Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

You Can't Always Get What You Want-Infant Care Preferences and Use among Employed Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

You Can't Always Get What You Want-Infant Care Preferences and Use among Employed Mothers

Article excerpt

Although much scholarly attention has been paid to the question of whether a "shortage" of adequate child care exists, few studies have framed this issue around the disjuncture between mothers' preferred modes of care and the types of care available to them. In this study, we address that gap by asking what mothers want, what mothers use, and why many don't use the form of care they prefer. Using a regional sample of 247 pregnant women who returned to paid employment within the Ist year postpartum and used nonmaternal child care, we found that the majority of the mothers surveyed preferred father care (53%), but only 23% primarily used father care. Derived from logistic regression models, the significant determinants of achieving the type of care preferred are the presence of additional children under age 5, higher educational attainment, and the mother working an evening or night work shift.

Key Words: child care, child-care preference, child-care use, employed mothers, familial care, working mothers.

The availability and quality of child care have become increasingly important policy issues, given the precipitous increase in the number of very young children requiring nonmaternal care over the last 25 years. Despite this, researchers have frequently studied the availability of child care without reference to the stated desires of parents for certain forms of care. To be successful, however, public policies designed to improve the care of very young children must attend to the opinions of parents as vital stakeholders and consumers. This failure to include parents has sometimes given us an overly optimistic picture of the child-care market, based on counts of available day-care slots and the number of children needing care. These counts ignore the difficulty in concurrently measuring supply and demand because parents alter their market behavior to avoid less desirable child care (Prosser & McGroder, 1992).

Although parents frequently report high levels of satisfaction with their child-care arrangements, satisfaction questions in child-care surveys are seriously biased both because of the selected nature of the sample (those unhappy with their child-care options may alter or quit employment to care for their child at home) and because parents are highly motivated to believe their children are getting the best care they can, irrespective of parents' original desires and intentions (Hofferth, 1992). As Pungello and Kurtz-Costes pointed out in a recent review of the literature, "More research is needed concerning the relationship between type of care preferred and type of care chosen. Particularly needed are prospective studies examining this relationship." (1999, p. 73). At this point, we simply know very little about how much the child-care market corresponds to parental preferences and where mothers turn when they cannot obtain their preferred mode of care.

In the research reported here, we address this gap in the literature and overcome the limitations of cross-sectional surveys by asking pregnant employees planning to remain in the labor force about their child-care preferences before they have arranged care. We then observed their actual child-care choices at 6 months postpartum to measure the disjuncture between their preferences and use. Although the type of care used and the type of care preferred by mothers have been studied separately, it appears that no published work has explored the link between child-care preferences and use to determine (a) the proportion of mothers who are able to use their preferred form of care and (b) the factors that make it likely they will be able to do so. With longitudinal data from a regional sample of employed pregnant women, we address both issues.


The most commonly studied feature of child care is the type of care actually used by employed mothers (for examples, see Kisker & Maynard, 1991; Leibowitz, Waite, & Witsberger, 1988; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 1997). …

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