S. recently started kindergarten, and her brother and I walk to school to pick her up every day. One day this week, as I was pushing J. in his stroller up the rather steep hill to S.’s classroom, a Dad of one of S.’s playmates caught up with me and asked, “So is this what you expected? Is this what you wanted to do with your life? Did you say to yourself, ‘I want to spend my life pushing someone else’s baby stroller up the hill.’ ?”
Let me tell you, it was a good thing for him that the hill was steep, I was walking at a good clip, and I was slightly out of breath, otherwise he might have really gotten a piece of my mind. As it was, I simply said, ” You know, I have a degree in Education, and I’ve worked in a number of positions in the field over the years, but this is what I most enjoy doing, and I’m lucky to work with a family that really appreciates me and treats me well. So yeah, this is exactly what I want to be doing with my life.” That seemed to quiet him down.
Aside from the fact that I could never imagine being so rude to someone I barely knew, what upset me so much about this question is the underlying assumption and judgement that the work I am doing is somehow “less than”. I don’t know how else to describe this attitude, but I’ve encountered it often throughout my years working in the field of early childhood education.
I’ve bumped up against it when my salary as a toddler teacher was about half the salary of that of an elementary school teacher, and again when I worked as a nanny for another family earning $10.00 an hour, no benefits, while the housekeeper was paid $25.00 an hour.
Another manifestation of this attitude occurs at dinner parties with other professionals when I answer that I am a nanny in response to the ubiquitous question, “What do you do for work?” Many times the response from others is something along the lines of, “Oh that sounds like so much fun. You get paid to play all day.” (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my work, but in no way would I describe what I do as “getting paid to play all day.”)
Once I dated a lawyer who said he really enjoyed reading professional journals and keeping up with the changes and nuances of law. I replied that I understood, because I also found it fascinating to keep up with the current reading and research in my field of work. He countered by asking what reading could possibly be associated with my”field.” “After all, you pretty much just change diapers all day, right?” ( By the way, this man was also a father.)
Needless to say, that was the end of our (very brief) relationship, but not before I took the opportunity to try to educate him a bit about what my work really entails.
When I was younger, I often felt insecure in situations such as the ones I described above, and I sometimes felt the need to “defend” myself and my choices by informing others of the full extent of my education and experience.
These days, I’m not lacking in confidence, and I don’t feel I need to defend or explain my choice of work, but I still feel the need to challenge the assumption that caring for young children is somehow a less worthy, or less important choice of occupation than any other.
This is not just a rant about the lack of esteem with which others sometimes regard my profession. The reason I am so passionate about raising awareness and sensitivity around this issue is because I see myself as an advocate for babies, toddlers, and their families, and all too often the attitudes I have encountered in response to my chosen field of work represent a microcosm of the prevailing attitudes in our society towards children and mothering.
I am aware that even today, women who choose to stay home with their young children are often judged in the way I am describing. Also, in my opinion, the fact that women with young children who are on public assistance are required to be enrolled in school, a work training program, or employed outside the home despite the fact that they often don’t have access to quality, affordable childcare, is a travesty. If we valued children in our society, don’t you think this would be different?
Lip service is often paid to the importance of nurturing, mothering, and protecting the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society, and yet everywhere I look, I see evidence that points to the fact that our priorities as a nation are not in line with our stated beliefs.
Isn’t it about time that babies and those who nurture, protect, and teach them are given a little respect? Babies are more than cute, and caring for them involves so much more than just attending to their physical needs. Magda Gerber taught that the way in which adults approach caring can make all the difference in terms of supporting a baby’s optimal growth and development. Those involved in caring for and nurturing babies are involved in the most amazing, most important work in the world. I can’t help but wonder what it might look and feel like to live in a world where the needs of children are truly valued and put first, and families receive all the support they need in order to nurture their babies. Isn’t that a world you’d like to live in too?