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opinion

The fine details of real life are often disconnected from the blunt lines of the big picture, which seemed especially true to me the other week as I scrambled to feed lunch to four hungry children.

My daycare provider, Kelly, is pregnant and was hit with one of the condition’s many curve balls. As the parents scrambled for a backup plan, I told everyone that I could totally handle a baby, a toddler and two four-year-olds for the day, no problem.

My guilt about neglecting the news world was soon pushed aside by the need to make lunch for a group of hungry little children. Still, I kept the many election-season child-care promises of Ontario’s parties in the back of my mind, trying to see if any of the dots connected.

As I negotiated who preferred what colour of vegetable, I considered the Conservatives’ promised annual tax rebate of up to $6,750 in care fees per child up to age 15. They’re touting it as 75 per cent of the total cost of child care, but it’s just under 40 per cent of the $17,000 we paid Kelly last year, for just four days a week.

As I realized that I hadn’t made enough food and threw some frozen meatballs in the oven, I thought of the Liberals’ pledge to introduce free preschool for children 2 ½ and older by 2020. But child care is hardest to find for babies and toddlers, and it’s a big decision to make a change once you’ve found something good. I passed up a licensed preschool spot last year because I didn’t see the point of putting my son through an emotional transition.

And, as I sent the two four-year-olds, including my son, into opposite corners for a postargument time out, I considered the tight salaries of child-care providers. Both the Liberals and NDP are promising to raise wages for early childhood educators, which is a good step that won’t make any difference to self-employed carers such as mine.

Conversations about whether tax credits or flat fees would make care more affordable for low-income families are important. They’re also completely separate from one of the most disruptive events in my son’s short life. This week, we say goodbye to Kelly, who has helped raise him for more than three years.

It’s impossible to quantify how much freedom it’s given me, in work and life, to know that every day my child is in safe, loving care. Quite honestly, she did all of the toilet training, not to mention way better arts and crafts than I could ever manage.

This is important to say publicly, since it’s far too easy to obscure the people (mostly women) doing the work that allows parents to function, financially and otherwise. Last November, Michelle Ruiz pointed that out in a New York Times story that has stuck with me: Where Are All the Nannies on Instagram?, about how rare it is for mothers (and, I would add, fathers) to share social media images of those who take care of their children.

As Ms. Ruiz pointed out, issues of privacy, class, race and immigration status make it a complicated question, which is exactly why it’s crucial to ask. Making clear links between our children’s health and happiness and their carers’ own stability is an important feminist project.

There are many issues to consider, so I’ll just list one: Right now, only about 24 per cent of Ontario children ages 2 to 4 are in licensed daycares. That means a whole lot of kids are being taken care of by home daycare providers such as Kelly, who are self-employed.

As self-employment, contract work and other precarious employment continues to rise across the country, it’s important to make sure people who earn their livelihoods this way have a safety net. Right now they don’t have extended health care or a way to handle sick days, which is how I ended up trying to remember how to get a baby down easily for a midday nap. It’s also why Kelly is shutting down her entire business to go on mat leave, and will have to start again from scratch when she’s ready.

That seems like a crummy outcome for someone who worked hard at an important job that’s in constant demand. This Mother’s Day, I’d like a child-care system that works for little ones and parents, but also the caregivers − mostly women − who are so crucial to our families.