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The American Child Care Dilemma

Published in ChicagoNow, September 28, 2018

My daughter came home unexpectedly from work and discovered that the nanny, who was supposed to be watching her kids, was sound asleep. I remember the same thing happening to me when I learned that the sitter I had trusted to watch my child (now the mother in this story) for a few hours had neglected to check on where she was for quite some time. After I paid her and she left, I found my daughter and her friend had locked themselves in the bathroom on the third floor of our house. I cried tears of guilt, anger, and relief, but I was lucky. As a stay-at-home mother at that point in my life, I could simply not hire this sitter again. My daughter had to scramble to find child care for her children so she could go to work the next day.

Working parents have to rely on someone to care for their children, and finding the best arrangement is an agonizing process and very tough decision. Child care centers need to be carefully vetted. For the ones that are licensed, there is some degree of comfort in knowing they comply with safety standards and their staff meets minimal qualifications. As a former early childhood director, I know these standards are basic and often picky, things that can be measured objectively. Staff may meet criteria and yet not be nurturing for young children. Low pay contributes to high turnover, also not great for the little ones. Illness is another huge problem. Kids in child care centers spread viruses, leaving some of my grandkids with perpetual colds. But parents have to work, so unless their children are running fevers, vomiting, or have diarrhea, they go to child care. Jobs that allow parents to stay home with sick children are few and far between.

Some child care settings include less formal arrangements in which someone watches a few children in her home. Many of these are unlicensed, leaving parents in the same situation as those who hire nannies or au pairs to watch children in their own home. Parents check references and hope the person they hire is caring and competent. If they find Mary Poppins, they have to pray she doesn’t quit without notice.

I came across something I wrote when I was a preschool director I called “The Nanny Stories.” As a part-day early childhood program, we had many children who were in the care of nannies. Most of these women were truly wonderful. I’ll confess I poached a couple to work at the preschool once their nanny duties were finished. But those weren’t my stories. I wrote about the few who were not so terrific and of my frustration with parents who seemingly didn’t act very quickly to make changes, even after I reported some frightening incidents to them. I’ll also confess that at that stage of my life, between raising my children and having grandchildren, I lacked the understanding I now have about families struggling to balance work with the needs of their children.

My first story was about a young au pair who was expected to drive carpool for her family and ended up being responsible for five little ones. She drove a three-year-old boy home in the carpool who was supposed to stay at school for lunch, so no one was there to receive him. The teacher tried to call his house to clarify why he had brought lunch, realized no one was home, and drove to his house to find him trying to cut grass on his front lawn with a hedge clipper. His parents were grateful and dropped the carpool. The poor au pair, not much older than a child herself and from a different culture, had no idea she was supposed to wait to be sure someone was home before leaving a child at the curb. She continued to drive the other children because their parents needed the child care.

Several children had nannies who didn’t speak English. Often, the child and caregiver would learn enough words in each other’s language so they could communicate. And then there was Danny. He and his nanny walked in silence, with her pulling him roughly by the arm and him staring off into space. If she had wanted to communicate with him, it would have been difficult. She spoke only Polish and he had a speech and language delay. She disapproved of crying, thumb sucking, teddy bears, and hugs, so Danny learned to be stoical and was largely silent at school. His parents loved Danny dearly, but they were also busy professionals and worked long hours during the week. Weekends were frantic as they tried to make up for their absence by taking Danny to museums, restaurants, plays, organized sports, and other activities that the child didn’t really enjoy. They felt guilty and frustrated. Danny’s ultimate salvation was a formal diagnosis of language and learning disabilities, which resulted in hiring a swat team of professionals who worked with him and his parents, and in hiring a new nanny.

The saddest nanny story I chronicled was that of Daisy and Colin. Colin’s parents, both physicians who worked 60-hour weeks, had recently moved to our area and hired Daisy rather than using a daycare center because there was a baby on the way. It’s cheaper to have a nanny than pay for two children in daycare. Daisy was the most angry, controlling, and hostile caregiver I had ever met. She made no secret of the fact that she disapproved of the family’s values and felt Colin was spoiled and needed discipline. In the parent/caregiver and toddler class I taught, she ruled him with an iron fist, finishing his paintings and art projects so they looked nice and pushing him to write his name. Colin acted out in class, demanded a lot of my attention, and was aggressive with the other children. I could feel his powerful need for hugs and acceptance, but Daisy undermined my efforts to connect with him and guide him to more appropriate behavior. She demanded Colin “love” only her, but when his baby brother was born, she bonded with the baby and became even more cruel in her interactions with Colin. I talked to Colin’s parents and described what I had seen, but their position was that, while they knew Daisy’s deficiencies, they were desperate to keep her so they could work. The next year was even worse. Colin was more anxious, aggressive, and demanding of teacher attention. When a teacher saw Daisy pull his arm very roughly, she reported this to his parents. Now Colin was old enough to talk, and the tale he shared with his parents was heartbreaking. Daisy had been hitting Colin and putting him in a closet to punish him. Daisy was fired and replaced by an au pair, but the boy had suffered 18 months of abuse under her care.

At the time I wrote these nanny stories, I didn’t fully appreciate the challenges of finding good child care for parents who needed or wanted to work. Now that I have seen the struggles of my own children to find child care for my grandchildren, I have greater empathy but no good answer. In the almost thirty years since I wrote my nanny stories, middle class American families now face the same tough choices that families living in poverty faced back then. According to the census bureau, “between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living in families with two parents decreased from 88 to 69.” For 31 percent of kids, that single parent must work to make ends meet. The biggest change, however, is that it now takes two working parents to make a middle-class lifestyle possible.

Finding good, affordable child care shouldn’t be so hard. Parents shouldn’t have to pay a significant part of their earnings (25.6% for couples, 52.7% for single parents) and still worry that their children are not safe. Quality of care should not be linked to family income, which leads to the readiness gap as children enter kindergarten. Other countries subsidize child care and cap the percentage of income parents have to pay. In America, our patchwork system forces parents to make difficult and costly choices to obtain child care so they can work.


by Laurie Levy
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