The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Child Care Tradeoffs, from Compromises to Sacrifices

Mother holding sleeping child

This post was co-authored by WCW Senior Research Scientist Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., and Sarah Savage, a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Their issue brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers, was published by the Boston Fed in July 2022.


Just before the pandemic, we interviewed 67 mothers of young children about their experiences accessing child care. Though they were a diverse group, their problems were similar: They could not find child care. When they could find it, most struggled to afford it. As a result, they were all forced to make tradeoffs in selecting the best care arrangements for their families.

These interviews formed the basis of our recent brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers. Through lengthy, one-on-one conversations, we tried to dig deeper to better understand the tradeoffs parents make to juggle employment with child care.

More than half of the participants in our study had an oldest child under age 3. Fifteen mothers were single or divorced, and the rest were married or partnered. Sixteen mothers were women of color. About half the group had household incomes that exceeded the state’s median in 2019 of $81,215. (Fathers were welcome to participate, but only mothers responded to our recruitment materials.) What we found was that every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care, but that the tradeoffs varied in level of severity.

Tradeoffs occurred along a spectrum. We characterized some as compromises: For example, some mothers tried to adjust their work schedules to better match the hours of their child care providers, even though it could negatively impact their careers. Others accepted providers with home environments they were uncomfortable with or who allowed too much screen time, trading off quality for affordability or availability.

Every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care

We categorized more severe tradeoffs as sacrifices. In these instances, conflicts with families’ needs or preferences led to care or work disruptions. For example, some parents reported switching child care providers due to safety or maltreatment concerns, despite their limited options. Some mothers reduced their work hours to balance their jobs and child care needs, even though that decreased their income. Married mothers with incomes above the state median were more likely to leave the workforce altogether if they found child care unaffordable—an option not available to single parents or lower-income families.

The fact that every family was forced to either compromise or sacrifice is a reminder that working parents who access child care are often struggling. Having both child care and a job doesn’t mean they’re living a ‘success story.’ And when we think about equitable solutions, we can't just think about it from the affordability perspective—availability and quality are other critical dimensions that must be considered.

Read more in our brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers.


Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and director of the Work, Families, & Children Research Group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work at the Centers is focused on child development (birth to age 8), child care policy, early childhood care and education, and school readiness.

Sarah Savage, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Boston Fed. As part of the Bank’s work to increase employment opportunities, she is conducting research on barriers to positive labor force engagement of low- and moderate-income parents in the region, with an intensive examination of the role of childcare needs.

The views expressed are our own and not those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Federal Reserve System, or its Board of Governors.

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Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse? Research tells us the negative consequences are lifelong.

This article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on June 19, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

Like many, I have been watching in horror the images of children taken from their parents, housed in caged containers, huddled under silver blankets. As the intellectual debate about whether this is sound border patrol policy or outright child abuse wages on, it feels urgent to share my perspective as a psychiatrist with twenty-five years of experience treating individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder from related childhood abuses. When you look through the lens of neuroscience there is no debate – ripping children from parents is extraordinarily traumatizing. In fact, the pain and impact of the separation is likely setting off the same biological alarm system that would be activated if they were being beaten in these cages. Let me explain.

When mammals evolved from reptiles millions of years ago something very interesting happened. Reproductive strategy shifted dramatically from mass producing eggs and hoping a few of the offspring survive to adulthood (like turtles) to producing offspring internally. Carrying a child internally for nine months meant a dramatic decrease in the number of children born to mammals and the infants created were immature and unable to fend for themselves making attachment to parents or caregivers essential to survival. To assure attachment a corresponding evolution of the nervous system occurred. Humans developed a “social engagement system” to assure that parents and children stay connected.

When separated from his parents, a child’s nervous system sends out a loud signal to signify that he is in grave danger. The child will become dysregulated, extremely anxious and stressed out – he will protest by crying out for his parent as a full load of adrenaline or norepinephrine is surging through his system. The child separated from his parent is terrified and because the brain function to modulate affect is built within this care taking relationship and is ongoing well into the late teen years, that child is also not able to calm the terror. Over time, if the parent does not respond (or in this case can not respond), the child will flip into a parasympathetic shutdown of his body creating a state of learned helplessness or despondency. At this persists, the child enters an extremely dangerous state called failure to thrive in the attachment literature.

This is not new information and certainly should be in the hands of anyone considering making public policy that adversely impacts children. It was learned back in the late 1950’s when Harlow set up an experiment where he placed an infant monkey in a cage with a cold wire monkey that provides milk and another wire monkey covered in a warm material that offered comforting contact. Repeatedly, the young monkeys chose the comfort of the cuddly mother over food. That is how important touch and holding is to primate children. One of the policies being reported at these centers is that workers are not allowed to pick up or comfort the children. The results for these children will be devastating.

Likewise, the Abnormal Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), a twenty-year longitudinal research project on the health outcomes of children who have had traumatic experiences in childhood, suggests that a child disconnected from his/her parents (as one of only a few abnormal experiences) has negative impacts on health and well-being. Not only are mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse found to be higher in people with a high ACE score but also physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even infections are increased.

Additionally, research by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA (SPOT Theory)identified an area of the human brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex- that is activated when a person is feeling socially excluded or disconnected. The dACC also happens to be the same area of the brain that is activated when a person is feeling the distress of physical pain. Essentially, SPOT Theory tells us that being connected to safe others is so important to human survival that it shares a neurological alarm with the distress of physical injury or illness. In essence, ripping children from parents carries the same risk as hitting them. To human beings pain is pain and so these children, their parents, and anyone who is witnessing this cruelty without disconnecting from it, is in deep, deep, preventable pain.

Given the clear science, how is it that some humans are not upset about this abuse? One explanation is found by looking at the neuroscience of "othering." Studies show that when I see someone as “not like me”, my mirror neuron system shuts down and I do not feel a physiological resonance with his suffering. Rather, I look at him through the area of my brain that helps me understand abstract ideas. This is a disconnected way of knowing another and heavily influenced by cultural stories and biases. This is not an excuse but rather a warning of the social impact of policies and rhetoric that divides people and communities into “us” and “them”.

The neurological bottom line is clear, separating children from their parents is child abuse. And anyone who has a sense of morality must do everything in his or her power to help it stop ASAP.

Continue reading the full article on Psychology Today in Amy Banks' Wired for Love blog.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar and director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She has spoken throughout the U.S. on the neurobiology of relationship and has an ongoing passion to spread the message that humans are hardwired for connection.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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