Child Care: An Introduction

by Sonya Michel, Ph.D., University of Maryland

 

In the United States today, most mothers of preschool and school age children are employed outside the home. American mothers have invented many ways to care for their children while they work. Native Americans strapped newborns to cradle boards or carried them in woven slings; Colonial women placed small children in standing stools or go-gins to prevent them from falling into the fireplace. Pioneers on the Midwestern plains laid infants in wooden boxes fastened to the beams of their plows. Southern dirt farmers tethered their runabouts to pegs driven into the soil at the edge of their fields. White southern planters’ wives watched African American boys and girls playing in the kitchen yard while their mothers toiled in the cotton fields. African American mothers sang white babies to sleep while their own little ones comforted themselves. Migrant laborers shaded infants in baby tents set in the midst of beet fields. Cannery workers put children to work beside them stringing beans and shelling peas. Shellfish processors sent toddlers to play on the docks, warning them not to go near the water.

Mothers have left children alone in cradles and cribs, and have locked them in tenement flats and cars parked in factory lots. They have taken them to parents, grandparents, co-madres, play mothers, neighbors and strangers. They have sent them out to play with little mothers – siblings sometimes only a year or two older. They have enrolled them in summer camps and recreation programs, taken them to baby farms, given them up to orphanages and foster homes, and surrendered them for indenture. They have taken them to family day care providers and left them at home with babysitters, nannies, and nursemaids, some of them undocumented worker.

Mothers have dropped off infants and youngsters at pre-school facilities of various size and quality dressed in tatters, with smudged cheeks and stringy hair, and picked them up garbed in starched smocks, rosy-cheeked, smelling of soap. Children have been turned away because they had fevers or runny noses or lice; mothers have left their jobs in the middle of the day to pick up children with ear infections, chicken pox, temper tantrums. They have parted from offspring who were howling, whimpering, whispering in the corner with friends, and found them later giggling, hungry, cranky, half-asleeep. They have walked out feeling guilty, sad, anxious, fearful, with their hearts in their mouths, without a care in the world.

Mothers have left babies dozing in carriages parked outside movie palaces, at department store day nurseries, and parking services in bowling alleys and shopping malls. Some mothers have placed their children in the care of others and never come back.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Michel, S. (1999).  Introduction. In Children’s interest/mothers’ rights: The shaping of America’s child care policy (pp. xi-xii). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  Retrieved [date accessed] from /programs/childcare-an-introduction/.

 

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