My first job was at a small local daycare center. For two hours every day after school I’d help take care of roughly 100 children ages 12 weeks to 6 years old. The women in charge of the classrooms would fight over who got my help that day. More often than not I was in the infant room with Esther, a very grandmotherly-type African American woman who took care of 6 babies on a daily basis by herself. Each time I entered the room the children, who ranged in age from a few weeks to 23 months old, would clamor for my attention. “They like to be held and played with,” Esther would explain, “I only have two arms.”
Now, nearly 20 years later I have a toddler of my own. After receiving a very fancy mailer from a new center that just opened, I decided one afternoon that we should take a field trip over to this local daycare center to see how or if times had changed. What I found reminded me why I’d chosen to be a stay-at-home mother.
This center’s infant room housed 12 babies, 4 per employee. The children in the room ranged from 6 weeks through 15 months. (Once they could walk, they were moved to an early toddler room.) The room, institutionally sanitary with requisite bright wall décor, had cribs with Plexiglas sides lined up along each wall. A changing facility was located in the back corner of the room. Towards the front, a linoleum floor indicated an eating and play area with a stack of wooden high chairs on wheels located off to the side next to an open kitchenette.
When we arrived the babies were being put down for their afternoon naps. Two employees, girls who both appeared to be recent high school graduates, stood jostling cribs with each hand. The babies lying in the cribs maintained a blank stare towards the door. Canned lullaby music played as the girls stared off into space, shaking the cribs and shushing. These kids were obviously not in the mood to go down, but respected the routine.
Outside in the hallway the facility’s director pointed to a pre-printed schedule of the week’s activities that hung by the door. “We teach them sign language and they have play time outside twice a day and special events each week.” This week was fireman week, therefore every baby got their picture taken while wearing a fire helmet. The exercise reeked of absurdity. “We have an app,” the director proudly declared, “where we post updates of your child all day. It’s connected to video cameras in the room so you can peek in at any time.”
I did peek in on our way back down the hall a few minutes later. A third female employee, this one older and definitely more stressed out, was manhandling a young toddler by his shoulders up and out of a high chair, swinging him into a crib where he stood, crying and screaming as she attempted to force him down for a nap. I wondered if his parents caught that on the live feed.
After the infant room we headed towards the toddlers, a group of about 10 to 12 children ranging from 1-2 years old. As soon as we walked in the children swarmed in my general direction. Mine, not my son’s. They had no interest in another child who was obviously mere competition for physical affection and personal attention. Two women worked the room that had a ratio of 6 to 1, another young girl out of high school and an older grandmother type. My son, eager to play and make friends, quickly shot to the floor to explore. A young boy about his age went up to him, attempted to steal his pacifier and then poked him in the eye. My son looked at him like he was nuts.
One little girl was roaming around on the verge of tears, begging any adult to hold her and hug her. “Still no poopy?” the director asked as she held the little girl. Nope, the employee replied, the poor thing hadn’t pooped in a week and they weren’t allowed to give her more prunes because the gas kept her awake all night. “All the children eat off the menu,” the director later explained, motioning to another pre-printed sheet with a run-down that included oatmeal for breakfast and mac and cheese for lunch. “We make sure they get one fruit and one vegetable a day.” No wonder the poor kid hadn’t pooped in a week.
Outside we were shown two play areas, one for younger and one for older kids. “No swings?” I asked since they are my son’s favorite. “The children fight over them, so we don’t have them.” When I worked in daycare, taking the kids outside gave the staff members a smoke break. I guess you didn’t need yet another opportunity to teach the concept of taking turns during your smoke break.
Daycare isn’t education. It’s very expensive babysitting. Part-time care averages $13,000 per year. Full time is closer to $20,000. This particular center attempted to justify the cost with a fancy indoor play space, “bonus” activities like yoga and computer time (which children ages 0-5 shouldn’t even have), and apps that let you “peek in” on your child.
The reality is that daycare hasn’t changed in 20 years. While most centers aren’t the subject of horrifying reports on the nightly news, the fact remains that underpaid, underqualified women are in charge of the basic care and maintenance of your infant and toddler for up to 12 hours a day. The diet is industrial at best. Babies are held to be fed or soothed as time permits. Toddlers learn how to fight for what they want. Kids of all ages run to every adult that enters the room, hoping for a hug and some one-on-one time.
One other thing hasn’t changed about daycare, and it’s the scariest thing of all: The dead-eyed stare into space. I saw it on one of the babies being rocked to sleep. Old enough to be waking up to the world at a rapid pace, she simply lay there staring at her all-too-familiar surroundings with what could best be described as resigned acceptance. She knew not to expect so much as a back rub to soothe her into sleep, so she just lay there jiggling, staring at the bright lights in the hallway like a patient in an institution. “That’s what daycares are, you know,” my mother, a former nurse once said, “institutions, like nursing homes only in reverse.”