Can I cut it as a day care worker, one of the most exhausting, worst paid, and smelliest jobs…

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 25 2008 6:53 AM

Diaper Genie

Can I cut it as a day care worker, one of the most exhausting, worst paid, and smelliest jobs in America?

Emily Yoffe chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Malik, 15 months old, had just been moved up from the Teddy Bears to the Lions, and he was not happy about his promotion. Seeing him standing alone, hand in mouth, face collapsing in tears, I swept him up and held him. He clung to me and immediately calmed. After 15 minutes, I tried to gently place him back with his classmates, but he reacted as if I were feeding him to the lions, his breath becoming ragged with anxiety. I hoisted him back up, and he leaned his head on my shoulder. It was my second day at the Gap Community Child Care Center in Washington, D.C., which gives high-quality care to children ranging from 6 weeks to 4 years old and where I volunteered for two weeks. If you work in child care, every hour will provide sweet moments of helping a child. Every day will immerse you in the excreta of your profession: tears, saliva, mucous, urine, feces. And every week will bring a paycheck that reminds you that you have one of the worst-paying jobs in America.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

For the Human Guinea Pig column, I try jobs and hobbies people are curious about—but not enough to do themselves. So for all of you who've wondered what happens at the day care center when you leave, I stayed behind to swab behinds. The Gap Center has been in business for 25 years, co-founded by Monica Guyot, a remarkably energetic, young-looking 70-year-old who still runs it. It is located on the basement level of a large apartment building, an ant's maze of rooms through which the aromas of Chef Boyardee and disinfectant waft. Its walls are decorated with the Rothko-like color field paintings of the toddler set. The center is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and most of the 110 children spend eight hours a day there. Their families are mostly poor—more than 90 percent receive financial assistance from the city's Department of Human Services so their kids can go to Gap. The few full-paying customers are charged up to $275 a week, but subsidized parents pay from zero to $65 weekly.

I started out with the youngest children, the Red Robins. The eight Robins are overseen by Muluwork Kenea, 31, and Selas Shibeshi, 24. They are immigrants from Ethiopia with a warm and gentle manner, constantly exhorting their charges to new achievements: "Look at you; you are crawling, my man!" "Come on, mama, you can reach that ball!" Kenea and Shibeshi (I am using the workers' real names and giving pseudonyms to the children) are responsible for babies from 6 weeks to 10 months, whom they watch in two adjoining rooms, each ringed with cribs and highchairs. For sanitary purposes, before entering the rooms, you first put paper booties over your shoes and for much of the day pull on and off successive pairs of plastic gloves, the kind worn by people manning the deli slicer.

Every classroom has a posted schedule that divides the day into segments. This reassures parents that each minute of their child's life is purposeful. For the Robins, 9:30 to 10 a.m. is story time, 10 to 10:30 a.m. songs and counting, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. lunch and bottles. This schedule made me think of the lovely, shapeless days of my daughter's babyhood, when I was an at-home mother. She could stay all morning in the sandbox, or endlessly toss utensils into the kitchen sink, or sit on the lawn and learn how to blow on dandelions. But that kind of spontaneity is a luxury not possible in a day care setting.

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Sometimes the imperatives of caring for a group requires the women who do it (the profession is almost exclusively female) to suppress their own natural impulses. For example, Shibeshi and Kenea had all the children who were able to sit upright play with toys in one part of the room. But Maybelle, 10 months, kept dissolving into tears, uninterested in the balls and oversized keys the women jingled in front of her. "She's teething," Shibeshi explained. When I came over to her, Maybelle held out her arms, the universal sign for "Pick me up." Because I was an extra pair of hands, I could hold Maybelle for as long as she liked.

"This is the hard part," said Shibeshi, looking at me and Maybelle. "She just wants to be held, but we have all these other children to watch." Then Lourdes, who is able to pull herself up, did so and tumbled into a barrier, bumping her lip. She was fine, nothing cut or bleeding, but Kenea wrote a quick note in an enormous notebook—liability is never far from anyone's mind. Like lawyers billing on the quarter hour, the workers must keep meticulous records of food consumed, diapers changed, each little bump and bruise, and every milestone: being able to stand unaided, learning a new word. It is a log more comprehensive than any kept by even the most compulsive mother.

At the Gap Center, the schedule doesn't feel artificial or rigid. One activity just seamlessly flows into the next. During lunchtime with the Robins, the women keep an eye on the crawling children and contain the others in a playpen or bouncy seats while they heat up the individual lunches the parents bring. Each woman feeds children in highchairs, two at a time. At mealtime they are like waitresses at some outlandish restaurant where you not only have to spoon the food into the patrons' mouths, but wipe their bottoms afterward. I gave the babies bottles, and one by one they conked out in my arms, and I placed them in their cribs. At 1 p.m. the women lowered the shades, and all the Robins were asleep. 

A recent science column in the Wall Street Journal described a study that found that you don't even have to like kids to have your brain's fusiformgyrus produce instantaneous good feelings when you see a baby's face. Standing in the darkened Robins' room, listening to their deep breathing, their sighs, their occasional snurtles, I felt a profound sense of peace. I'm sure some gyrus in my brain was telling me there is no better sound than a roomful of sleeping babies.

The caretakers work in two shifts: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On their hourlong lunch break, they gather in a small room where Family Feud plays loudly from a television perched on the dining table. About two-thirds of the Gap's workers are foreign-born, and in the lunchroom conversations take place in English, Amharic, and Spanish.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 1.4 million child care workers, and is it an occupation in high demand. The BLS says child care workers must be "mature, patient, understanding, and articulate and have energy and physical stamina." In exchange, the median national salary is $17,630. (At Gap, the average worker makes about $22,000.) The advocacy group Center for the Child Care Workforce points out that only a handful of the more than 800 occupations surveyed by the BLS have lower wages—these include parking lot attendants and dishwashers.