Living With Day Care

Black and white photo of child holding a baby

Leslie Lilly

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

Southern families are finding it harder and harder to live without day care. How our young children will be cared for is one of the most important questions we face, as a region and as a nation. In this next section of “Growing Up Southern,” we examine some of the realities of day care as it currently exists in the South and offer come models for the future.  

I have just taken my four-year-old daughter Mary to her summer morning day camp. She stands, still tense, clutching her lunch box and waving at me like a windmill. “Good bye, Mama. Good bye, Good bye!” With my six-month-old second daughter Eliza strapped into her red Snugli pack on my chest, I walk the remaining seven blocks to my office — at the Institute for Southern Studies — where I’ll hope to cajole her into taking a long morning nap while I proof articles and answer the mail. 

Mine and my daughters’ attitudes towards day care — our hopes and fears, our gratitude and resentment — are contemporary manifestations of the ways Southern working parents and children have felt for years. Traditionally, Southern working mothers, like others around the nation, have either taken their children to work with them — in the fields, to their employers’ houses, even to the floors of the textile mills — or else they’ve left them with relatives or friends or older children. Sometimes they’ve had no choice but to leave them to fend for themselves. And the same attitudes — fear of surrendering individual rights, racism, resentment of big government — which have caused white Southerners to lag behind the rest of the nation in accepting other public, government-controlled institutions have carried over into their attitudes towards day care. 

In Northern cities, philanthropic efforts towards caring for needy children date from the day nursery movement in the early 1800s. The Boston Infant School is generally recognized as the first day nursery in America. Opened in 1828, it had as its purpose to “relieve mothers of a part of their domestic care [and] enable them to seek employment.” The founders saw a large part of the school’s function as being remedial; the children “would be removed from the unhappy association of want and vice, and be placed under better influences.” Almost all early American experiments in day care had as their main intent not to provide a service along lines set forth by the families themselves, nor simply to extend the family’s own nurturance, but rather to salvage the unfortunate children of the lower classes from the supposed inadequacies of their own homes. This “benevolent” intent — the rich and enlightened reaching down to rescue the children of the poor — has characterized much of day-care policy in America since that time. 

In the South, however, the first attempts at institutional day care focused on neither the children nor the mothers. Day nurseries established here as part of the WPA program during the Depression functioned primarily to provide jobs for unemployed teachers rather than to uplift the children — though a secondary purpose was to give the children at least one meal a day. 

During World War II, some WPA day nurseries continued to function (using funds provided through the Lanham Act of 1942), caring for children while their mothers went to work to keep the nation’s industrial and defense machine going in the absence of the men. But this investment in day care was intended merely as a temporary measure, to be discontinued as soon as the soldiers came home from the war and the mothers returned to their homes. In fact, a federal Children’s Bureau Conference in 1942 recommended that centers not be placed too conveniently close to the factories; else, it was feared, they might outlast the war. 

After World War II, many mothers, including an increasing number from the middle class, found that they enjoyed their jobs; others continued to need to work in order to support their families. Between 1948 and 1958, the number of American working women with children under 18 rose from 20 to 30 percent. But with Lanham funds all withdrawn in early 1946, little group day care was available (only four percent of the child-care arrangements reported by working mothers in 1958). Most working mothers kept on making their own largely informal arrangements for the care of their children. Most Americans — especially in the South — still viewed day-care centers with the same contempt or condescension with which they looked at other institutional services for families. Day care operated as a last resort for children whose families had failed them. 

The postwar aversion to public day care drew strength from a number of 1950s studies centering on a phenomenon known as “maternal deprivation.” These studies focused on children (mostly in hospitals or orphanages) who suffered early and prolonged separation from their mothers; the children generally showed evidence of retarded growth and development which sometimes even resulted in death. John Bowlby’s influential book, Maternal Deprivation and Mental Health, published in 1951, explained the situation this way: 


What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. . . . It is this complex, rich and rewarding relationship with the mother in the early years, varied in countless ways by relations with the father and with siblings, that child psychiatrists and many others now believe to underlie the development of character and mental health. 


Bowlby and others helped to reinforce the American enshrinement of the ideal of the nuclear family, in which the father held down a job, the mother worked in the home, and the children remained directly under her wing. These studies also made almost taboo the subject of day care for babies.

I was a small child during the early 1950s (the year Bowlby’s book came out) and lived most of my pre-school years near my grandparents’ farm in southwest Georgia. Like most Southern children of that period (especially in rural areas, where public kindergarten was not yet established), I encountered my first group-care situation in the first grade. The crowds of children, the incomprehensible routine of events, the playground hubbub, the teacher flashing vocabulary cards from her enthronement at the desk, all came as a shocking contrast to my life on the farm, where my father raised shade tobacco and my mother took care of the kids. In my memory those preschool days have a placid sun-lit quality. I followed Daddy around the hog parlor dressed in overalls just like his; all by myself I walked down the dirt road to church carrying my pink organdy parasol over my head. I sat on my grandmother’s porch watching the sun shine weirdly through a summer thunderstorm; “The devil is beating his wife,” she explained. 

My mother’s memories of those years are not so bright: caring for three pre-schoolers, including one colicky baby, is a tough job even with the support of an extended family network such as we enjoyed then. No formal day-care system existed. The black families on my grandfather’s farm took their children to the fields with them, or left them with a relative or older child at home. I visited relatives a lot; once or twice I went to Vacation Bible School with my cousin, and had a big time stringing “beads” of colored macaroni. Only the fifth and youngest child in my family went to kindergarten, and that was many years later. 


Jacksonville, Florida 

Day care as a social issue in the South was first discussed publicly during the early ’60s, in the wake of a new national consciousness about the realities of poverty and injustice. At about the same time, professional opinion (among educators, psychologists and government officials) swung towards a more favorable view of day care. Several new studies asserted that perhaps the mother-child bonds were not so fragile — or even so important — as had been thought; even the taboos against infant day care started to lift. Day-care centers became “child development” centers, and were given the responsibility of educating the child intellectually as well as of protecting his or her physical safety. In addition, the idea that women — even mothers — should have the right to help support their families began to seem less outrageous. The reality is, of course, that poor mothers, black and white, have long worked to support their families, with or without the aid of an extended network of relatives and friends. 

In 1964, my father was a young Episcopal priest pioneering in an inner-city church in Jacksonville, Florida. His church, St. Mary’s, was in a classic “transitional” neighborhood called Springfield. Once fashionable and even wealthy, Springfield’s big old Victorian houses were now mostly split up into apartments, but the cracked pavingstone sidewalks were still shaded by live oaks and chinaberry trees and banked with overgrown azaleas. The population — except for a few tough widows hanging on to their homeplaces — consisted mostly of young white families come into the city from the impoverished north Florida countryside in search of jobs. Many were supported only by the mother. If a parent were lucky enough to find a job at all, it did not pay enough for the family to hire a babysitter, and generally the supporting network of grandmas and aunts had been left behind in the country. If nobody in the family could find a job, they could sometimes get onto welfare (although Florida required a year’s proven residency in the state, and many Springfield families were newcomers). But the welfare payments — around $97 a month for a family of four — were hardly enough to pay for rent and utilities; feeding the kids either on welfare or on wages was usually a real challenge. In addition, the young families often felt overwhelmed by the tensions, the dangers, the loneliness of city life. 

Not surprisingly, Daddy saw the establishment of a daycare center as one of the first tasks that the church in this neighborhood must undertake. It was not easy, however, to convince the congregation of this imperative. At that time (but not for long, under Daddy’s tenure) St. Mary’s was still made up mostly of well-to-do families now living in the suburbs. They had grown up in Springfield and wanted to maintain their ties to the old church. They might easily have supported a church kindergarten program, a sort of extended Sunday School, with a hefty tuition and a few scholarships for deserving neighborhood kids. 

But the community needed a full day-care program — with fees charged on a sliding scale — serving infants through five-year-olds, with an after-school program for older kids. The day-care center would also need to be integrated since (this was 1964) a few black families were moving into the neighborhood. 

After months of long and heated discussion, the argument was finally clinched when three-year-old Denise (whose mother worked nights as a waitress) wandered into a vestry meeting one night from her apartment down the street, where she had gotten lonely all by herself. In her nightgown, with her pale pinched little face and big blue eyes, she presented irrefutable (and appealing) proof of the plight of Springfield’s small children. 


The Episcopal Child Development Center opened in the fall of 1964, in the old rectory next to the church. It soon spread into the parish hall, and even into part of the chapel. Though enrollment got off to a slow start — 16 kids the first day, with eight teachers — there is no doubt that the center addressed and presented at least some remedy to the desperate needs of many Springfield families. The center received no federal funds; the church subsidized it with about half the operating costs. When my family moved away from Jacksonville five years later the center was literally bursting at its seams, serving over 100 kids. While definitely not a proper little church school, it did have an excellent kindergarten program for the five-year-olds (one of the center’s strongest features). 

I began working at the Episcopal Center the fall it opened (at age 14), after school for two hours each day and full-time during the summer. My main impression of those years at the center is one of great vitality but also great turbulence. After the initial slow start, we never had enough staff; though a core group of staff members worked there the whole five years, many of the staff, like the children, and like Springfield people in general, came and left with staggering speed and suddenness. And though the staff had many strengths (much warmth and talent) there were also exasperating weaknesses. For example, several women, towers of strength in the center when sober, periodically came to work drunk. This complex combination of assets and liabilities often created struggles between the management (my father and a succession of directors) and the workers. 

In the center’s early days — the first year mainly — we contended with the threat of physical danger as well: bomb threats, ugly phone calls, arson scares. No violence actually occurred, and gradually we stopped having the kids rehearse what to do in case of a molotov cocktail through the window (prone on floor, hands clasped behind head). We attributed these threats mainly to the fact that the center was increasingly integrated. My father and the center were regularly denounced in the local right-wing scandal sheet. 

The staff often seemed to be adrift in a boiling sea of children. Many a time I was left in charge of 30 children on the playground for a couple of hours at a time. One day we lost a child — or rather I did. It was every day-care worker’s nightmare. Her father came to pick up two-year- old Shelley one afternoon, and she just wasn’t there. I searched the neighborhood for an hour and a half, crying the whole time. Her father found her sitting on the curb of a busy street two blocks away from the center. Needless to say, he never brought Shelley back. 

On the other hand, life at the Springfield center fairly snapped with vitality. There was a great deal of singing and storytelling. One teacher regularly took her group of three-year-olds outside for large-scale fingerpainting sessions, hosing both the sidewalk and the kids off afterwards. Most of the grass on the playground was trampled off, but this left plenty of dirt for our elaborate mud-pie sculptures. Something I don’t remember about those years was any doubt in our minds — mine, my family’s, the staffs — that despite a few lapses, like temporarily losing track of a kid, the center was a better place for most of these kids to be during the day than their own homes were, whether a parent was at home or not. Even the hostile church members didn’t question the idea that we could do a better job than most of “those mothers.” The main challenge we saw was how to avoid turning kids away for lack of space or staff. It’s hard to argue in favor of pre-schoolers being left locked in a dark cold apartments alone all day, as many of ours were before they came to the center. One five-year- old girl we knew had already learned how to cut up and cook a chicken! But looking back, what we offered instead does not always appear to have been measurably more wholesome. At its best, the center was a bright and sheltering place where the children could play and rest and even learn; at its worst it became a kind of no man’s land — crowded, noisy, aimless and confused. The demand for day care was large, but our resources and experience could not come close to keeping up. 


Swainsboro, Georgia 

My family left Jacksonville in the summer of 1969, and headed back to our native Georgia countryside, to the small (population 7,000) town of Swainsboro. Here again, the community’s need and desire for day care soon surfaced despite the existence of the traditional small-town/rural nurturing network of relatives and neighbors. Again, my father and a community group faced opposition from certain powers within the town: finding someone to rent them a building to house the center was difficult, and securing the $5,000 needed as local “seed money” for Title XX funding took months. But the national belief in the efficacy and importance of pre-school education was filtering down into the hinterlands of the South. Many Swainsboro parents eagerly awaited a center which would not only provide safety for their children while they worked, but also an educational program. 

Nationally at this point, the women’s movement had reinforced the belief born in the ’60s that day care could be a great force for social equality, enlarging the world of the child while at the same time freeing the mother from the bondage of the hearth. The National Organization for Women (NOW), for instance, stated in the early ’70s that 

 Young children need peer relationships, additional adult models, enriched educational programs. . . . A child socialized by one whose adult role is limited, essentially, to motherhood, may be proportionally deprived of varied learning experiences. 

Even Southern women were feeling less guilt over leaving their children to take a job. 

The center that the Swainsboro church helped establish — like the one in Springfield — quickly grew to seam bursting size. This center was fully integrated. The children’s parents generally worked in the local textile mill or the plastics factory, where wages for the women started at about $1.75 an hour (and never got much higher). 

I was in college during most of my family’s Swainsboro years, but I worked at the center some during the summers. My father and mother and all of my brothers and sisters took part also, to one degree or another. Like the Springfield center, this one unquestionably provided a service which many parents deemed better than the alternatives. (The center has been closed once or twice in 1980 because of mismanagement; at last report it was closed but a group of parents was trying to reopen it.) 

The physical facilities were much better than the Springfield center’s; the play yards were especially pleasant — big and shady, with plenty of swings, and an array of imaginative jungle gyms. The board of directors included many parents, but for the most part their involvement had little impact on the center’s operation, as parents were often too timid, or uncertain of what they wanted, to speak out on vital issues. 

The staff-child ratio was generally better, too. Yet staff morale was (and from all reports, still is) chronically low. The center’s leadership, while intelligent and well-meaning, generally failed to exert much energy in the shaping of the center’s program, or to inspire the staff with a sense of mission. As a result, many staff members viewed their work (naturally enough) simply as another low-paid job, and consequently the children received essentially custodial care. 

When I worked there, the situation was especially rough in the Toddler House. Toddlers are notoriously hard to deal with. Compared to babies they’re big and messy and unruly; compared to older kids, they’re still not toilet-trained, can’t talk very well and require constant supervision. They’re also especially sensitive to change, and most child psychologists say that separation from parents is particularly upsetting during this period — from 15 months to about two-and-a-half years. This is also an age when most children are not greatly interested in their peers and do not have much success in playing cooperatively. Instead, the fascinating world of the grown-ups draws their attention. 

The Toddler House in Swainsboro offered little to compensate for the difficult separation from home and parents. Although kindly and well-meaning, staff members for the most part lacked the energy to play much with the children. The kids milled around the several crowded rooms, knocking into one another or whining or sucking on their pacifiers with the introverted vacancy of a group of opium eaters. I substituted there for two weeks one summer and found it one of the grimmest episodes in my day-care career. 

Every hour or two, the children’s diapers were all changed - a horrifying ritual. Each staff member had one rag and a pail of water, and we would move around the rooms like cow punchers through a cattle yard, corraling children and pinning them down then and there on the floor. The one rag was used to wipe all the six or seven bottoms that fell to each person’s portion. To my consternation, one lady assiduously wiped the juice and crackers off their faces with that same rag. I reported this practice to the director but later heard that it was still in use. 

Since it took a fair amount of time and energy to get all the toddlers’ shoes on, they didn’t go outside much even in good weather, and hardly at all in the winter. Once they were out, the staff took this opportunity for a much-needed break; they sat relaxing by the side of the building and left the children to their own devices. Since I was just there as a substitute, and was also a good 20 years younger than most of the regular staff, I had a little more energy to devote to the kids. It didn’t take much. The slightest overture brought unexpected and overwhelming response, all out of proportion to the effort. I picked up a plastic telephone receiver that was lying in the grass and handed it to one of the kids, holding my invisible one to my own ear. “Hello. Is Pee Wee there?” (Pee Wee, almost inaudibly, but grinning from ear to ear), “Yeah.” “Well, hey, Pee Wee, how you doing.” (Long pause, heavy breathing.) “Bye.” I looked up to see at least 10 other toddlers lined up for their turn to enact this dialogue. And so it went for the next hour and a half, while the regular staff eyed us coldly from the sidelines. 

But who can blame them? One toddler alone is enough to drive its own parents up the wall on occasion. These day-care workers had to contend with a whole houseful of toddlers at their worst: frightened, whiny, confused and demanding. For a wage of around $2.00 an hour, who could reasonably expect anything better, day after day? 


Durham, North Carolina 

The most obvious problem with the Springfield and Swainsboro day-care centers was simply that the need was too great, that they took on too much, with too few resources. Although the directors at both centers were compassionate and knowledgeable, they often shied away from making the difficult decisions to dismiss an incompetent employee or turn away a needy child for lack of space. Suppose a center were run by a group of early childhood specialists and staffed with people carefully chosen by them. Suppose it were well-funded and observed the recommended staff-child ratios, strictly limiting its enrollment to what it could handle. Under these circumstances, might not the center provide care for children which would actually reinforce rather than cripple healthy development? 

I thought my chance had come to test this hypothesis soon after I graduated from college, when I landed a job with the highly rated Durham Nursery Schools Association, a non-profit, United Fund-supported chain of day-care centers at four locations in Durham, North Carolina. (This number has since grown to six.) The lady who interviewed me down at the main office was also the program supervisor for the four centers; a black woman with a master’s degree in early childhood, she radiated a gentle authority. She sent me over to a center housed at a United Church of Christ. Although located on the leafy-green outskirts of town, the center nevertheless served children from all over Durham, with the Association providing bus service for children who needed it. 

The lead teacher in charge of the center was extremely competent and well-organized. The rooms were bright and neatly arranged, the playground shady and well-equipped. When I arrived the children were actually outside enjoying themselves. Best of all, the center was small; licensed for 40 kids, 40 was all it had, ages three to five. The black kids/white kids ratio was about 40-60. About a third were subsidized by Social Services; the fees were arranged on a sliding scale, peaking at $21 a week. 

I was hired on the spot (very flattering) and could hardly sleep that night thinking about how wonderful it would be. I was to be the teacher in charge of the program for the three-year-olds, with two aides under me, and only 15 three-year-olds. A far cry from the crowded chaos of Jacksonville and Swainsboro! And I was to make what I then considered a whopping $5,640 a year, due to my B.A. The aides made $2.10 an hour; this was less than the minimum wage (in 1974) but they got to eat lunch with the kids. I worked from 8:30 to 5:30, with an hour off in the middle of the day. The free hour, it turned out, didn’t do me much good since there was nowhere to go except up into the church lounge to smoke cigarettes and read. 

The morning program was highly structured, and closely supervised by the lead teacher. At 9:00, when I raised my finger, the children were to gather in a hushed circle around me for “circle time” while I read a story, taught a song or two and then explained the choices of activities for the morning (painting in the yellow room, blocks and trucks over here, making cookies there at the big table). We encouraged the children to involve themselves in at least two activities during the next hour and a half; the atmosphere would ideally be one of subdued excitement as the children worked together harmoniously at their chosen tasks, while the aides and I moved unobtrusively from group to group, providing guidance and stimulation. I was to draw up a lesson plan for every week (Birds, Trains, Community Helpers) and was responsible for involving my aides as creatively as possible in the planning and execution of the lessons. 

About 10:30, the children cleaned up the rooms and went outside to play until time to wash up for lunch, which was served around 12:00. Then followed naptime; then the afternoon program, for which I was solely responsible since the lead teacher left at 3:00. This was supposed to be a modified, more relaxed version of the morning program; it didn’t have to have a weekly motif, but I was expected to have ready at least two activities for the children to choose from, in addition to free play on the playground. We made paper masks, telephone wire jewelry, painted long swaths of paper taped to the fence. Another activity that I initiated — and that I still feel more proud of than anything else I accomplished that year — was making big newsprint “books.” A group of us would gather on the sidewalk with our book and bunch of crayons; each child would have a turn to dictate a story to me and then illustrate it. The narrative skills of even the youngest children developed greatly over the months; they also took a lively interest in each other’s work. Some of the wilder tales became general favorites, read over and over again, not only by me but by the other staff members as well, to an enthralled audience. 

It took quite a while, however, before I measured up to the requirements of the morning program. I wasn’t used to being supervised, had never had to fit into a pre-existing structure. At other centers, I simply fended for myself and my kids the best I could; nobody paid much attention to what I did so long as the kids didn’t tear down the walls or kill each other. But here the lead teacher stood discreetly in the doorway during circle time to observe my rendition of “Little Cabin in the Woods.” After a month she gave me a formal evaluation in which she awarded me a “5” (out of five) for warmth and positive attitude, but only a “2” for discipline; my lesson plans rated a dismal “1.” Weeks passed before I didn’t spend 90 percent of circle time yelling at the kids to be quiet. And I never got over feeling uncomfortable about telling my aides what to do. It seemed to me that they were every bit as smart and certainly worked at least as hard as I did, yet 1 was painfully conscious of the discrepancy between their paychecks and mine. 

We all worked hard and tried to do everything we were supposed to do. We had regular staff meetings, parent conferences, covered dish suppers. We could refer the most troubled children to a child psychiatry clinic. We had plenty of money for supplies; if you went into the supply closet and found only a half-empty jar of white paint, you blamed yourself for not having done the paperwork necessary to order more. A long list of substitutes could be called to replace a sick staff member and rarely (and only temporarily) were the recommended staff-child ratios violated. 

Yet after one year — almost to the day — I resigned, completely exhausted in body and spirit; and seriously, lastingly discouraged about the possibilities of good center day care. And I was not an isolated instance. The composition of the staff changed almost completely during the year I was there, and some people lasted only a couple of months. The average child stayed in the center much longer than the average staff person. What was wrong? 

I believe now that there are two central factors which, together, can doom the most professional, best-equipped, most well-meaning day-care enterprise. One is the long, long center day. This is of course an insuperable problem for children whose parents must work full-time. But it greatly strains a young child’s tolerance for separation from his or her home and parents. Selma Fraiberg — professor of child psychoanalysis at the University of Michigan and director of the university’s Child Development Project — describes in her recent book Every Child’s Birthright: A Defense of Mothering the shortcomings of even supposedly ideal day-care programs: 

When pre-school children are separated from their mothers for nine to 10 hours there is a point of diminishing returns in the nursery day, and finally a point where no educational benefits accrue to the child. By afternoon, after naptime, restlessness, tearfulness, whininess or lassitude become epidemic in the group of three- to six-year-olds. Even the most expert teachers have difficulty sustaining the program and restoring harmony. What we see is longing for mother and home. The nice teacher, the “best friends,” the lovely toys can no longer substitute. 

This was certainly true of our “ideal” center. It was the long two and a half hours after naptime which did everybody in. No matter how nice we tried to be to the children, and how much they liked us, the center was still not home and they could never completely relax. 

And we were by no means always so nice. For the day which stretched so long for them was nearly as long for the teachers and aides. Day care is very, very hard work; even in the best center, with reasonable staff-child ratios like ours, children demand a huge amount of attention and patience and physical care. As the day wears on they often become noisy, whiny, quarrelsome and destructive. On rainy days, when there’s not even the relief of going outside, the tension can grow almost murderous between the grown-ups and the kids locked up together in the same old rooms hour after hour. I have a persistent image of myself sitting on the floor trying to read a story, the children crawling all over me, coughing in my face with their inevitable day-care colds. I clench my fists to keep from brushing them off like troublesome mosquitoes. 

In the wintertime, I left home before it was fully light and returned after dark. I often thought of myself as being like a miner, toiling all the daylight hours in some sunless nether-land, ignored or forgotten by the ordinary outside world. And if I felt this as an adult, how much stranger it must have been for the children, many of whom were at the center even longer than I was. On top of that, the parents often picked up their children late; the extra dollar-per-every-five-minutes that we were supposed to charge did not serve as much of a deterrent, nor did it make me feel any better for missing my bus. I recall one January night waiting till 6:00 for five-year-old Adrian’s parents — chic, beautiful young university teachers. Everybody else was gone, and we sat on the floor playing Crazy Eights. Although Adrian and I had been fussing at each other all afternoon, we now felt very close. But it was more like the closeness of two forgotten children than like that of one child and one reassuring grown-up. Adrian was somewhat embarrassed by his parents’ behavior and said to me, “I expect they’ll take us out to McDonalds afterwards.” He knew they were coming; this was not the first time we had waited. And so they did, finally, charming and deprecating as usual; they had had to meet a friend at the airport. They even gave me a ride home (though no Big Mac) since by now the last bus had certainly run. 

The problem was not that Adrian’s parents — or any of the others — were bad people. On the contrary, most of our children’s parents were very nice, loved their children and appreciated our devotion. They had found what was probably the best day-care center in the city, one that was safe, well-staffed and even educational. And certainly most of the children were doing okay. Children are amazingly resilient. Yet resilience itself has a price; you learn to block things out, not to depend too much on other people, not to sink your roots too deep. How could it be otherwise when most of our staff — their primary caretakers — worked in the center for less than a year, some for less than a month? 

The parents — and the outside world in general, including the administrators of Durham Nursery Schools Association, in their remote East Durham office — simply did not know how it was, for us and for the kids, day after long day, week after week. Parents had no say in — were not even informed about — vital issues affecting the day care their children received: about how much the staff was paid, how the program was structured or why, what the rules and regulations were. At the parent conferences we discussed how their child fit into our program, and what they could do at home to aid his or her adjustment. We talked very little about what should be altered in the program — there wasn’t much point, since all was ordained from above. 

And herein lies the second central flaw in our center: Durham Nursery Schools was not set up or governed by the people (besides the kids) most closely affected — the parents and the staff. The administrators of Durham Nursery Schools were, and I’m sure still are, well-meaning and professionally competent people; the Association’s centers are indubitably far better than average. But professional competence and strong family/community involvement are both essential to the operation of a truly satisfactory day-care center. 

The unhappiness of oppressed workers is a time-worn but accurate theme. Admittedly day-care workers are less oppressed than many others. The pay is notoriously bad, but at least the work is interesting, and not usually physically hazardous (unless you count the dangers of catching every sore throat or stomach bug that sweeps the center, as I did that year). But when day-care workers are overworked and underpaid, their unhappiness directly and crucially affects the well-being of an even more vulnerable group of people — the children. Professional opinion is unanimous on one aspect of day care: rapid staff turnover is not good for the children. The miraculous and saving factor is that many day-care workers, regardless of the low pay and demanding and responsible work, do put forth the terrific amount of energy required to do a good job in day care. But their dedication is taken for granted rather than rewarded, except by the love and the healthy development of the children they serve. And the children, of course, do not sit on the board of directors and do not allocate funds or set wage guidelines. 

Another major flaw at the center which I felt very strongly about was an arbitrarily hierarchical structure within the center itself. As I saw it, the “teachers” and the “aides” all worked equally hard and all (regardless of education or expertise) bore equally great responsibility for the welfare of the kids. Therefore, they ought to be paid equally and share equally in decision-making and program-planning, along lines agreed upon by parents and staff, and ideally supported by visiting experts and frequent workshops. In our center, although I was theoretically supposed to “work closely with” my aides and “involve them in the lesson plans,” in reality I found the difference in our wages and our prestige to be an insuperable barrier to true cooperation. 

During the latter part of the year that I worked for Durham Nursery Schools, tumult did arise among the workers. Led by one aide from our center — a person exceptionally devoted to the kids and beloved by them — staff from all four centers met among ourselves several times and presented a list of demands to the director and a meeting of the board of directors. These included: 


• wage increases (the aides made a little less than the federal minimum wage and didn’t feel that the privilege of wolfing down their lunch with the kids made up the difference); 

• election of workers and parents to an advisory board which would meet with the director about policy issues concerning the centers; 

• overtime pay rather than compensatory leave for extra hours worked (since leave-time often left the centers understaffed); 

• reduction of the paperwork load for lead teachers; 

• elimination of the nine-hour work day; 

• exploration of allowing more people to work part-time shifts (one six-hour shift was already allocated to each center) to cut down on staff burnout and consequently reduce staff turnover; 

• toothbrushes for the kids, since the centers’ menus were highly starchy and sugary; DNSA officials claimed that they could not sustain this expense, though they had just hired their third highly paid administrator; 

• the hiring of teenagers to help with the exhausting afternoon program. 

Despite the fact that many parents vocally backed up these demands, the director and the board made no concessions at all. The demands themselves were branded as personal attacks on the director, and as being selfish and inconsiderate of the children. One board member — a high-ranking officer of a local bank — offered us this advice: “If you can’t get along on the wages we pay, maybe you should go over to Durham Tech and take a course in budget management!” 

Shortly afterwards, I gave my month’s notice. 


Day Care Mothering 

The majority of Southern working parents still make their own less formal child-care arrangements with relatives, friends, neighbors. This pattern is probably more true of Southern families than of those of the nation as a whole, because more Southern children live near their kinfolks than other American children. This is the kind of day care that, when available, has generally worked best, from time immemorial and in many other cultures besides our own. The simple but all-important reason is that the care-giver (Grandma or Uncle Joe or whoever) remains a very real extension of the child’s own family. The parents feel this; the care-giver feels it; the child feels it. 

It is far from true, however, that all day-care homes (the term used for a situation in which a person cares for other people’s children in his/her own home) are nurturing environments. Unfortunately, many women see this form of day-care work simply as a way to make some money without having to go out into the job market. Almost every newspaper carries several classified ads like this one: “Christian mother desires to keep children in her home. Ages 1-4. Loving care, hot lunch, fenced yard. $25 a week.” While many of these “day-care mothers” do a fine job, many others provide indifferent, barely custodial care. In their report on day care, the National Council of Jewish Women cited this horrifying example: 

When Mrs. ---- opened the door for us, we felt there were probably very few, if any, children in the house, because of the quiet. It was quite a shock, therefore, to discover seven or eight children, one year old or under, in the kitchen; a few of them were in high chairs, but most were strapped to kitchen chairs, all seemingly in a stupor. ... We found over 20 children huddled in a too small, poorly ventilated cement floor area. A TV with an apparently bad picture tube was their only source of entertainment or stimulation. ... We passed through the porch, where we discovered, again, children, children and more children - a total of 47 children. . . . [Mrs. ----] told us that she has been doing this for 20 years and seemed quite proud to be able to manage as well alone, and with no help. 

After my first daughter, Mary, was born in 1976, I entered the world of day-care mothers myself, in a typically gradual and informal way. I began doing some occasional baby-sitting for a friend with a son just six weeks older than Mary. She went back to work part-time when our babies were a year old, and I began taking care of Ned while she worked — just 25 hours a week. I also took care of several other children on a less regular basis; the most 1 had on any one day was five, including Mary. 

This arrangement worked pretty well for all involved. It allowed me to stay home with Mary while still supplementing my husband’s income. Ned had known me and my family since he was born, and he thrived on participating in the normal life of a family — making the bread, hanging out the laundry, picking up apples from under the trees in our back yard. We read endless stories and took long walks through the neighborhood — all experiences which are said to be vital to a toddler’s development. It was good for Mary, too, to start learning to share and to play together with another child in a relaxed, cousinly relationship. 

The days when the other children came were naturally much more arduous and worked less well for all of the children. In my experience (contrary to state licensing laws, which permit a day-care home to take up to six children) three toddlers is about as many as one lone adult can care for decently — and that’s stretching it. Also less happy was the one day a week when Ned stayed all day. Like small children I had seen in centers, after his nap Ned usually became whiny and restless; his heart was simply elsewhere — at home. And I discovered that my patience with him became strained after a whole day. Although I was very fond of him, there was still a distinct difference in my feeling towards Mary and towards him. Even when I was angry with Mary I never resented her presence. 

As a day-care mother, I also had to contend with isolation, as do many mothers in our fragmented insular family structures today. I sometimes felt very depressed after a long day cooped up with a bunch of small children, seeing no adults except for the parents when they dropped off and picked up their kids, until my husband came home from work in the evening. This was especially hard in the winter, when it often rains here in North Carolina for a week at a time, preventing even the release given by a walk around the block. 

Also, just as with work in a center, you can get tired of being a day-care mother. I’ve heard several day-care workers — in centers and in homes — explain their reasons for quitting by saying, “I’m just sick of it. I need a break.” There was no need to elaborate; every other day-care worker knew just what they meant. After a few years you do tend to get stale, to become unable to be anything more than competent. 


Working Without Day Care 

Today I’m attempting to meet what seems to most people (me too sometimes) the outrageous challenge of trying to combine a full-time job with the care of my two young daughters — without resorting to full-time day care for either one. Mary goes to pre-school from 9:00 to 12:00 every weekday morning, and she loves it; in the afternoons she either comes over to my office and plays in the kids’ room provided at work or, more often, goes home with me or her father, depending on our work schedules for that day. Even in this situation, separation from Mama is still somewhat of a big deal for her. No matter how much she looks forward to the day’s events and her wonderful, exciting world of school, she is very conscious of the fact that she’s going to school while I’m going to work; many times I can see her swallowing a lump in her throat. She then goes on to have a fine morning. And I’m anachronistic enough to feel that her reactions are healthy. I value intense attachment, deep feelings, acute sensibility. I’m glad that she loves her school, too, but I wouldn’t want her to stay there all day — no matter how wonderful it is — to be endlessly entertained, interminably amused. The director of an excellent small day-care center in Georgia said to me once that the single element she feels children miss out on in day care is solitude — not the terrifying loneliness of being lost in a crowded institution, but the creative solitude of playing independently with a protective adult within call. Children need time, as this director put it, for “swinging on the garden gate,” for simply staring out into space and experiencing what it’s like to be alone, with nothing in particular to do. I want my kids to learn to play by themselves, and this is one strength that they are not likely to gain at a day-care center. 

My six-month-old baby, Eliza, I keep with me all the time. In another six months I may consider a good part-time day-care home. She has a crib in my office, and I’m lucky enough to work with people who tolerate not only her presence when she’s quiet but also her occasional screaming and the way she can dominate a conversation; some of them even seem to enjoy her company. I’m also lucky to have flexible working hours; very few parents do. Fewer still enjoy my ability to work a lot at home. In addition I have a husband whose job allows him to shoulder his part of the child-care burdens. Nevertheless, I’m aware that most of my friends (at the office and elsewhere) think I’m slightly nuts. Several other women I know have little babies too, and all take great pride in their day-care arrangements and in how well their babies have adjusted. I don’t doubt their testimony, nor that their children will have strengths different from those of my daughters. But I often feel (and this does show something about how attitudes towards child-rearing have changed in the South, at least among a certain percentage of the population) that any reservations about day care — let alone the decision not to use it all — are regarded as somewhat reactionary. The fact that Eliza refuses to take a bottle at all, and thus in fact can’t be separated from her food source (i.e., me), is seen as very unfortunate for me and certainly eccentric on her part. 

Working without day care is certainly no picnic. All too often I go home at the end of the day feeling completely defeated — having accomplished not one thing at work while also having gotten very irritated with whichever kids were there. Many a time I’ve paced up and down the narrow confines of my office trying to hush Eliza’s squalling, conscious all the time (or at least imagining) that people are glaring at us through the walls. But knowing what I know about the realities of day care as it presently exists, I feel the challenges I’ve chosen are worthwhile. 

But what about all the parents to whom even my child care arrangements are a luxury? What about working mothers with no husband, or families in which both parents work inflexible hours at a factory that doesn’t want kids around? 



The problems of working parents already receive wide –– if often rhetorical –– coverage. Several syndicated newspaper columns offer tips and guidance to the working mother; while these serve only as the merest bandaids, they are evidence that the subject is on people’s minds. No one can deny the growing need for day-care services; my purpose in this article is to speak of the realities as I’ve seen them from inside the day-care experience. I believe that we should take heed against jumping onto day care as a bandwagon, advocating the wholesale proliferation of day-care centers as a simple answer to a complex problem — without at the same time giving close consideration to the kinds of day-care services we need and want. 

I can readily conceive of a day-care system with which even I could be comfortable. The key as I see it is a combination of strong professional leadership and energetic community control. The Swainsboro center and the Durham Association demonstrate the pitfalls that can open up when power is allocated solely to a tough-minded director or solely to an unmotivated group of parents and workers. Ideally, the two parties would struggle together to hammer out a program both professionally sound and sensitive to the needs of the particular families involved. Some of the issues that would arise are questions of part-time or full-time care, type of discipline used, whether the emphasis would be on school readiness or on cooperative playing. The parents’ involvement is crucial because it is very important that a child feel that the day-care environment is a real extension of his or her family into the community — rather than a corrective applied to negate the family’s influence, as is too often the case with day care for the poor. Only under these circumstances will the child feel secure enough to put down the deep roots that every child needs in order to love and be loved. 

Speaking as a veteran day-care worker, day-care mother and working parent, this is how I would envision the ideal day-care system. 

Crucial to the success of this program would be the emphasis on day-care “systems” rather than just centers. Centers should not be the only model or option for day care. They can work well, especially for older kids, and especially if half-day use is encouraged for as many parents as can manage it. But as Margaret Steinfels points out in Who’s Minding the Children? (1972), “Emphasis on centers alone may . . . freeze day care into rigid patterns, reinforce our tendency to always depend on institutional solutions and satisfy an ‘edifice complex.’” She recommends instead — as have many other educators and child development specialists, including Kenneth Kenniston, Selma Fraiberg and Sally Provence — a nucleus of day-care services. A day-care center could serve its traditional functions while, in addition, providing after-school care for older children (as both the Springfield and the Swainsboro centers did). It could serve also as an information exchange center, encouraging parents to share child-care services as much as possible. The center could coordinate and supervise the informal network of day-care home operators and could even function as a kind of home base for them: where they could come to observe methods of dealing with a particular age or type of child; where they could bring their groups of children periodically for a story hour or a dance lesson (see box on page 34). The center could encourage retired people in the community to become more involved with their younger neighbors by working a few hours a week in the center (as one retired couple did at the Durham center) or by keeping, say, one baby in their home part-time. In essence, such a day-care system would help to create the connections necessary for meaningful community control. Families would be enabled to extend themselves further into the community while at the same time to assert more control over their own lives. This involvement could be as valuable in a dreary suburb as in an urban ghetto. 

The need for day care must be publicly acknowledged and supported with much more government money. To develop a day-care system, a day-care council would be set up in every city or town or rural county. (Such a project was recently refused funding by the Durham city council.) This council would encourage neighborhoods to set up their own day-care systems, and would provide high-quality professional input into the organization and operation of the centers. The councils would then inspect, license and fund the systems. The important criteria for licensing would be the physical and psychological safety of the children and the integral role of the parents and the community in planning and operating the system. Parents at factories and other workplaces should also be encouraged and helped to set up day-care arrangements near their work sites, where they could visit with their children during breaks. Within the system itself — particularly in the centers — the reality that all care-givers are equally important to the children would be reflected in pay and hierarchy arrangements. In recognition of the value of the job, day-care workers would be well-paid. They would also be recruited as much as possible from within the community itself. This would evolve as a natural process, since the center would be operated by the neighborhood. Parents and staff together would determine how the center would be run, and would inspire each other with the sense of commitment necessary to a nurturing child-care situation. Provision should be made for paid leaves of absence running for several months and coming up every three or four years. In addition to respite and rejuvenation, this arrangement would also allow workers to take courses in child development, dance, art, children’s literature — enrichment which would then be brought back into the day-care experience for the children. This kind of self-improvement is expected of day-care workers now, but considering the exhausting, unrelenting pace they keep up, few have much energy or time left for such projects. 

Furthermore, day care must no longer be viewed by politicians as the solution for getting “freeloaders” off the welfare rolls. Poor and single parents should be able to decide for themselves if they want to work outside their homes and place their children in day care, or if they want to stay home and do the important work of raising children. Right now we have the opposite situation, as Steinfels points out: “Throughout its history, day care has been linked with welfare and social deviancy. In our society, services thus linked are almost inevitably substandard.” In All Our Children, Kenneth Kenniston proposes in detail a program of negative income tax and guaranteed income, which would, among other things, allow all families to make basic choices about the arrangement of their working lives

We are nearing a point where over half the mothers in this country will be in the workforce; right now 6.4 million pre-school children (38 percent) have working mothers. In the South, this trend is accelerating even more rapidly than in the nation as a whole (see tables on page 79). Day care as a reality, and as an economic necessity for many families, is obviously here to stay. But its shape, and consequently the condition of our children and the future of our society, has yet to be given serious and methodical consideration by most Americans, or by our government.