It happened randomly, on Facebook and through email. One working middle-class parent after another in the Philly suburbs, chattering gratefully about a story that gave voice to a challenge they'd been grappling with privately.
Did you hear about the story in the Inquirer? a stranger asked as our kids played together on an open hill a few days ago, unaware that I'd written the very story, about a suburban child-care squeeze. About 100 youngsters were denied child-care slots at Haverford Township elementary schools this fall, and parents were panicked.
A working dad in Abington shouted through email: "The struggle is real! Two working-class thirtysomething parents with careers that cannot find or struggle to afford adequate before or after care for our child? It's infuriating and preposterous. Our neighbors all have similar issues, friends and colleagues as well."
"Same is happening in Springfield," a woman declared on a suburban Facebook group for moms. "Same in Downingtown," wrote another.
These were the middle-class masses in our midst, and they were coming together to say, Houston, we have a problem.
Too bad that a different problem simultaneously became clear: A different group of readers considered them unworthy, spoiled, and bratty. The naysayers made that clear in emails, calls, and online comments. And that is a problem that goes beyond playground insults. It's a divide that threatens efforts to repair our embattled middle class.
A popular refrain among this contingent went something like this: If you've got a child-care challenge, and aren't really rich or lucky enough to have willing-and-able family around to watch your kids during the school year, sit down and shut up.
Some of the Angry Ones belched these views to me via letters. Many others spewed on Philly.com's comments section. In their own way, some gave voice to an unseemly undercurrent of American bias: They attacked women for having dared to attend college and then keep working while raising kids.
Even a polite-sounding woman who wrote me a letter in longhand seemed oblivious to the reality that both spouses work full time more often than not these days just to save for college and retirement.
The parents who'd reached out to me about the Haverford issue had been reticent to begin with about going public. But they recognized that this broken situation would not be fixed without public attention.
The sooner we assess the issue with facts, and not histrionic fiction, the better we can confront the dangers facing our imperiled middle class.
These are parents paying thousands out of pocket for child care before or after school hours. There is no government subsidy in play. They're also paying historically expensive mortgages with virtually no job security or pensions on the horizon. To say they are entitled is laughable.
They are the generation of workers whose Social Security will be wiped out come retirement if tear-them-all-down Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan gets his wish. For all the critics' talk of how these families need to expect nothing from government, I'd wager a big sum that the downers would sooner raise a fist than let you touch their Social Security or Medicare.
"Such a lack of compassion among society," Christopher Hatton, one of the parents I'd quoted, wrote after glimpsing some of the worst of the blowback. "Like everyone should have to choose between kids and work. As if it's so cut and dried."
Samantha Soldan, another parent I'd interviewed, agreed. But she persisted.
Soldan and Hatton were among a group who attended the Haverford Township school board meeting after my column ran. The district has no legal obligation to worry about a sufficient supply of child care and offers it only as a courtesy. But these parents knew it could assemble resources that they could not.
"The board chairman said that specifically because of the article, he had had six different agencies contact him about potential after-care solutions," Soldan said. "I'm optimistic that they've been pushed into confronting the issue. … I might be surprised; they might come up with something."
This is the way through the deafening noise. This is the way to drown out the naysayers.