11/24/2005 12:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


Last week the supposedly family-friendly U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget that doubles the weekly work required of people who get welfare (read: mothers), from 20 hours to 40. Meanwhile, the budget includes no increase in already meager federally funded child-care subsidies.

The disastrous math is simple enough. With more welfare moms looking for child care, and no more child care to be had than exists now, one side effect of the stringent House budget will be to take subsidized day care away from working poor people who currently get it. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 330,000 children now in subsidized day care will lose it under this budget. These are the children of people who exist nobly - and thanklessly - just above the welfare line, working for minimum wage at Dunkin' Donuts or Walmart, and whose lives are already held together by only the most frayed bits of string and tape.

I don't have a problem with the old Puritan work ethic. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that mommy works is one way I can show my daughter and my son how to live a healthy, productive life. I wouldn't quit if I could.

Flinty House members will be home tomorrow bragging about a tough new bill that makes welfare moms really work for their money, oblivious to the little problem of who will mind the children of the working poor. The conservative movement's insistence on archaic roles for parent -- mommies stay home and daddies go out and capture dinner -- has so deeply infected the national discourse on child care that to hope Congress will increase federal child care funds is a quaint fantasy.

Perhaps the end aim here is a return to Dickensian childrens' work farms, a solution that would fit well into America's future as envisioned by the current regime. I look forward to interviewing the first brave right-wing, family-friendly Congressman who proposes doing something truly useful with the children of mothers who work at Walmart without child care.

The House budget bill is brutish on many levels, but the day care slice of it is especially harsh. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of minutes with children under age 6 knows that salaried work is utterly impossible without babysitters.

This Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for: happy, healthy children, great husband, roof over head, friends. And the frame that holds it all together, crucial to happiness, not to mention family finances: Satisfying, interesting work.

For that final blessing, I owe a profound debt of gratitude to the young woman who watched my children over the last two years while I sat upstairs hunched over a computer, researching and writing a book and magazine articles.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, in sickness and in health, babysitter Renata arrived at our house promptly in the morning and stayed until I couldn?t write any longer in the afternoon. My two children loved her like a big sister. She, in turn, loved them like a backup mother. When they were sick she sat with them, when they were well she played with them, when they were hungry she made them lunch and when they were naughty she gave them timeouts. The best part of it was that she always knew, usually before I had to explain it, what to do. She had my back.

We went our separate ways this fall. She moved west, we moved east, back to Manhattan. We eased our way up to the separation carefully, preparing ourselves and our children for the sad day when she would pack up her car and drive across the continent and out of our family. After she left, I expected my two-year-old daughter to miss her the most, but she seemed satisfied with our explanations about Renata's new home, in a faraway place called California. I was more surprised by my own sense of loss, a brick of grief that hit me one night when my daughter asked about Renata before she fell asleep.

The truth is that every mother needs someone who has her back - even those who stay home all day. Middle and working class mothers once had sisters and aunts and grandmothers around to help pick up the toys, clear the dishes, tend the sick, play the games, just be nearby on the good days and the bad. Working mothers in mobile, disjointed modern America, more often than not don't have anyone but themselves to rely on to medicate, feed, clothe, diaper, amuse, bathe and sing to sleep - times twenty-four hours, times 365 days a year. For most of these women, decent child care is an all-consuming obsession, a constant, relentless source of stress. One reason the latest House budget is such a shameful attack on families is that it shows an utter lack of comprehension, compassion, imagination, about real family life today.

When my book is published next summer, my name will be on it. It would not exist without the support of an unsung hero in my life, a family member in all but name, to whom I am more grateful than she will ever know.