Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand attacked Joe Biden last week for a 1981 newspaper opinion piece titled “Congress Is Subsidizing Deterioration of Family.” Noting that she gave birth while serving in the House, Ms. Gillibrand demanded: “Am I, serving in Congress, resulting in the deterioration of the family because I had access to quality affordable day care?”
It was a cheap shot. In the op-ed in the Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., then-Sen. Biden called for government to “help families of modest means to adequately provide the material necessities of child-rearing.” He also warned that a “cancer of materialism” was eating away at the family. That’s exactly what has happened over the past 40 years.
Parents come to my practice regularly to discuss symptoms their children exhibit due to their families having busier and more distracted lives, premature separation (children being placed in day care as early as 6 weeks old), and their parents’ lack of interest in nurturing. Affluent couples want to have children, but not necessarily to care for them. They wrongly believe that giving their children a materially better life is the best way to show love.
“I do not believe,” Mr. Biden wrote, “that the federal government should be a party to a system which encourages couples to place their children in day-care centers in order to acquire material possessions that go far beyond any family basic necessities.”
Family—including extended family—is the best way to care for children. Day care is the least healthy option, especially in the first three years. It leaves children bereft, anxious and depressed. Mr. Biden was right to suggest that parents who can afford it shouldn’t farm out the care of their children to others—especially if those of modest means have to subsidize it.
Instead, why not provide all parents with tax credits or Social Security benefits so they can stay with their children longer after they are born? Such an approach would recognize the importance of parents bonding with children, laying the foundation for sustainable mental health, and encourage parents to pause or slow their careers when their children are very young rather than pursue wealth and career advancement at full speed.
“It’s a sad commentary on our society,” Mr. Biden wrote in 1981, “when the Senate of the United States says, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor the personal need to forsake their responsibility to care for their own children.” He stood alone against a measure to expand a child-care tax credit, which passed 94-1.
The young Mr. Biden wasn’t spouting an outdated philosophy. He was concerned that the devaluation of motherhood, caregiving and family would be harmful to society. He was right—and prescient.
Ms. Komisar is a psychoanalyst and author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.”