Unsustainable Children

by: Heather Fawn1

When child care facilities are run like a business first and care service second, it’s our most precious commodity, our children, who suffer most….

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Did you know that annual childcare costs, on average, for one infant, are upwards of anywhere from $4,000 to $21,000 a year, depending on the state, and government assistance? Psychologists, doctors, social workers, sociologists, and neuroscientists will all attest that ages zero to five are some of the most important years of a child’s life – developmentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. If a child must attend an early childcare program, it is a pivotal cornerstone of their development. Many families rely on child care during part or all of their child’s early years, often out of necessity. People must place an enormous amount of trust in not only individual workers’ expertise and empathy levels, but also the facilities themselves. Yet, the average child care worker’s salary is $9.69 per hour. That’s $18,604 a year before taxes. Add in the fact that many child care workers don’t get sick days, or paid holidays, and the benefits of going into this career look bleak.

Based on the importance of these early years for children, child care workers should be some of the most capable people society has to offer, be paid a high salary, and have a rigorous academic background in a relevant field, such as psychology, education, or nursing. They should have extensive hands-on training with infants and young children, with internships, and lots of incentives to increase their skill set. Ideally, the people entrusted with the care of infants and young children should be given ongoing training on the latest in parenting tips, nutrition, basic nursing, and child development. After all, if they are entrusted with the care of young children, for 40 hours or more per week, they should be given every opportunity to do their job well.

In my experience, people generally don’t care about the education or level of training that a child care worker has. Most people may, instinctively, believe that early childhood is important, but many people don’t realize how important it is. Many child care facilities function as a business first and a care facility second. Mistakes are made every day because the caregiver turnover rate is high (which means hiring and training new workers is sometimes rushed), some people are attracted to the job because it sounds “easy”, and everyone believes that women are natural-born carers of young children.

In the United States, it costs up to, sometimes even more than, $1300 a month for one baby to be in a private (which means low child-teacher ratio and, because of this, possibly better care) child care facility for five days a week. Income-contingent care does exist, but people can still expect a large portion of one parent’s income to go towards care. In some states parents or guardians are paying over $10,000 per year in child care. That’s as much as in-state tuition at a public university.

So, then, I ask, why? Why are people willing to pay so much even though their young child’s teacher actually receives so little? Why would they be okay with paying so much money for their child to be enrolled in a swanky child care facility only to have most of that money go to light fixtures, fluffy rugs, and CEO pedicures rather than paying for an infant teacher’s dental insurance or a toddler teacher’s graduate school tuition? Why would the government help subsidise child care food services only for most of that money to go to the center itself, leaving child care kitchens with nothing but microwaves, hot dogs, and frozen corn (I’ve seen it with my own eyes)? We have been lied to, people. If you want to drop little Suzie off at Happy Fun Times Nursery and expect that she will have a heavenly time, that’s because little Suzie is an awesome, easy-to-care-for toddler and not because she will be fed nutritious meals by highly educated men and women who can pay all their bills every month.

I have worked in several child care programs in the United States and Australia. Australia has these issues to some extent, but in the United States we have a serious disparity problem, and I have not received any good answers from child care workers, administrative staff, or leaders in the field about why that is. I worked mostly with women whose husband’s salaries could sustain their families. That was how they got by, and how they could continue to work in the field without complaint. If anything, I believe this is truly a feminist issue. So many women (and a small percentage of men) are doing work that requires an immense amount of physical strength (bending, twisting, turning, lifting), emotional/mental strength (fussy babies, biting toddlers, finicky eaters, demanding parents, strict bosses, having someone else’s breastmilk vomited onto them, accreditation and paperwork hoops), and split-second reflexes (two-year-olds trust-falling off play equipment, baby Jimmy dropped his glass bottle on the linoleum again and three people have to form a protective circle so the curious crawlers don’t eat shards of glass). In North Carolina, I was paid between $10 and $11 per hour. In South Carolina, they didn’t even want to see my education degrees, only my high school diploma, and I was offered $8 to start (I vehemently declined). I was expected to be able to talk knowledgeably to parents about breastfeeding, doulas, diaper rash, sleepless babies, circumcision, cloth diapers, allergies, rashes, and organic baby food right out of the gate. I took a class in childcare and despite my education background, it was not enough to bridge the knowledge gap it would take to really be excellent at the job. Many women come to the job with more or less education than I have, and we all suffer, pay-wise.

I believe this is a feminist issue because women are basically expected to live on a lower wage than some fast food workers to help other people raise their children. It’s a feminist issue because the industry contains mostly women, who mostly enjoy caring for children. It’s a feminist issue because some women can’t actually afford to have children of their own on the hourly wage of a child care worker, but they love the job too much to quit. It’s a feminist issue because some dads still come to drop off their babies in the morning not knowing how the baby slept, when the baby last ate, when the baby had their last diaper change, and he thinks the baby had a poo on the way to school so please clean her up, thanks. It’s a feminist issue because speaking up about unfair work practices gets you fired (I tried it). It’s a feminist issue because a raise still doesn’t actually help you pay for health insurance premiums. It’s a feminist issue because you are expected to know everything you need to know just by virtue of being female. It’s a feminist issue because men are treated like they don’t know what they’re doing, and that perpetuates the cycle of men not being involved in caring roles. It’s a feminist issue because it’s a children’s issue, and society always puts women and children hand-in-hand with one another. It’s a feminist issue because administration will expect teenage girls to work for low wages or for free to pick up the slack of someone missing work so they don’t have to hire another employee. It’s a feminist issue because untrained workers leave children unattended or misplace children by accident and the individuals, rather than the institutions, take the blame. It’s a feminist issue because this is an enormously profitable industry that will continue to grow and yet the wages will change almost imperceptibly throughout this growth. It’s a feminist issue because administration expects women to accept poverty. It’s a feminist issue because most administration at a childcare facility are women and they do this to other women because society taught them that capitalism – not love, not connection, not the future embodied in young children – wins.

This is a feminist issue because moms (and dads) who leave their children with strangers every day should know exactly what is happening with the politics of the facility. This is a feminist issue because the American workplace is not family-friendly, and parents/guardians are desperate to find a preschool or child care center that can take their child in the first place, let alone one that meets all of their needs. The alternative to stay-at-home parenting should not be exorbitant tuition fees that paradoxically feed into the poverty of women and their children. The alternative to stay-at-home parenting should not be hoping for the goodwill of strangers who accept the dehumanizing machine of capitalism and decided they would rather love your child for next-to-nothing than do any other job. The alternative to stay-at-home parenting should not be shock and terror at how a facility is actually run. Parents already have enough to fear and enough of their incomes taken away just to meet the basic needs of their children. In addition to paid maternity and paternity leave being non-existent in the United States, the next in a line of family-punishing atrocities and the exploitation of women is that your child is guaranteed to almost never be in an ideal environment for eight hours every day. The women and men there love your child because they love children. Make no mistake about that. But they sometimes don’t even get sick days. I cannot emphasize this enough: most child care facilities do not live up to their own standards, let alone yours, and this is rarely the fault of the child care workers themselves. There are good preschools out there, but they are the exception.

Refuse to put huge chunks of your hard-earned money into the hands of greedy strangers until you find the right kind of child care for your kids. Ask your toddler’s teacher point-blank: “Are you happy here?” “Is there room for advancement?” “Do you have sick leave/family leave/maternity leave?” “Do you make enough money to have savings?” “Can you afford to go back to school?” “Can you afford your health insurance premiums?” “Do you benefit from professional development training?” “Do you have to put on a show when accreditation people arrive?” “Do you feel valued and respected by your managers?” If they answer you in very general terms, or they avoid your questions with jokes and smiles, or they look at you with genuine fear and surprise, you probably have your answers.

I am sick of the institutional greed and the corporate models of child care franchises and the insidious veneer of doing god’s work from any child care facility one could encounter. I’m sick of families struggling to make ends meet because of tuition fees. I’m sick of workers being exploited, and I’m sick of children paying the highest price for these immoral business practices. Unbeknownst to most people, many kids are missing out on the high quality experiences they need for optimal development because someone realized that child care is a cash cow.

Children have no say in where they go or with whom they stay for up to eight hours a day, but adults can make decisions on their behalf. If we’re not changing the way young children are viewed and treated for the better – if we are not changing the way the people who care for young children are viewed and treated for the better – then please tell me, what is our purpose as a society? Why even have children in the first place, if they are only born to make someone else money? We need to do more for families, and for young children. After all, doesn’t the future depend on it? Please stop accepting this bullshit and take a stand.

  1. Illustration is by the extremely talented Marina Luz. []

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