Our first born, Sophie, is 3 months old when we hand her over to a woman who runs a daycare out of her home in San Francisco. Her house is one of those old Victorian homes in the Haight with weeds growing in the yard, dirt stains dripping from the roof, and a couple of precariously placed wobbly wood stairs that make walking up to the front door an impromptu minefield.
Living in the city as two full-time working parents with respectable (but not overly comfortable) salaries, we don’t have a ton of options. The professional daycare schools are either far above our price range or have two-year waitlists. We didn’t have the foresight to sign up our imaginary kid before we even thought of getting pregnant.
As new parents, we are hell-bent on being laid-back so we land on the Haight daycare because the woman seems nice enough and the price is right. We overlook the dirty shag carpet and the wallpaper tearing at the corners because the kids look happy with their toys and each other. Except that one kid Sam who’s throwing a tantrum in the corner, but he’s always crying, says the woman.
I pick Sophie up that evening and realize there’s a new S.O.P. – I’m supposed to ring the doorbell and wait until she brings me my baby, strapped into her car seat and ready to go. If I try to peek behind the woman to see the playroom, she’s blocked the view with a wall divider. This is weird, I think, but Sophie seems fine so I tell myself to chill and head home.
As each day goes by, I bring Sophie home and notice that her face hasn’t been wiped, her clothes haven’t been changed, and her diaper is sagging. By the end of the week, she’s covered in snot, drool, and poop, and it hits me – sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. From the yellow wallpaper to the dirty rug, she clearly can’t keep her surroundings clean so how can I expect her to do so with our baby?
We pull out of that daycare within one week, finding an at-home nanny within our price range who loves on Sophie like her own daughter. In fact, still stops by to see her to this day.
Repeating Past Mistakes
As Sophie turns two, we give notice to our nanny, pack up our stuff, and move to a small town north of San Francisco. We want her to be around other kids so we sign her up for another in-home daycare run by a woman, let’s call her Susan, that our friends swear by.
We find ourselves in a familiar spot – overlooking the rundown facade of the house, brushing off the weathered carpet – and, as we sit on a deflated couch with torn fabric, we hesitantly make plans to bring Sophie back the following day at 8am sharp.
Susan isn’t as bad as the first day care, but it’s not great. Sophie comes home dirty, but she’s a toddler now so we reason that that’s normal. She cries when we leave her there, but isn’t that the standard for any kid who just wants to be with their parents everyday?
One year later, we’re surprised at how relieved we are to finally pull Sophie out of Susan’s and enroll her in a clean, professional preschool. She’s thriving in this learning environment, happy to be making new friends, and excited to leave us for school. It’s a big change.
It’s not until we find a new daycare for our second child, Charlie, that we realize just how low of a bar we had set for childcare. Charlie’s provider, Debbie, has a quaint white cottage in her backyard fully dedicated to the children with clean floors and furniture, a hint of essential oil in the air, and light music playing to give the whole place a calming sense of love.
We finally settle into this new routine, feeling content that our children are being cared for in the same way they would at home. It’s a profound idea, but we still don’t even grasp the rarity of it.
It Gets Worse
Through Nextdoor, an app that allows neighbors to post messages onto a virtual community board, I see Susan post weighty life mottos, deeply emotional poems, and heartfelt letters — the kind of posts that make you think, “Something’s going on with this lady, and it’s not good.”
As it turns out, Susan’s daycare was shut down by local law enforcement for violating a number of laws. Most of it can be attributed to Susan’s husband who had a warrant out for his arrest for stealing. The fact that he had large amounts of fentanyl around the children is what finally made parents and neighbors report Susan to Child Protective Services (she didn’t shut her doors the first time she was ordered to do so).
I, personally, am creeped out by the reports that the husband would ring a bell when he woke up in the morning and Susan would send the children in to serve him breakfast in bed.
Childcare is a National Issue
In 1975, only a generation ago, over 50% of all children had a stay-at-home parent. Comparatively, that number is down to 33% today. In fact, about 8.2 million kids – 40% of children under five – spend at least part of their week in the care of someone other than a parent or family member. Most of them are in childcare centers or attending home daycares like Debbie’s.
In other countries, early age childcare services are subsidized and well-regulated. Despite the major shift in family dynamics we’ve seen over the last decade, the United States lacks anything resembling an actual child care system. Spanning the gamut from expensive professional centers to questionable in-home daycare, the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored.
As Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley says, “We’ve got decades of research, and it suggests child care and early childhood education in this country is mediocre at best.”
Always Trust Your Gut
Unless or until childcare regulations catch up to increasing demand, the onus is on us to make the right decisions for our children. We hear a lot of advice when we’re expecting, and to my friends’ and family’s credit, I was warned about how hard it would be to find a good daycare. That said, I was not prepared for how many subpar options I would find right out of the gate. If you or a friend are considering daycare options, here are five helpful tips to make sure you choose the right one.
- Trust your gut. That spidey-sense, that little voice, that uneasiness you feeling in your stomach – let that dictate where you place your child. If your gut is throwing up warning signs, don’t talk it down. You know what’s best for your child.
- Have a list of questions. It might feel high-maintenance to bring a long list of questions (like these) to your interview with the provider, but it’s important to satiate your curiosity and show the provider you take this arrangement seriously. Make sure to take note of the response as you start to ask, the good daycares won’t flinch.
- Read the agreement carefully. A daycare, even if in-home, is a contractual obligation to be taken seriously. You’ll end up spending a lot of money on this service, so you’ll want to make sure you understand all the terms. Review the agreement for any hidden costs, especially noting particular holidays you are on the hook for paying for.
- Agree on check-ins. If you’re feeling uneasy about a given arrangement, work out a check-in schedule where the provider sends you photos or jots down what you child did that day. It helps to keep the provider engaged with your child and calms the worry of what your child is doing without you around.
- Pay for the service you want. When it comes to budgeting, prioritize daycare because you truly get what you paid for. We were drawn to subpar providers because their costs were substantially lower than the rest, only to find it was for good reason. If you want great service, prepare to pay for it.