Just thinking about all the childcare arrangements I’ve made for my three kids over the years makes me break out in an icy sweat even today. The list reads like a daycare c.v. of modern American motherhood, no less important to my career than a resume.
From 1997 to 1998, I had a newborn in my employer’s subsidized corporate daycare in New Jersey. Then I had baby number two and my husband implored us to move to Minneapolis for his dream job, so from 1999 to 2001 I had two young kids in a Montessori daycare in the Twin Cities. Then we moved to DC for new jobs, and our youngest went to the Jewish Community Center. When our third baby was born, she went to a federal government daycare across from the White House - I had gotten her on the waitlist the day the pregnancy test turned positive, nearly nine months before she was born.
By this time, I had three kids ages five and under, all in different daycares and preschools. My husband, who has many other virtues, did almost nothing to help with childcare, almost never performed drop off or pickup, and not once stayed home with a sick child. So, in order to keep working, I also needed a fulltime babysitter, in order to keep my crazy hours at a job I loved at The Washington Post.
It was one of the toughest challenges of parenting - leaving my kids with other people. But over time, I came to love daycare, and to value it as a critical piece of the working mom puzzle. Daycare was far more professional, reliable and stimulating for my kids than being at home with me or a nanny. My New Jersey employer, Johnson & Johnson, offered babies as young as six weeks a gleaming white I.M. Pei designed 25,000 square foot palace with two nurses on staff fulltime. Every teacher had a graduate degree in child development.
It would have been delusional to conclude that staying home with me, or a nanny, would have served my kids better than daycare.
Then one morning, after ten years riding the working mom rollercoaster, I had a mini-nervous breakdown. No surprise there! A few months later I negotiated part time work at the Post in order to save my sanity. My relationship with daycare ended, because I could no longer afford it.
It’s taken me longer to explain this daycare history than it would to go through my job qualifications. Which is kind of the point in the recent, rational New Republic article, The Hell of American Daycare.
However, even though I consider my daycare experience hellish, it’s not the kind of hell most kids experience. As reporter Jonathan Cohn explains, most American daycare is barely regulated, often unsafe, a kind of slipshod torture for kids, parents, and the underpaid daycare employees who earn, on average, $19,430 a year, less than American janitors and parking lot attendants.
The worst part is that so few people in our country seem to care one iota.
I will never forget my son's introduction to daycare. As I was fighting back tears, I noticed an ecstatic mom from another J&J division. It was also her son’s first morning in the J&J facility.