International Women’s Day coincided with the recent book by psychologist Erica Komisar, “Being There” crossing my path again. Her book is rooted in her work with children, and nothing is more fraught than our attitudes to families and child care, so reviewers put their fingers in their ear and blamed the messenger. We continue to be inundated by glib platitudes, and anyone who challenges the consensus is shouted down.
This got me thinking yet again about my own silence on childcare, a silence I only occasionally break to hint that something is amiss. This entails being swiftly attacked and so I retreat. For a decade I worked as a nanny, at daycare, and in foster care. I loved every child I was lucky enough to care for. I focus on that, because who wants to argue with people emotionally motivated to interpret facts in the most comfortable way?
But everyday I’m bombarded on social media by people using children to push agendas. People who guilt others while claiming to hate guilt. To judge while rejecting judgment. Those who most benefit from our current arrangements demand more of the same solutions, silencing caregivers and children. What happens is the actual children become props for the agenda of others while caregivers are silent or ignored.
So today I’m going to speak about what happens to real children in the culture and economy we’ve created. Here is the tip of the iceberg of what I observed.
Scene One: A 3-year old child screams every morning when they wake and I’m there instead of the parents. Wails on the floor. It takes about 30 minutes to calm them down everyday. By the time this child was four though, and continuing until I left the position, things had changed. They would scream when their parents came home. We had to find ways to sneak me out of the house. The child called me “mom,” something that greatly upset me and I discouraged every time it happened without fail.
When the child was told I was moving they sobbed everyday until my last day. I cried too, but couldn’t allow the child to see the extent of my distress. I was disappeared from the child’s life (not my choice). The child has zero contact with the person who was their primary daily caregiver for over 2 years, when this child formed their earliest memories.
What happens to a child when someone they love like a parent is shown to just be an employee who can be erased? When their caregiver is disposable?
What happens when the child becomes an adult and wants to look back, and the person who remembers all the stories, who observed and adored and treasured every day, can’t share their memories with the child? A blank space exists for the child and for the caregiver.
Scene Two: Working at an elite preschool. One of my programs oversees toddlers from 18 months to 3 years, and that’s where I spend 5 hours a day. It’s one of the most expensive preschools in the area, a year’s worth of education costing the same as nearby universities. You can’t do better than this for playground equipment, class size, toys, books, etc.
Each time a new child is brought to the program they scream. They are hysterical about their parents leaving. We are supposed to tell the parents it is natural, nothing to worry about. It is horrible to watch. The parents who are upset are told by their spouses or the head teacher that they are making a fuss and to just go. Their own attachment and concern is framed as harmful.
Eventually the children do learn their parents are gone and they “adjust.” I remember one child, adopted, who was dropped off around 6 am and picked up at 6 pm. The child often acted out. It was dismissed as behavioral issues and the adoptive parents didn’t want to hear about it. So we were forbidden from talking about it, left to jerk from crisis to crisis. The real problem was obvious to the caregivers: the child was an orphan who had been taken from their home across the world and left with a series of revolving semi-strangers for 12 hours a day. When the child got home it was dinnertime, bathtime, and bed. The child was considered disruptive, but of course the behavior was totally normal considering the circumstances, and that was what needed to be changed.
Every rule at this school was broken, all boundaries were negotiable except one: you do not get to go home. No matter how much you cry, your parents are gone and you are here. I wondered why this was the only rule enforced.
Scene Three: I’m a live-in nanny in a very wealthy, exclusive community largely composed of centrist Democrats. As the only American nanny working for a woman with a large group of friends, I become the go-to person for scheduling playdates, sports schedules, etc. I’m also the only nanny paid a decent wage. The others are immigrants imported specifically for their current position. If they speak up about being on-call 24 hours a day, they’ll lose their jobs. Many of these women have children and grandchildren back in their home countries.
They’re miserable about it if you talk to them. It takes a while for them to trust me because the mothers treat me as an “American.” And while it’s a lesser deal, I’m lonely, cut-off from the other nannies’ cultures, no one to connect with.
The moms tell me I’m “one of them.” It’s weird to me that they say this, as if they don’t realize how incongruous it is with the sentiments they express when they talk politics. But it is true to an extent. If I say “No” to something I don’t have to worry about being deported. I’m not sending my paycheck home to my grandchildren. And I’m not told my virtual indentured servitude is an example of the system “succeeding.”
The moms joke about when I’m going to get a “real job.” The lesson being that caring for their children isn’t a real job. Boy, it shows in the way they treat the caregivers!
The parents all demand maternity leave, quality pre-schools, and profess admiration of a meritocracy where an immigrant’s children can go on to join the white-collar class. But not one of them wants their own daughter to be a caregiver. They want “more” for them. What the heck does that teach their child? What does it teach the caregivers?
Peers who profess themselves to be socialists, egalitarians, literally roll their eyes when I tell them what I do. They demand quality childcare but laugh in private at those who do the work. I find this very interesting.
Scene Four: I’m working in foster care. Some children are removed from their mother because of abuse. The mother’s boyfriend had hideously injured the youngest two children (not his). I had care for the three eldest of the 5, who had a different father, long gone. The children are placed in a stable home with a foster mother who does full-time childcare. After a long period of adjustment they begin to flourish. But it is a tragedy because they ache for their mother, who truly wants them, but also neglects them during supervised in-home visits. Having been required to read all the case histories I’m aware of how much the mother herself as been abused. It’s a terrible cycle of abuse, neglect, and a failure by the authorities to do anything other than disrupt. Achieving stability is an ideal that we take no concrete steps towards achieving.
The system rushes to reconcile them though the home they will be returning to is completely disruptive (you don’t want to imagine it, I promise.) They will go back to daycare while their mother works terrible jobs she’s forced into by the system. Is the daycare better than the home? Yes, but not by much. The “care” centers I visit for these children are full of overworked, underpaid, exhausted women. Some are saints, others give you the chills. You feel for all of them regardless, because how did the world get this way? The broken mother, the broken workers, the broken children.
But when I go home to my newspapers and social media feeds I read about how we need more early quality education. Quality? For whom? The rich will continue to get the quality care they’ve rigged the system to achieve. The children of the wealthy will cry, scream, and be miserable at first, but they’ll be forced to adjust. And the pretty toys and fancy schools the parents can pay for guarantee the children will be successful, though whether they will be “happy” or well-adjusted is an entirely different matter.
As for the poor, their mothers will work unfulfilling jobs. They will never, ever “have it all.” They will not be helped to be home with their children; they will not be taught how to build a stable home because that would be judgmental. They won’t be offered help to make their relationships “stick.” They’ll be used as cheap labor for stadium food kiosks until they can be replaced as a machine. Maybe they’ll still be allowed to clean toilets, I don’t know.
Children of the poor will have weary mothers who seek comfort in the arms of men with no investment in them, who have never been taught to be invested in themselves. These men will hurt them, they will sexually abuse them. The data is there however much you don’t want to look. I didn’t want to at first either, and became majorly depressed after endless days of reading the most gruesome legal documents. An existential crisis was prompted where I had to rethink every cliche I’d ever absorbed.
I came out of these years with my teeth grit and determined I would sacrifice anything to never have to put my children into daycare. I didn’t want to do that to them, or to the caregivers. ‘Have it all” is cheap rhetoric that encourages us to disconnect from our mutual dependence, and no one is more dependent then babies and children.
Of course I also knew most people didn’t have my experiences, that most of them were doing what they’d been encouraged to do from their own childhoods (and the rest had been pushed against the wall by the economy.) On days like International Women’s Day I would hear from them, the women whose children I’d cared for, the women turning away from the pain I had seen on a daily basis and reframing everything in terms of the wage gap, of lack of maternity leave, of the need for earlier and earlier preschools. And on these days my heart aches all over again.
You’re not a bad guy because you’ve used a daycare. Nor, in the rush to switch from denial to acknowledgment, is it all the patriarchy’s fault. There’s very appealing things about not having to change diapers all day. We’ve made being caring for small children exhausting and lonely. Where are the other moms for me to talk to when I’m home alone all day with toddlers? Where are the kids playing outside? Who are my neighbors that I can ask for help when we move too frequently to get to know them? No, I entirely understand that in a culture which has made motherhood so unrewarding, those fortunate enough to do work they love will do so. It’s a tragedy the women who do work they don’t want to do are neglected, but still, I understand that working as a publisher, lawyer, or doctor can be vastly more fulfilling than re-reading the works of Dr. Seuss.
After making a case for why childcare is not working for children though, many will move from “Daycare is fine” to “It’s not fine and that’s because of men.” This couldn’t be less helpful. Some men made the system, some women helped exacerbate it. And most of those men and women were taught this is what works.
That may sound completely deterministic, like equating victims and the victimizers. But that’s the insidious nature of sin: it pits everyone against each other, blurring responsibilities. Who did what to whom? We all have a reason why we ended up where we are. So what happens next?
That’s where the good news lies. We have free will. We may not be responsible for what happened yesterday. But we can forgive the system-makers, ask forgiveness for our complicity, and free ourselves to start making different choices, imagining different ways of doing things. Tomorrow can be different, if we can acknowledge what’s happening today without getting lost in blaming other people for yesterday.
We can put the most vulnerable at the center again, and the most vulnerable are impoverished mothers and children.
To end this on a more positive note, here are things I was privileged to do that I wish every parent could do: I sat next to children as they read their first words. I saw their eyes glow when they accomplished a new task. I held their hands when they cried and watched them forgive others. I watched them be silly, charming, messy, empathetic, loving, creative, exhausted, and brave. I came home everyday with wonderful stories. I watched children grow up; how lucky was I? These shouldn’t be my memories, they should belong to the parents. But I’m grateful for them all the same.
I want to build a world where every parent has more of those memories. I want to build a world where those who care for children are not devalued or tossed aside. I want to build lasting connections for children rather than uprooting them constantly. I want caregivers to not have to pick between a paycheck and being with their own families.
I want to build a world that sees the work which takes place in the home as valuable, as the work of our hearts, and not as something to be outsourced. When we outsource the work of the home, we outsource our own lives. Let’s reclaim the home and find a way to make the economy work for it, rather than dismantle the home to build an economy that can’t figure out how to adequately value things which have no price, like the joy of a child and mother together.