I have always been maternal. It started with the cats. But they didn’t appreciate being carried by a hyperactive four-year-old, so I shifted my focus to my little sister. She didn’t really appreciate my attention either and expressed her displeasure by such measures as flushing my water gun down the toilet. I got the message and left her alone. Still, I quietly dreamed of the day when I would be able to be a pseudo-mommy. It’s not so much that I spent my entire life wanting kids of my own as much as I wanted to be able to spend a lot of time with them. I started with volunteer work — tutoring second-graders when I was 15, working the pediatric oncology ward when I was 16 — but eventually and predictably graduated to daycare teaching.
I got my first taste of earning money by working with children when I spent several months shuttling around three of my young step-cousins the summer I turned nineteen; when I moved across the country that fall, I stayed with another branch of my family and gleefully spent my evenings and weekends helping out with the childcare duties for my cousin’s two-year-old daughter. It was clear that I greatly enjoyed this kind of work. And yet, when I was hired to be a daycare teacher in 2003, it was by accident. At that point, I was on leave from college, depressed, and willing to do almost anything that would get me out of the house. The job called for me to work with toddlers for nine hours a day at $7.00 an hour. It might sound like hell to some people, but the actual job was a source of great joy and proved to be the best learning experience of my entire life.
The daycare worked with children aged six weeks to five years, and served affluent families in a suburban county near New York City. There was not a single man on staff at the facility. The three administrators and all of the teachers (eight classes with two teachers per class, plus approximately five “floaters” who worked with multiple classes) were women. The only men who came to the building were the fathers, one physical therapist, and one random folk singer who taught music classes. And while there were a few exceptions, the children were dropped off, picked up, and visited during the day by their mothers. It was clearly demarcated that this was a Female Zone and this was women’s work.
The pay was, as I noted, absolutely crap — meanwhile, the director would drive around the parking lot in a Porsche. Hence, my first lesson on the job was that your wages will often be inversely proportional to the importance of your work. My co-teacher and I watched over fifteen children from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. We fed them, potty-trained them, helped them learn to brush their teeth, taught them to write the alphabet, separated them when they started whacking each other with wooden blocks, hugged them when they cried, rubbed their backs to try and get them to nap, and read endless stories to them. We were their surrogate parents for a significant part of their days, often five days a week. I was on the lowest end of the pay totem pole because I did not have my college degree, but I was performing almost the exact same tasks as my colleagues who did. Even the teacher with the most experience, a woman in her mid-fifties, made only $12 an hour.
The thirteen months I spent at that job were filled with more good days than bad, but there was inevitable frustration. What was perhaps most rewarding was that I made real, solid connections with these children. Out of the fifteen children I worked with, I ended up babysitting for nine of them on a regular basis. My weekend job paid for what my day job did not, as the parents were happy to shell out $15 an hour to have me come play with their kids. So I ended up working at this job six or seven days a week, between the teaching and the babysitting, and it started to feel like I was mimicking motherhood with all the time I spent around these children.
I got a sense of just how much these kids would mean to me on the very first day, when one little girl named Jessica (all names have been changed to protect the semi-innocent) fell off the slide and cut her mouth, bleeding all over me. When she stopped crying and gave me a big hug in gratitude for getting ice for her mouth, I realized that these kids were going to turn this job into much more than just a route to a (meager) paycheck. That same girl, who looked like a Cabbage Patch Doll with my best friend’s face, later proved to be the most tantrum-filled kid I ever worked with, once telling me that she didn’t have to listen to me because “you’re the little teacher.” I grinned as I reminded her, “I’m still bigger than you.”
The job provided me with the chance to watch the development of some amazing children. There was Alexander, who didn’t give a damn about gendered norms and loved nothing more than slipping on the purple high heels and being a princess during dress-up time. There was Rebecca, who rationalized the fact that she had been adopted from China by proudly announcing, “I come from China, the land of pork dumplings.” She once sat on my lap, turned to give me a kiss, and thwacked her head against my nose so hard that I had to go to the emergency room because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. There was Zoe, who had a voice that was nearly as deep as that of Darth Vader. The tiniest kid in the class, Zoe had a Napoleon complex and insisted on pushing everyone else around; she also believed she was a boy and made her parents buy her boys’ pull-up diapers.
And then there were the two boys with developmental disorders, who were under our care despite the fact that neither I nor my co-teacher had any specific training to work with these children. Our best guess is that Michael had something akin to autism. He would bang his head against bookshelves in the middle of circle time, then look around as if nothing had happened. He would spontaneously yell “No more pasta!” at random times (i.e., “Michael, do you want to read The Cat in the Hat?” “Sarah! No more pasta, Sarah!”). Johnny’s symptoms were far more severe. He slurred his words. He couldn’t form sentences. Instead of asking for milk, he would just hit another child who was sitting near the milk carton. He refused to be toilet-trained. He would become violent when he could not express himself, which was almost always. I often came home with bruises and bites from Johnny’s rage. A teacher isn’t supposed to have favorites, but we all did. Johnny was my favorite, if only because everyone else — including the other teachers — stayed the hell away from him, unwilling to deal with the complications he brought into the classroom. Babysitting him was particularly rewarding, as I could give him my undivided attention.
Finally, there was Travis. A few days after my co-teacher and I had experienced a particularly exasperating day with him, leading us to brand him “annoying,” we learned that he had leukemia and wouldn’t be coming back for a while. He died before the end of the school year. I learned from Travis just how fragile a child’s life is.
I learned a lot of other lessons, too. I learned how to sing “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. I learned that the kids would instantly go to sleep if I put The Lord of the Rings soundtrack on at naptime. I learned exactly how to sense when certain kids were about to have potty-training “accidents.” I learned how to get blue frosting out of a child’s hair. And I learned that while I have had my fill of teaching toddlers (well, at least for now), I absolutely love little kids.
I think I’m justified in complaining about the pay for those positions; and while I will continue to rail against the expectation that childcare is explicitly women’s work, the fact is that it is viewed as being such within our culture. Despite the importance of watching over large groups of young children for many hours each day, the ability to designate it as a task for women helps people justify the lack of respect afforded the position and its correspondingly low pay. My hope is that by the time I send my own child to daycare, the situation will have changed.