in the Maine Policy Review. “Family-strengthening programs nurture existing parenting skills, recognizing that parents want to do the best possible job at preparing their children for the future.”
We need real livable wages. The MIT ” living wage calculator” sets the livable wage for a family of one adult and two children living in Maine at just more than $25 per hour. At this wage, a parent would be more likely to afford high-quality child care in his or her home, or otherwise.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is working, but it needs improvement. Stronger legislation, or effective incentives for business, to allow for paid time off, not just legally protected unpaid leave, may also encourage parents to provide the highest-quality care during the most important earliest months and years.
We need to ensure that child care services, from in-home informal settings to larger, more structured environments, have the resources they need to properly care for our children. And we need parenting education across the board.
The evidence that children benefit from stable environments and nurturing stimulation is overwhelming. Everyone deserves the knowledge and opportunity to care for their children in the best way possible. Investing in our children — that means investing in their parents and caregivers, too — now will give us the best payoff in the end: productive, healthy, self-supporting, active members of our shared community.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.