Emily Yoffe chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
The BLS says child care workers attend to their charges' "basic needs," and there is none more basic than a poopy diaper. Since I'm a mother, I've changed 1,000 or so in my time, and I discovered it wasn't necessary to have an emotional attachment to the source of the dirty diapers to make changing them bearable. Noses were a more pervasive problem. I had never noticed that all young nostrils are spigots permanently set to "on." The workers who tend the youngest kids have rolls of toilet paper strategically stashed around the room. They endlessly rip off wads and wipe little philtrums, like rescue workers mopping off seabirds after an oil spill.
Because of the long hours the children spend, the workers are a primary civilizing influence. They're the ones who do the heavy wiping in toilet-training these children; they're the ones who teach them to set the table before they eat; they're the ones who remind them committing assault is not the way to get a toy. Whenever possible, information is conveyed via ditty: "This is the way we start the day, start the day, start the day. This is the way we start the day so early Monday morning." "Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share." It may be an effective pedagogical tool, but after days of hearing these endless little tunes, they became the aural equivalent of poison ivy.
My second classroom was the Bluebirds—12 toddlers, ages 18 months to 2 years. When I appeared, I received the goggle-eyed, mouth-agape, pointed-finger greeting that must have made life as a leper in the Middle Ages so pleasant. I sat quietly and let the children come to me, and in about 15 minutes I went from pariah to Pied Piper. It was free-play time, and Antonia took me by the hand and had me bang on the toy piano with her. Then she picked up a plastic waffle and showed me how to use it as a cell phone. Tiny Felicia tapped me on the shoulder, plopped herself in my lap, took each of my wrists and wrapped my arms around her. I made the novice's mistake during dance time of picking up one of the kids. This got another one tugging on my shirt, so I lifted her up, too. The real workers looked at me, managing not to smirk, as the rest of the class gathered around me, jumping as if standing on hot coals and attempting to pull their classmates out of my arms so they could get their turn.
The Owls, 2 and a half to 3 years old, are fully articulate and have the bluntness that is a requirement for being a radio talk show host. Tanya immediately came up to me, asked my name then announced: "You're scaring me. You are not my teacher. You go to the office!" I stayed, and soon she was escorting me around the room, pointing things out and telling me their colors. Then she noticed the prominent, blue veins on the back of my hands. "What happened to you? What is it?" she asked, alarmed. Another Owl came over with her own question, "Are you a grandma?"
I could feel just how long a day at day care is for everyone when it was afternoon outdoor time for the Owls. (There is a small enclosed play area outside the back door.) At 4:15 p.m., everyone had already done circle time, lunch, naps, Spanish lessons, and now, after yet another trip to the bathroom (the children go in the stall by themselves! they wash their own hands!), the day still isn't over. This late-afternoon period of childhood, when it's not time for dinner, when bedtime seems an eon away, is often called the arsenic hour. I helped the workers disentangle melting-down children from each other and played a long game in which each Owl handed me an imaginary piece of blue broccoli to eat. As I tried to keep up my interest and good cheer I kept thinking, "This is the reason television and cocktails were invented."
In Standardized Childhood sociologist Bruce Fuller describes how in the last 40 years, increasingly desperate working parents have turned to formal institutions to care for the youngest of children—in 1970 about 25 percent of 4-year-olds were in preschool; by 2000 more than 60 percent were. He describes America as having a "ragged non-system of child care" with the most recent statistics showing there are 113,000 nonprofit preschools across the country "situated in YWCAs, church basements, even licensed homes where women take in small gaggles of children."
Over the decades, policy debates have raged and quieted over the need for and the benefits of universal preschool. (We're currently in a quiet period.) But no one has resolved the tension between parents' desire for day care that is high-quality and low-cost. Low-cost means low pay for the workers, which means high turnover, which means lower quality. But after two weeks on the job, I wasn't surprised by the lack of success the Center for the Child Care Workforce has had in raising workers' salaries. It must be very hard to organize people who are so weary at the end of the day.
The job is like plate spinning—it requires relentless focus. Maura Baruetta, 44, who works with the Bluebirds, says, "I don't think about another thing, only the children. I forget everything else. I only concentrate on the children." Jame Foster, 31, who takes care of the Lions—she assured me that after a couple of days, Malik would fit in with his new classmates—and goes home to her own 4-year-old, says: "I'm tired when I leave. I get home and think, 'Oh, gosh.' "
So the pay is lousy, it's exhausting, but still the job comes with satisfactions no parking lot attendant receives. A week after Malik's transfer to the Lions, I went to check and see how he was doing. When I called his name, he emerged from amidst his classmates and ran to me and gave me a hug. Then he picked up a ball and said, "Ball, ball!" (who knew he could speak?) and threw it, which caused him to fall down, which caused him to laugh hysterically. Malik was happy now, and I was happy for him.