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Who's Watching Our Children?

The more than 1,000 moms and dads who responded to our childcare survey in last September's issue are just like millions of other parents nationwide: They cherish what's good about their daycare situation, and worry about what's not. The good news is that many of them feel there's a lot to celebrate [MDASH] more than a third wouldn't change a thing about their caregiver.

Why should they, when much of the most recent research on childcare is reassuring: Infants in childcare are just as attached to their mothers as those who are cared for at home. There are no significant differences in the intelligence, health, or behavior of kids whose mothers work versus those whose moms don't. Good daycare boosts kids' intellectual and emotional development. And 39 percent of the care received by infants and toddlers in the U.S. is rated good to excellent, according to an ongoing federal study that has been looking at childcare arrangements since 1991.

Yet even parents who are happy with their choice seem ambivalent about using it. More than a third of the respondents to our survey wished they could stay home with their child. Many parents also wrote about their continuing search for the right caregiver. Like the mom from Jackson, MI, whose 20-month-old had already had three different providers, readers wondered if other people had these kinds of stories. In fact, this scenario is all too typical, says Faith Wohl, a children's advocate with the Child Care Action Campaign, in New York City, and one of this year's [I {Parenting}] Leaders. "Families wind up changing childcare more often than they want."

It's true that some are fortunate enough to find good providers right away. But as the parents we've profiled show, sometimes landing the right person is more a matter of luck [MDASH] a chance encounter provides a great lead, or the type of care changes and the child is old enough to thrive in the new situation. Getting there is tougher than it should be, partly because more than half of the childcare for infants and toddlers is adequate at best, according to recent federal studies. Although abuse [MDASH] every parent's nightmare [MDASH] is rare, too often the caregiving in this country is mediocre. So it's better than we fear, but still less than our children deserve.

Harriet Brown is the author of The Good-Bye Window: A Year in the Life of a Day-Care Center.

Becoming Advocates

But knowing they deserve more won't help if good childcare isn't available, if we can't afford it, or if we can't get the kids there and back easily. Which is where business and government enter in. More employers are getting the message we need help, offering referral services, subsidies, and such benefits as flextime. Unfortunately, politicians have been slower to see the light.

"Parents still see childcare as their problem and their choice, and everyone else is happy to leave it to them," says Wohl. So what can we do? More than we think. "If parents voted on the issue of childcare, if they told their legislators about it, it would change," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. Voters in California, for example, recently passed Proposition 10, which put lots of money into early-childhood services, despite enormous opposition from lobbyists.

Above all, we have to remember that we are our children's best advocates. "Ask yourself what you'll regret in five years," Galinsky says. "There's always something you can do. Maybe just bring a book to a provider so she can read to your child. Say something that makes her more interested in her job. If we want better for our children, change is not going to be handed to us. We have to help make it happen."


Finding A Safe, Welcoming Place

Center-based daycare is the most popular choice for kids 3 to 5 years old. Infant and toddler care is expensive to provide, so comparatively few centers offer it -- and the ones that do frequently have long waiting lists, as a reader in Flower Mound, TX, discovered while she was still pregnant. Still, nearly two million kids under age 3 are cared for in centers.

Halfway through her pregnancy, Anne McGarvey, a computer programmer, and her husband, Daniel, who manages an auto-parts store, discussed various kinds of childcare. In their minds, daycare centers were the most accountable: They were public and easiest to visit and observe. So they decided to go with that option.

They began visiting places near their suburban home in Erie, PA, and in February 1997, five months before Anne was due, they found a center that seemed ideal: The teachers were great, and it was only five minutes away from their house. The director promised them a spot for late October, when Anne would return to work after an 18-week leave from the family-run insurance company that employs her. The McGarveys put their name on the waiting list.

In June, six weeks early, Kelsey was born. At the beginning of August, Anne called the daycare center, just to check in. To her horror, she was told that it wouldn't have an opening until the following February: Families who already had kids in the center and needed their infants placed had priority over new enrollments. "I just started bawling," she recalls. "This couldn't have happened overnight. Why didn't the director call me?"

The McGarveys called their next choice. When they visited, they liked what they saw, even though this center was 30 minutes from their home instead of 5. But the couple was so grateful to have a safe, welcoming place for their daughter, they figured they could cope with a little inconvenience. [PAGEBREAK {All For The Best}]Ironically, the location [MDASH] only ten minutes away from Anne's office [MDASH] turned out to be a blessing. "At first Kelsey refused to drink my breast milk from a bottle," she says. Each morning at ten, she called the center to see if Kelsey had eaten. The answer was always no. Fortunately, McGarvey's boss was understanding, and she was able to leave work to nurse Kelsey as needed until she took to the bottle six weeks later. "Our first choice was more than 20 minutes away from my job, and it would have been very inconvenient for me to make the daily feeding trips," she says.

The hours that McGarvey spent nursing Kelsey gave her a chance to experience life in the infant room. "I witnessed firsthand the love and attention that was shown to the babies," she says. So when the director of their first-choice center called and said there was an unexpected opening, the McGarveys turned it down.

But despite their positive experience, the McGarveys [MDASH] like many American parents [MDASH] are unsure about both the idea and the realities of childcare. Because they feel that they are the ones who can give their daughter, now 2, the best guidance, Daniel has rearranged his full-time schedule so that he stays home with Kelsey on Fridays, and on Monday and Tuesday mornings. Still, says Anne, "I know she's well cared for at the center. We really couldn't be in a better place."


Closer Together

Relative care has distinct advantages: It's the least expensive ($1.63 an hour, on average); it has a better child-adult ratio than family daycare and center care; and relatives will look after sick children far more often than other providers. But the main reason parents prefer relative care: They feel it's safer.

All through Susan Carvajal's pregnancy, her mother warned her not to count on much childcare from her. "She was actually kind of offensive about it," says Carvajal with a laugh. Less than a year later, her parents are the full-time caregivers for her son, and the families have achieved a special kind of closeness.

While she was pregnant, Carvajal, a travel agent in San Antonio, and her husband, Steven, a supermarket manager, put their names on the waiting list at two nearby daycare centers. But the pregnancy ran into trouble, and Aaron was born eight weeks early on March 1, 1998, weighing just under four pounds.

Aaron spent two weeks on a respirator. He never moved or cried. After numerous brain scans and neurological tests, the Carvajals learned that Aaron has Prader Willi Syndrome, a rare chromosomal abnormality.

When he was 6 weeks old, Aaron wore a heart monitor and had a feeding tube smaller than a straw going right into his stomach. "He was so floppy, he was like a little rag doll," recalls his mom. "I was so scared." She'd already quit her job, realizing that her infant couldn't go to a daycare center. There was one in the city that took children with special needs, but the waiting list was a year long.

But then Carvajal got a call from a travel agency she'd applied to months earlier, and she was hired with the understanding that she could bring Aaron in with her. For five weeks, Carvajal had a playpen by her desk. "Aaron never interfered with my work," she says. "But I felt it wasn't fair to him or to me. I couldn't give him the attention he needed, and I couldn't concentrate on my job. I felt really bad." So bad that Carvajal told her husband she'd have to leave this job, too, despite the financial strain it would cause the family.

Lending A Hand

Then Carvajal's 59-year-old mother had a change of heart. "When she offered to quit her data-processing job and take care of Aaron, my reaction was, 'Yes, please!'" she says. Now Carvajal's day starts at 5:30, when she gets up to bathe and feed Aaron. By 6:45 they're at her parents' house, and by 7:30 she's at her desk. When work ends at 4:30, she goes straight back to take Aaron home.

The Carvajals can't imagine even trained professionals being as conscientious and caring as their relatives. "Aaron's never cried for food, so we don't know when he's hungry," says his mom. "We have to put formula into his feeding tube and check his diaper regularly. He has colitis. He's allergic to lots of different things. And my parents are wonderful with him; they don't take anything with Aaron for granted."

Sharing 15-month-old Aaron's care has brought the two families closer than they've ever been. "We have my parents over once a month for dinner," says Carvajal. "We didn't used to do that." Occasionally, mother and daughter have differences of opinion about what's good for Aaron. "Sometimes I feel like my mother thinks she does a better job than I do," admits Carvajal. But most of the time, she says, "I thank God for my mother and father every day, because they're so good with my son."


The Search For Affordable Providers

Parents who use family daycare -- a provider who looks after several kids in her own home -- are drawn to the more personal setting and the small number of children, which allows for a familial relationship to develop between providers and kids. Good in-home care is prized by families who use it. But finding it often takes persistence and luck. Caregivers tend to work long hours for low wages, which can lead to burnout. That could be why many of the respondents to our survey had experiences similar to one Missouri couple's situation. Their 9-month-old son was in four family daycares before they found their current provider, whom they like.

When Autumn Conley first began looking into childcare, she came up against a difficult truth: Many centers won't take babies younger than 12 weeks, and she had only two months of maternity leave. The centers that would take an 8-week-old cost too much. A single mother on a limited budget, Conley had to find care she could afford on a secretary's salary of less than $20,000 a year -- and she had to find it fast.

She called a resource-and-referral agency in her hometown of Springfield, OH, for a list of family daycares within her budget. "One house I went to was really dirty," she recalls. "Another had more kids than she was allowed." Of the seven homes she visited, not one was acceptable.

From a newspaper ad, she found Emily,* who was taking care of another family's children. Emily was willing to care for Conley's daughter, Cissy, for $95 a week, and the other family didn't mind. "I was nervous," says Conley. "But I knew she'd been babysitting these two kids for so long, so I trusted her to watch Cissy."

For awhile things went well. But after six months, Emily quit to become a bartender, and gave Conley less than two weeks' notice. "I called the referral agency again, but they didn't give me any new leads," she says.

Finally, she called a woman whose newspaper ad offered preschool care. "I thought I'd give it a shot, because Cissy was 8 months old," she says. She liked the fact that this provider had made her upstairs into a kid-friendly space, with one room for arts and crafts and another for playing. "She gave me a packet with all the information on rates and hours. That made me feel comfortable," says Conley. Her daughter loved her caregiver and was happy there, but after five months, the woman broke up with her boyfriend and moved out of town.

Although she'd given Conley six weeks' notice, it was still a scramble to find Nancy, a mom of two who wanted to supplement her family income. Cissy began there in September 1998, and things went well enough until the day, five months later, when Nancy called to say she was quitting to take a full-time job. The following Friday would be her last day [MDASH] less than a week away. "She said she'd have told me earlier, but she felt too bad about it," says Conley in exasperation.

*All providers' names have been changed.

A Lucky Break

This time, at least, Conley had an option: Her sister, Libby, had decided to stay home after the birth of her first child. She offered to take care of Cissy, and Conley agreed at once. She pays her sister $70 a week. "I don't feel right paying her less than that," she says.

So far, the arrangement has worked out. But Conley is still steaming over what she and her 20-month-old daughter have had to go through. "First it was the money that upset me most," says Conley. "Then it was switching Cissy from person to person."

But despite the hassles, Conley says, "the ideal for me is in-home daycare. Kids need interaction with other kids before they start school, and they get more individual attention than they would at a center."


The First-Year Juggle

A nanny who comes to a family's home is the least common childcare arrangement. It's expensive: an average of $3.02 an hour, compared with centers ($2.37) or family childcare ($1.84). And experienced caregivers are hard to come by, which is why agencies can charge several thousand dollars to find one. Some parents are also scared off by the lack of accountability.

When Naomi and Warren Baer began interviewing for a nanny in July 1997, just after their son, Jake, was born, they were waiting to hear three little words: "I love kids." They put ads in the local newspaper, did telephone screenings, and interviewed 15 people.

Some of the answers these candidates gave horrified Naomi. "One person said, 'I think this job is something I could do easily,'" she remembers. Another woman, when asked what kind of play an infant might enjoy, said simply, "Stuffed animals."

"We also heard things like: 'I have a lot of experience with my own kids.' Many wanted to bring their kids here, too." The Baers didn't particularly want other children in the house; both Naomi, a sales rep, and Warren, a market researcher, work out of their home in Lawrenceville, NJ.

The nanny they hired said she loved children, and she had good references. But after just two weeks she began missing work, and the Baers felt they'd better start looking again.

Then a caregiver whom Baer had met in a nearby park called and said that she knew a young Uruguayan woman named Maria.* By this time the Baers had been frantically juggling the care of their son, with some help from Naomi's mother, for almost two months. Maria came to the house one evening for an interview, and the first thing she did was walk up to Jake and say, "Oh, let me hold the baby." The Baers hired her that night.

Maria was everything the couple had hoped for. She sang to Jake, danced and played with him, and read to him. The Baers made up a form, and Maria checked things off each day -- how many diapers she changed, how many bottles Jake drank, how long he napped.

But it didn't last. In order to keep her visa, Maria had to go back to school, and it turned out that classes in her major were offered only during the day. In September 1998, less than a year later, the couple once again found themselves without childcare.

They then turned to a family daycare home nearby. "At that point Jake was over a year old, and we thought it would be better for him to be with other kids," says Baer.

But the couple still remember how efficient Maria was. "Jake could be sleeping or awake when she arrived and she'd take over," says Naomi. "We also got more feedback from her. Now I have to make a point of asking. Otherwise, with all the shuffle, I don't get much information." Another advantage: With Maria, Jake wasn't sick nearly as often as he is now.

"No matter how much research you do beforehand," says Baer, "it's still really difficult. But having Maria for most of that first year was great."

*All providers' names have been changed.