My Wife Is Doing It
Involved fathers are aware that their children depend on them. Every afternoon Art Winfield knew Adam was waiting for him at daycare. Michael Sherman knew that around 6 a. m. one of his twins would call out “Daddy.” John Livingston knew that Cary relied on him to get around her mothers discipline. Such men were close enough to their children to know what they were and weren’t getting from their mothers.
Uninvolved fathers were not. They imagined that their wives did more with the children than they did. For example, one thirty-two-year-old grocery clerk praised his wife for helping their daughter with reading on the weekends—something his wife complained he didn’t make time for. But when I interviewed her, I discovered that her weekends were taken with housework, church, and visiting relatives.
Sometimes I had the feeling that fathers were passing the child-care buck to their wives while the wives passed it to the babysitter. Each person passing the role on wanted to feel good about it, and tended to deny the problems. Just as fathers often praised their wives as “wonderful mothers,” so mothers often praised their baby-sitters as “wonderful.” Even women who complain about day care commonly end up describing the day-care worker as “great.” So important to parents was the care of their child that they almost had to believe that “everything at day care was fine.” Sadly, not only was the role of caretaker transferred from parent to baby-sitter, but sometimes also the illusion that the child was “in good hands.”
The reasons men gave for why their wives were wonderful— for example, that they were patient—were often reasons women gave for why the baby-sitters were wonderful. Just as uninvolved fathers who praised their wives often said that they wouldn’t want to trade places with their wives, so wives often said they wouldn’t want to trade places with their day-care worker.
As one businesswoman and mother of a three-year-old boy commented: “Our baby-sitter is just fantastic. She’s with the kids from seven o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night. And some kids stay later. I don’t know how she does it. /couldn’t.” Another working mother commented: “I couldn’t be as patient as Elizabeth [the day-care worker] is. I love my child, but I’m not a baby person.”
The day-care worker herself was often in a difficult spot. She depended economically on the parents, so she didn’t want to say anything so offensive it might lead them to withdraw the child. On the other hand, sometimes she grew concerned about a child’s behavior. Typical of many day-care workers, Katharine Wilson, who had cared for children for fifteen years, remarked:
One out of five parents just drop their children off and run. Another three will come in and briefly talk with you. Then the last person will come in and talk to you quite a bit. Not too many call during the day. A lot of parents aren’t too concerned with the day-to-day activities. They just trust we know what we’re doing.
Some day-care centers even established a policy of check-in sheets that required parents to come inside the day-care center and sign their child in each morning, thus preventing the hurried few who might otherwise leave their children off at the sidewalk.
Pickup time was often hectic, and not a good time to talk. As one day-care worker observed:
It’s a hell of a life the parents lead. Every time I see them they’re in a rush. It’s rush in the morning and rush in the evening. They barely ask me what Danny had for lunch or how he seemed. I think they might feel bad when they see him around four o’clock in the afternoon. He gets kind of restless then. He’s waiting. He sees the parents of the other children come and each time the doorbell rings he hopes its his parents. But, see, they come in the last—six-thirty.
Sometimes a day-care worker becomes worried about a child. As Alicia Fernandez confided:
Ive had Emily for a year and a half now. Shes never been real open with me and I don’t think she is with her mother either. I think, in a way, Emily was hurt that her former sitter had to give her up. It was a hard adjustment coming in to me and in fact I don’t think she has adjusted. One day she took the money out of my wallet—the money her mother had given me—and tore it up. I was so shocked. It was my pay. I slapped her across the knees. She didn’t even cry. I felt bad I’d done that, but even worse that she didn’t even cry. I thought, hey, something’s wrong.
Had she mentioned this to Emily’s mother and father? I asked. She replied quickly and quietly: “Oh no. It’s hard to talk about that. We just don’t get around to it. In a way, I feel badly about it but on the other hand if I told her mother, she might take Emily away.” The day-care worker, who could best judge how Emily’s day had gone, felt afraid to confide her concerns to Emily’s parents, who badly needed to hear them. Other day-care workers also kept their opinions to themselves. As another day-care worker noted: “You can feel sorry for them. I have Tim for nine hours. I have Jessica for ten and half—now Jessie’s mother is a single mother. Like I say, at the end of the day they cry.” “Do you talk to their parents about the crying?” I asked. “They don’t ask, and I don’t bring it up.” She continued, echoing a thought other day-care workers expressed as well:
Don’t get me wrong. These children are adaptable. They’re pliant. As long as there’s a sense of love here and as long as you feed them, they know Гт the one who satisfies their needs. That’s all I am to them. The children love me and some little children, like Nelson, don’t want to go home. He’s three now but I Ve had him since he was seven months old; Stephanie’s three and I’ve had her since she was six weeks. But I do feel sorry for the children, I do. Because I know there are days when they probably don’t feel like coming here, especially Mondays.
When day-care workers feel sorry for the children they care for something is wrong. This woman, a thirty-year-old black mother of three, was gentle and kindly, a lovely person to care for children. What seemed wrong to me was the overly long hours, the blocked channels of communication, and the fathers who imagined their wives were “handling it all.”