An unacknowledged problem: child care in the U.S.

When I moved back in with my parents upon transferring from SVSU to WSU in 2010, I got a job as a regular babysitter.  So for the past two-ish years, I’ve been picking up the girls from school and watching them until 9:15 or so, when their mom gets home from work.

There have been a lot of surprises with this job: some good, some bad.  I never thought I’d find myself doing this for more than a year, for one thing.  And secondly, I never expected it to provide me such an important feminist learning experience.

Here’s the thing: I work for a low-income family headed by a single mother.  So the state covers a portion of her child care costs.  I’ve made the mistake of mentioning this to a few people, and have had to fight them on the “welfare queen” image, which of course, pisses me off.  How the hell can someone accuse mothers (and it’s somehow always mothers) in this situation of lazily “milking the system” when they’re too busy to ever be home?  The woman I work for is, other than the main breadwinner for her family, a student at a nearby community college.

Secondly, I’m getting really tired of being reminded of just how undervalued my work is, especially given that it’s so necessary.  I mentioned that the state of Michigan covers a portion of my paycheck.  But only a portion, and a small one at that.  There are a few reasons why I’ve stuck with this job for as long as I have: I enjoy working with people in general, I genuinely like the girls I sit specifically, and, as a friend pointed out to me when I vented to her about this once, babysitting has become a form of activism for me, really.  Since I need to have a job that pays anyway, I’d much rather be helping out with something like this than working a low-wage job for some bullshit corporation.

But I’ve really struggled with it.  I live with my parents, who do not charge me rent.  So I don’t need much to get by.  If I were living on my own, however, there’s no way that the money I’m earning as a babysitter would be enough to live on.  And yet someone has to do this work; you can’t just leave a five-year-old at home by herself all day.

I’ve considered fighting it.  But I haven’t for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I’m (perhaps cynically) afraid that the state’s solution to the problem would be to demand the woman I sit for pay me more money.  As if she can afford that.

The second reason is that, frankly, my ideal fix to this problem wouldn’t be just to pour more money into a system that I see as fundamentally flawed.  Part of why I don’t want to have kids of my own is that I can’t stand the idea of bringing anyone into this world and subjecting them to this system, where children are the property of their parents and an extension of their egos.  I admire the few parents I’ve met who recognize this and are doing something to fix it.  But I have to admit that I don’t know if I am actually strong enough to fight against that tide.  These routines and expectations are so deeply ingrained into the American way of life.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re right.

So I don’t really know if I’m really helping or just fueling an already damaging system.  It’s hard for me to grapple with.

What’s also frustrating is that obviously, I think about this a lot.  It’s become a huge part of my life and my thought process.  It takes up a huge chunk of my time and energy.  And yet, this work I’ve done for the past two years apparently does not count for anything at all.

And that’s the case for so many women (and somehow it’s always women).  I could probably create a whole different blog post on this topic, but one of the problems I have with the k-12 system of education in this country is the inherent sexism behind it.  One thing I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of people outside the kindergarten door at dismissal time are women, presumably mothers (or child care providers, like me– but women, either way).

Furthermore, the whole system has been designed with the assumption that there will always be someone at home to take care of the kids, when in reality, many families either rely on two incomes or are headed by a single parent.  There are so many breaks from school (the holiday break in December, mid-winter break in February, and spring break in April, not to mention summer vacation).  And beyond that, there are a bunch of random days that the kids aren’t at school: classes are canceled for parent / teacher conferences, records day, snow days, etc.

All that time really adds up, which leaves dual-income and / or single-parent families scrambling for child care.  And often, their regular child care providers can’t help out too much with this extra need for child care, because they have their own schedules to attend to.  A few weeks ago, school was canceled at the last second due to “building problems.”  The girls’ mom asked me if I could come over earlier than usual (as she has to leave for work before the time that they’re normally released from school).  But I couldn’t, because I had class that day.

And even the after-school latchkey program is designed around the idea that parents only work 9-5 jobs, which is just bullshit.  The woman I work for gets off work at 9 p.m., so latchkey is not an option for her.

One of the hardest things for me as a babysitter has been dealing with the fact that kids learn about the world by thinking about it in terms of absolutes.  They want to feel safe and secure; they want to fit in.  So you tell all of them that you wake up in the morning, go to school / work during the day, and go to sleep at night.  And so many institutions are built around that assumption, even though that’s not the reality of so many people.

I think what gets me the most is that the kids themselves live this very reality.  And we’re basically feeding them lies, because they aren’t growing into a world that recognizes it.

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About Amelia

feminist, seafood enthusiast, bookworm, blogworm
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