Feminist bookstores sell T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "What part of No don't you understand?" It's a question that might fairly be asked of President Clinton. A majority of Americans have made unmistakably clear their aversion to government-controlled child care. But this aversion has not impressed daycare advocates in the least. A quarter of a century ago, President Nixon vetoed the first of their plans to thrust millions of children into the care of the same sort of people who run the public schools. Seven years ago, President Bush and the Republicans in Congress beat back the latest institutional daycare scheme. Undaunted, the president and the first lady are now ready to try once more. The question is: This time, will Republicans' nerves fail them?

Over the past few months, Bill and Hillary Clinton have prepared the country for the announcement of a big government daycare initiative in January's State of the Union address. "People have to be able to succeed at work and at home in raising their children," the president told the White House Conference on Child Care this fall, which brought together 100 experts, most of them advocates of institutional daycare. "And if we put people in the position of having to choose one over the other, our country is going to be profoundly weakened."

But of course putting people in a position where they are pressured to choose work over parenthood is exactly what the president and the first lady intend to do. And despite the ideological euphemism that pretends that child-rearing impinges equally on men and women, "people" in this case of course means mothers. The public policy of the United States already piles economic burdens on women who opt to care for their own children. The president's plan would pile on some more. By attempting to convince Americans that a daycare center offers an adequate substitute for maternal care, the president and the first lady are only intensifying the powerful cultural messages that scorn in-person motherhood.

Early reports of the Clintons' legislative plans reveal a determination to subsidize and encourage daycare from the earliest weeks of infancy. Already, as the Cato Institute reminds us, federal, state, and local governments pay 40 percent of the cost of child care. The administration seeks to go even further: It is expected to ask Congress to approve a series of initiatives- federal subsidies, tax incentives -- that would encourage women to place their babies and toddlers in daycare. The Republicans will be tempted to split the difference -- to approve the tax incentives and vote down the subsidies -- while avoiding all debate over first principles. But isn't the formation of the character of the next generation of citizens an important enough problem to merit a debate over first principles? We can all agree that America is suffering from a child-care crisis. But what is this crisis: Is it that children spend too little time in the care of strangers? Or too much?

You can learn a lot from outbursts of mass hysteria. Repeatedly over the past decade, the country has been shocked by accusations of the most bizarre and atrocious child abuse at daycare centers: from the McMartin pre-school in southern California to the Amirault case in Massachusetts to the Little Rascals case in North Carolina, and many more besides. District attorneys, judges, child-welfare workers, and dozens of pairs of parents persuaded themselves -- despite a near total absence of evidence -- that children had been sodomized, tortured, and abused in satanic rituals. How could so many people have fallen for such manifestly implausible stories? The answer is that guilt is a powerful and insidious emotion.

Tell parents that their child is miserable in daycare because he wants to be at home with Mom, and they will block their ears. That explanation of their child's unhappiness reflects badly on them. But tell them that their child is miserable because a satanic lunatic is raping him with a broom handle, and all the guilt and anxiety that they have been suppressing will explode in a cathartic outburst.

The satanic-abuse cases remind us how fraught with emotion the whole topic of daycare is. Hundreds of thousands of parents are placing their kids in daycare centers for seven, eight, or ten hours a day. They want reassurance. They want to be told that daycare is just fine for their kids: that it promotes socialization, that it enhances their vocabulary, that their babies will be as emotionally secure among a handful of caring strangers as they would be with Mom. And indeed, there are self-described experts who will tell parents just that. They will say that, to the extent daycare is harmful, it is only because it is "bad" daycare, or because the providers lack a graduate degree in early-childhood development, or because staff turns over too frequently. This is the spin that many news stories gave to an April report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which found that prolonged time in daycare damaged the emotional bond between mothers and their children.

Audaciously, the White House seized on this study as good news. Because the study found that the harmful effects of daycare were apparently greater in some situations than in others, the first lady trumpeted it at the White House child-care conference as demonstrating the need for federal funding and regulation. The study, which comes from an arm of the federal government's National Institutes of Health, is ongoing and the results are in fact tentative and inconclusive. Still, a careful reading of it leaves in place the commonsense conclusion that non-family care of very young children is inherently risky. Equip every daycare center with floor-to- ceiling Fisher-Price geegaws, confer advanced degrees on every staffer, pay them all lavishly -- the fact remains, it is still institutional care. As Dr. Diane Fisher, a clinical psychologist and authority on child development, observed in an interview with the Independent Women's Forum, "No matter how high quality the center is, the children still take their naps in little rows of mats on the floor, children still sit in the corner sucking their thumbs and waiting for mommy."

And parents know it. Mrs. Clinton and her friends hope to fend off daycare skeptics in Congress by claiming overwhelming public demand for a national daycare system -- citing as proof the now-familiar statistic that nearly 60 percent of the mothers of preschool children work for wages. But look at working women's choices more closely, and what you see is a desperate determination by all but a handful of highly paid professional mothers to care for their children close to home.

No matter how often feminists tell us that Ozzie and Harriet are dead, the truth is women want to stay home with their young children if they possibly can. Only about one-third of the 7.2 million married women with children younger than 3 work full-time. A Roper poll of women's attitudes toward work, which has been conducted periodically since 1974, finds that a substantial majority (53 percent to 41 percent) of married women would prefer to stay home with their young children if they could -- and that this majority has been growing since 1985.

And when mothers of young children do work, married or not, they shun institutional care. There are about 19 million children under age 5 in the United States. About 10 million of those children have mothers who work. Only about 1.8 million of those children are in daycare. More than a million and a half of those children of working mothers are cared for during working hours by their grandparents, another 1.6 million are watched by their fathers, and close to one million are minded by some other relative. Parents, in other words, show a marked aversion to the sort of care that the daycare advocates want to foist on them.

Daycare advocates have responded with a swinging counterattack. A 1995 survey of "family care" -- daycare in small groups provided by relatives and neighbors in their homes -- conducted by the pro-daycare Families and Work Institute deemed only 9 percent of these settings "good." It concluded that the rest of these children would do better in institutional daycare. Why? Because friends and relatives watch children only as a "favor," while the professionals in the centers are doing it for a living. And indeed, a strong whiff of disdain for the child-rearing aptitude of ordinary people wafts all through the pro-daycare case.

The fatal combination of snobbishness and ideological rigidity has doomed national daycare projects in the past -- most recently in 1990, when conservatives in Congress were able to substitute the present tax credit for the daycare subsidies liberals sought. It's tempting to hope that once again conservatives need only delay the administration's plans to defeat them. But there's good reason to fear that, over the longer haul, a strategy of delay will probably fail.

However little they want to pop their kids into institutions, millions of Americans -- whether they work 10 hours or 40 -- still experience the care of their children as a huge, never-ending, all- consuming problem. The executive frantically gulping down every detail of the Louise Woodward au pair trial; the claims adjuster who suspects that the neighbor she pays to watch her kids is plopping them in front of the TV all day; the former welfare recipient who must rouse her kids at 5:00 a.m. to get them to a church basement before she's due at her hotel cleaning job -- in this one gripping preoccupation, they're all sisters. Many of these working mothers have friends who don't work outside the home, and they know that those other mothers are holding their babies, talking to them, playing with them, watching what they eat, and generally treating them as the most important people in the world. And they know that their own children are, in most cases, receiving distinctly second-class treatment by comparison. They feel guilty, anxious, envious, and defensive -- an explosive mixture. In the debate over national health care, Republicans could ask Americans, "How's your health care?" in reasonable confidence that most would reply, " Pretty good, actually." In the debate over national child care, the advocates of an expanded government role are tapping into a pulsing vein of parental dread and dissatisfaction.

What can Republicans say? They will be tempted to buy off the daycare advocates with an expansion of the child-care tax credit, as they did in 1990. As the federal deficit attains zero, somebody is bound to propose this. The trouble is, increasing the federal tax credit will tilt the economics of family life even more deeply against at-home mothers. The tax credit can only be used against the lower of two spousal incomes: A family in which the mother stays home cannot benefit from it.

Look at the effect of the credit on the decision-making of a reasonably typical middle- class family. Mr. Kowalski earns $ 35,000 as the assistant manager of a hardware store. He hasn't had a raise in five years, and since the birth of their second child two years ago, the Kowalski family has begun to feel pinched. He considers taking a second part-time job that would pay another $ 12,000. If he lives in a high-tax state, that extra $ 12,000 will be worth about $ 7,000 after taxes. Alternatively, Mrs. Kowalski can work half a day, for the same $ 12,000. Thanks to the child-care tax credits, her work will actually bring home about $ 4,000 more than the same labor by her husband. Outcome: Mrs. Kowalski probably goes to work.

Most people engaged in politics have a hard time saying that this is an unsatisfactory outcome. They know that they'll be accused of "wanting to send women back to the home," of joining the "backlash." And it's especially hard for them to think of the Kowalskis' decision as unsatisfactory because, in the world of people engaged in politics, most women not only work but experience their work as liberating. Tell a woman working on Capitol Hill that you think the mothers of young children should stay at home with them, and she'll clomp you on the head with her cellular phone. Say it on the floor of Congress, and brace yourself to be sledgehammered with press warnings that you are alienating women voters from the Republican party.

But it's worth remembering that women with interesting, fulfilling jobs (like men, for that matter) represent a tiny minority of the workforce. There are about 100,000 female lawyers in America. More than 600,000 women work as receptionists, more than 1 million work as waitresses, and close to 2 million work as bookkeepers. Nearly 80 percent of working women earn less than $ 26,000 per year. These women by and large do not experience the world of work as a liberation from the drudgery of child- rearing. For them it is work that is drudgery and child-rearing that is fulfilling.

This is not to suggest that conservatives should be urging women to quit work en masse. With the average woman bearing only two children, such attitudes are obviously out of date. But conservatives can say this to the modern woman: You are probably going to live 80 years. You will probably work for almost 40 of those years. But for six or seven or eight of those years, you will be a mother to very young children. Do you really want society to try to reinvent itself so that you can delegate the care of those babies to strangers? Or would you rather society tried to figure out how to help you to care for them yourself, and then return to work once your children are in school? Feminists will insist that anyone who utters these sentiments is committing political suicide. But that's not what the polls say.

The question is, of course, how to help the mothers of young children stay home. Part of the job involves changing cultural attitudes, persuading at-home mothers that they should not be embarrassed for their choice, persuading society to respect and honor their work, and persuading working women to try to speak a little more politely to them. (A good start would be a first lady who could refrain from sarcastic quips like, "Well, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.") There's reason to hope that this cultural shift has already begun: It's hard to imagine a Laura Schlessinger attracting a national radio audience in 1977 by urging women to stay home with their kids.

But we must also recognize that, for many women, remaining in the workforce when their children are young is an act of economic necessity. Some of these women are single mothers: Nearly one out of three American children is growing up in a home headed by a woman who either never married or is divorced or separated. Conservatives are sometimes accused of hypocrisy because we encourage married women to stay home with their young children while believing that single mothers should work rather than take welfare. But there's no analogy between a married couple who sacrifice the wife's contribution to the household income so that she can care for their children and an unmarried mother dependent on the state. Half of all the children in the United States will live in a single-parent household at some point before the age of 18. It's clearly not feasible for the government to play husband to half the women in America. Single mothers will have to work. That's another reason why single motherhood is such an enormous social problem.

Married women also often feel obliged to work. Some simply need the money. But many others are practicing economic self-protection. Absenting oneself from the workforce is costly. In fact, women's tendency to interrupt their careers to care for their children is the main cause of the notorious pay gap between the sexes. If a woman could be sure that her husband would stay with her, the cost might well be bearable. She might in that case tell herself, "Well, my income when I return to work won't be as high as it might have been, but the two of us are earning enough together, and we'll share the satisfaction of knowing that our kids are being cared for properly." But no woman can be sure. So she must make her life choices defensively, staying in the workforce -- even though she might not want to, even though she could afford to leave it -- to protect her work history in case of divorce.

Combine the women who must work because they are single mothers and the women who feel they should work to protect themselves lest they become single mothers, and you realize that what looks at first like a child-care crisis is in reality a symptom of America's larger marriage crisis. Understanding the child-care problem in these terms clarifies an otherwise puzzling mystery. We are endlessly told that women "nowadays" cannot afford not to work. This is at first glance baffling: How can it be that women cannot afford to stay home now when they could afford it in the vastly poorer America of 1955 or 1935? The answer is that then they could count on sharing their husband's income for life, and now they cannot.

Of course there are real limits on what public policy could (or even should) do to shore up marriage. But if the alternative is a multibillion dollar federal daycare policy intended to absorb child-care costs that would not exist in an America where more families stayed together, the justification for intervening on behalf of marriage becomes rather stronger than it might otherwise be. Two practical reforms spring urgently to mind.

First, by all means let Republicans expand the tax credit for child care if they feel it appropriate or necessary to do so. But at the same time, let them follow the advice offered in these pages by David Blankenhorn and Allan Carlson, and enact "income-splitting" into the tax law: Permit husbands whose wives don't work to allocate half their money for tax purposes to their spouse. Under such a rule, Mrs. Kowalski could stay home, Mr. Kowalski could take that second job, earn his $ 47,000, and each of them would be taxed at the rate on $ 23,500. That would better account for the value of the wife's work in the home, correct some of the distorting incentives of the current tax code, and send a strong signal to American families that their government recognizes and applauds maternal child-rearing.

Second, states should revive the old concept of alimony in divorce law for the benefit of at-home mothers. When a 25-year-old woman leaves the workforce for eight years to rear her children, she loses more than eight years' income: She virtually guarantees that her income at age 40 will drop below what it would have been had she remained at work. If she makes that sacrifice, she is relying on her husband's fidelity. And that reliance should be protected, just as it would be in any other contract. If her husband divorces her at 40, he should owe her more than just child support till the kids reach 18: He should owe her a continuing claim upon his future income, in recognition of the benefit he derived from her work raising the children. (There's actually evidence that the husbands of at-home women earn higher incomes than the husbands of working women: the Jenkins-can-you-get-on-the-next-plane-to- Jakarta effect. If so, that strengthens even further the at-home wife's claim on her husband's future income.)

In the 1970s, when states amended their divorce laws to eliminate alimony, feminists justified the change on the explicit grounds that it would flush women out of the home and into the workforce where they belonged. The revocation of the old promise that marriage meant "assured support as long as they live," wrote the feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard in her influential 1972 textbook, The Future of Marriage, "may be one of the best things that could happen to women. It would demand that even in their early years they think in terms of lifelong work histories; it would demand the achievement of autonomy. They would have to learn that marriage was not the be-all and end-all of their existence." But when women are forced to think in terms of lifelong work histories, there is a cost to be paid, and it is all too often paid by their children.

It may seem breathtakingly radical to argue that the solution to the daycare problem involves imagining ways to help mothers of young children to stay home. But if it does, that only exposes how baldly the proponents of universal government daycare are lying when they dress up their demands as " child advocacy." They are championing a utopian vision of women's liberation. They are zealously pursuing the ambition of the public-sector unions to recruit thousands of federally funded daycare workers. They are even paying attention to the electoral need of the Democratic party for a respectable- sounding excuse for higher taxes and more federal spending. But the interests of children rank among the least of their concerns.

What infant children need is their mother: their own mother, even if she's not the greatest mother in the world, even if she lacks a graduate degree. The difficulty that America's children have in getting her attention, the economic risks that America's mothers run if they give their children those few short years of care in infancy, the care they yearn to give -- that is America's true child-care crisis. And the solution lies not in subsidizing daycare to free Mom to go to work to pay the taxes to fund daycare; the solution lies in identifying ways to aid and protect mothers who want to do society's most important job themselves.

Danielle Crittenden, editor of the Women's Quarterly, is author of the forthcoming What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us (Simon & Schuster). David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. They are married and have two children.

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