Human Guinea Pig

Diaper Genie

Can I cut it as a day care worker, one of the most exhausting, worst paid, and smelliest jobs in America?

Emily Yoffe chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript

Malik, 15 months old, had just been moved up from the Teddy Bears to the Lions, and he was not happy about his promotion. Seeing him standing alone, hand in mouth, face collapsing in tears, I swept him up and held him. He clung to me and immediately calmed. After 15 minutes, I tried to gently place him back with his classmates, but he reacted as if I were feeding him to the lions, his breath becoming ragged with anxiety. I hoisted him back up, and he leaned his head on my shoulder. It was my second day at the Gap Community Child Care Center in Washington, D.C., which gives high-quality care to children ranging from 6 weeks to 4 years old and where I volunteered for two weeks. If you work in child care, every hour will provide sweet moments of helping a child. Every day will immerse you in the excreta of your profession: tears, saliva, mucous, urine, feces. And every week will bring a paycheck that reminds you that you have one of the worst-paying jobs in America.

For the Human Guinea Pig column, I try jobs and hobbies people are curious about—but not enough to do themselves. So for all of you who’ve wondered what happens at the day care center when you leave, I stayed behind to swab behinds. The Gap Center has been in business for 25 years, co-founded by Monica Guyot, a remarkably energetic, young-looking 70-year-old who still runs it. It is located on the basement level of a large apartment building, an ant’s maze of rooms through which the aromas of Chef Boyardee and disinfectant waft. Its walls are decorated with the Rothko-like color field paintings of the toddler set. The center is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and most of the 110 children spend eight hours a day there. Their families are mostly poor—more than 90 percent receive financial assistance from the city’s Department of Human Services so their kids can go to Gap. The few full-paying customers are charged up to $275 a week, but subsidized parents pay from zero to $65 weekly.

I started out with the youngest children, the Red Robins. The eight Robins are overseen by Muluwork Kenea, 31, and Selas Shibeshi, 24. They are immigrants from Ethiopia with a warm and gentle manner, constantly exhorting their charges to new achievements: “Look at you; you are crawling, my man!” “Come on, mama, you can reach that ball!” Kenea and Shibeshi (I am using the workers’ real names and giving pseudonyms to the children) are responsible for babies from 6 weeks to 10 months, whom they watch in two adjoining rooms, each ringed with cribs and highchairs. For sanitary purposes, before entering the rooms, you first put paper booties over your shoes and for much of the day pull on and off successive pairs of plastic gloves, the kind worn by people manning the deli slicer.

Every classroom has a posted schedule that divides the day into segments. This reassures parents that each minute of their child’s life is purposeful. For the Robins, 9:30 to 10 a.m. is story time, 10 to 10:30 a.m. songs and counting, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. lunch and bottles. This schedule made me think of the lovely, shapeless days of my daughter’s babyhood, when I was an at-home mother. She could stay all morning in the sandbox, or endlessly toss utensils into the kitchen sink, or sit on the lawn and learn how to blow on dandelions. But that kind of spontaneity is a luxury not possible in a day care setting.

Sometimes the imperatives of caring for a group requires the women who do it (the profession is almost exclusively female) to suppress their own natural impulses. For example, Shibeshi and Kenea had all the children who were able to sit upright play with toys in one part of the room. But Maybelle, 10 months, kept dissolving into tears, uninterested in the balls and oversized keys the women jingled in front of her. “She’s teething,” Shibeshi explained. When I came over to her, Maybelle held out her arms, the universal sign for “Pick me up.” Because I was an extra pair of hands, I could hold Maybelle for as long as she liked.

“This is the hard part,” said Shibeshi, looking at me and Maybelle. “She just wants to be held, but we have all these other children to watch.” Then Lourdes, who is able to pull herself up, did so and tumbled into a barrier, bumping her lip. She was fine, nothing cut or bleeding, but Kenea wrote a quick note in an enormous notebook—liability is never far from anyone’s mind. Like lawyers billing on the quarter hour, the workers must keep meticulous records of food consumed, diapers changed, each little bump and bruise, and every milestone: being able to stand unaided, learning a new word. It is a log more comprehensive than any kept by even the most compulsive mother.

At the Gap Center, the schedule doesn’t feel artificial or rigid. One activity just seamlessly flows into the next. During lunchtime with the Robins, the women keep an eye on the crawling children and contain the others in a playpen or bouncy seats while they heat up the individual lunches the parents bring. Each woman feeds children in highchairs, two at a time. At mealtime they are like waitresses at some outlandish restaurant where you not only have to spoon the food into the patrons’ mouths, but wipe their bottoms afterward. I gave the babies bottles, and one by one they conked out in my arms, and I placed them in their cribs. At 1 p.m. the women lowered the shades, and all the Robins were asleep. 

A recent science column in the Wall Street Journal described a study that found that you don’t even have to like kids to have your brain’s fusiformgyrus produce instantaneous good feelings when you see a baby’s face. Standing in the darkened Robins’ room, listening to their deep breathing, their sighs, their occasional snurtles, I felt a profound sense of peace. I’m sure some gyrus in my brain was telling me there is no better sound than a roomful of sleeping babies.

The caretakers work in two shifts: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On their hourlong lunch break, they gather in a small room where Family Feud plays loudly from a television perched on the dining table. About two-thirds of the Gap’s workers are foreign-born, and in the lunchroom conversations take place in English, Amharic, and Spanish.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 1.4 million child care workers, and is it an occupation in high demand. The BLS says child care workers must be “mature, patient, understanding, and articulate and have energy and physical stamina.” In exchange, the median national salary is $17,630. (At Gap, the average worker makes about $22,000.) The advocacy group Center for the Child Care Workforce points out that only a handful of the more than 800 occupations surveyed by the BLS have lower wages—these include parking lot attendants and dishwashers.

The BLS says child care workers attend to their charges’ “basic needs,” and there is none more basic than a poopy diaper. Since I’m a mother, I’ve changed 1,000 or so in my time, and I discovered it wasn’t necessary to have an emotional attachment to the source of the dirty diapers to make changing them bearable. Noses were a more pervasive problem. I had never noticed that all young nostrils are spigots permanently set to “on.” The workers who tend the youngest kids have rolls of toilet paper strategically stashed around the room. They endlessly rip off wads and wipe little philtrums, like rescue workers mopping off seabirds after an oil spill. 

Because of the long hours the children spend, the workers are a primary civilizing influence. They’re the ones who do the heavy wiping in toilet-training these children; they’re the ones who teach them to set the table before they eat; they’re the ones who remind them committing assault is not the way to get a toy. Whenever possible, information is conveyed via ditty: “This is the way we start the day, start the day, start the day. This is the way we start the day so early Monday morning.” “Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.” It may be an effective pedagogical tool, but after days of hearing these endless little tunes, they became the aural equivalent of poison ivy.

My second classroom was the Bluebirds—12 toddlers, ages 18 months to 2 years. When I appeared, I received the goggle-eyed, mouth-agape, pointed-finger greeting that must have made life as a leper in the Middle Ages so pleasant. I sat quietly and let the children come to me, and in about 15 minutes I went from pariah to Pied Piper. It was free-play time, and Antonia took me by the hand and had me bang on the toy piano with her. Then she picked up a plastic waffle and showed me how to use it as a cell phone. Tiny Felicia tapped me on the shoulder, plopped herself in my lap, took each of my wrists and wrapped my arms around her. I made the novice’s mistake during dance time of picking up one of the kids. This got another one tugging on my shirt, so I lifted her up, too. The real workers looked at me, managing not to smirk, as the rest of the class gathered around me, jumping as if standing on hot coals and attempting to pull their classmates out of my arms so they could get their turn.

The Owls, 2 and a half to 3 years old, are fully articulate and have the bluntness that is a requirement for being a radio talk show host. Tanya immediately came up to me, asked my name then announced: “You’re scaring me. You are not my teacher. You go to the office!” I stayed, and soon she was escorting me around the room, pointing things out and telling me their colors. Then she noticed the prominent, blue veins on the back of my hands. “What happened to you? What is it?” she asked, alarmed. Another Owl came over with her own question, “Are you a grandma?”

I could feel just how long a day at day care is for everyone when it was afternoon outdoor time for the Owls. (There is a small enclosed play area outside the back door.) At 4:15 p.m., everyone had already done circle time, lunch, naps, Spanish lessons, and now, after yet another trip to the bathroom (the children go in the stall by themselves! they wash their own hands!), the day still isn’t over. This late-afternoon period of childhood, when it’s not time for dinner, when bedtime seems an eon away, is often called the arsenic hour. I helped the workers disentangle melting-down children from each other and played a long game in which each Owl handed me an imaginary piece of blue broccoli to eat. As I tried to keep up my interest and good cheer I kept thinking, “This is the reason television and cocktails were invented.”

In Standardized Childhood sociologist Bruce Fuller describes how in the last 40 years, increasingly desperate working parents have turned to formal institutions to care for the youngest of children—in 1970 about 25 percent of 4-year-olds were in preschool; by 2000 more than 60 percent were. He describes America as having a “ragged non-system of child care” with the most recent statistics showing there are 113,000 nonprofit preschools across the country “situated in YWCAs, church basements, even licensed homes where women take in small gaggles of children.”

Over the decades, policy debates have raged and quieted over the need for and the benefits of universal preschool. (We’re currently in a quiet period.) But no one has resolved the tension between parents’ desire for day care that is high-quality and low-cost. Low-cost means low pay for the workers, which means high turnover, which means lower quality. But after two weeks on the job, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of success the Center for the Child Care Workforce has had in raising workers’ salaries. It must be very hard to organize people who are so weary at the end of the day.

The job is like plate spinning—it requires relentless focus. Maura Baruetta, 44, who works with the Bluebirds, says, “I don’t think about another thing, only the children. I forget everything else. I only concentrate on the children.” Jame Foster, 31, who takes care of the Lions—she assured me that after a couple of days, Malik would fit in with his new classmates—and goes home to her own 4-year-old, says: “I’m tired when I leave. I get home and think, ‘Oh, gosh.’ ”

So the pay is lousy, it’s exhausting, but still the job comes with satisfactions no parking lot attendant receives. A week after Malik’s transfer to the Lions, I went to check and see how he was doing. When I called his name, he emerged from amidst his classmates and ran to me and gave me a hug. Then he picked up a ball and said, “Ball, ball!” (who knew he could speak?) and threw it, which caused him to fall down, which caused him to laugh hysterically. Malik was happy now, and I was happy for him.