“Lady with children.” That’s what the slip said on the pizza box I picked up, after I’d forgotten to leave my name with the guy taking the order. My kids squabbling loudly in the background, I’d hung up prematurely. As COVID-19 encroached, and I struggled to balance parenting two young children with working from home while my husband commuted an hour away, there were days when I felt like I not only forgot my name — I forgot myself.
From Northampton, I sent texts — little cries of help to my parents in Florida and my husband’s parents in Vermont who wanted to be there for us physically but couldn’t under lockdown. None of this is working, none of this is possible, I vented, I need to quit my job.
But in the summer and fall of 2020, the impossible became possible for one reason: child care. Specifically, two child-care providers who became a big part of our lives. Our former baby sitter, Ezra, opened their heart and home to my 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son when there was nowhere else to go. And that September, my daughter started attending a home-based, mixed-age program run by a woman named Lise McGuinness, who adapted her entire curriculum to her backyard and weathered the pandemic with the children outdoors all winter. She used tents, sleeping bags, hand warmers, hot cocoa, and a fire pit to get them through even the coldest days.
Anyone who’s counted on a child-care provider in order to keep their own job knows just how essential — how fundamental — that labor is to a functioning, equitable society. Yet somehow, there’s still debate over whether child care is infrastructure.
“When we invoke the term infrastructure, what we’re really saying is, these are the things that literally hold together our civilization and our society,” says Sarah Jimenez, a senior researcher with the Boston-based coalition Community Labor United, which helped launch the pilot program Care That Works to help match parents in the trades with licensed family child-care providers. “Human communities are built on people taking care of each other,” she adds, not just on people constructing buildings and bridges.
This “soft” infrastructure — the physical, emotional, and mental labor of care providers, both paid and unpaid — exists all around us, and inside our own families, yet it remains largely invisible to others.
Consistent, quality child care is simply unaffordable for many families. Consider the national picture: The average family with at least one kid under 5 would need to spend 13 percent of its household income to pay for child care, the Treasury Department reported last month. Massachusetts is the most expensive state for child care in the country, with the average annual cost for infant care nearing $21,000, while care for a 4-year-old costs just over $15,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Despite the high cost for parents, wages for child-care providers are notoriously low. Nationally, women make up 95 percent of the child-care workforce. Many workers, particularly women of color and women born outside the United States, are underpaid and undervalued, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Organizations such as Boston’s Matahari Women Workers’ Center exist in part to prevent the exploitation of nannies, au pairs, and other domestic workers.
There are no simple fixes to our child-care crisis. But what if this kind of infrastructure were more visible? Would it be more valued then? That’s the idea behind this project. Whose work enables yours? The families featured here have depended on a range of child-care providers and solutions. Take a look for yourself.
The Norman-Tichawangana Family
Exhausted and overwhelmed three months after giving birth to her son, Verity Norman-Tichawangana found relief through a chance encounter at a Northampton café. It was the fall of 2019, and she was with her 4-year-old daughter and baby boy when the director of a local preschool struck up a conversation, asking if the kids were in school or child care. The answer was complicated.
Alya Stoffer-Koloszyc, who runs Farm Hands Preschool in Northampton, was a sympathetic listener. Verity and her husband, Fungai Tichawangana, had recently moved to Amherst from Kenya so she could pursue her doctorate in international development education at the University of Massachusetts, which provided two and a half days of subsidized care for their daughter, Narini, at a center on campus. Fungai, a writer and Web developer, had just gotten his green card when their son, Onekai, was born. The family’s stipend, health insurance, and “everything about our lives was tied up with me being a student,” says Verity, who returned to school a few weeks after having a C-section.
Verity was juggling her studies with two part-time jobs — one with a non-governmental organization in Kenya, the other an assistantship at UMass. She was also breast-feeding and dealing with postpartum depression when she met Stoffer-Koloszyc of Farm Hands. “I really feel like she saw a mom in need and just responded,” Verity says. “We were absolutely desperate.”
The family enrolled Narini part time at Farm Hands that November, while she kept attending the UMass center for other care. The university also helped the family access funding to cover Narini’s tuition at Farm Hands. OK, somehow we’re going to get through this, Verity recalls thinking. She and Fungai, from South Africa and Zimbabwe, respectively, welcomed her 11-year-old niece, Erin, into their two-bedroom condo in mid-January 2020 for what was supposed to be a three-month visit. “Then the pandemic happened,” Verity says, “and it was like a cruel joke.”
The parents suddenly found themselves at home with three kids. They asked friends around the globe to read to Narini via Zoom. Soon, Farm Hands started offering virtual programming and activity packs. Most of the parents continued paying tuition so the staff wouldn’t have to go on unemployment. “Our families were pretty incredible,” says teacher Erin Scanlon. By mid-July, teachers and students were regrouping outside again.
Fungai says that can-do spirit is part of the preschool’s DNA. Kara Knott, who coordinates a program to support student parents at UMass Amherst, was also on a quest to support families. She helped make funding “much more flexible,” Verity says. That funding helped the family cover the cost of a baby sitter they’d stumbled across through a “Buy Nothing” Facebook group: Helen Woods was a pre-K teacher working remotely in 2020, leaving her time to care for the three kids part-time that summer. In the fall, the family got financial aid for Narini to start kindergarten outdoors at a Waldorf school in Hadley, while Erin did online school until she was reunited with her mother in England that December.
Things have settled down for the family, with Narini now in first grade at a public school in Amherst and Onekai starting at Farm Hands. The family spent the summer in Kenya, where child care was easier to access and Verity could be closer to the nonprofit she works for.
She’s still processing how the US child-care system works — and doesn’t. “I don’t have the words to describe how appalling I find it,” Verity says. “I see it as a real attack on parents, and on working mothers. Is child care part of the infrastructure? Yes! It’s a critical part that’s failing in the United States, drastically failing.”
The Hadland and Vassy Family
An “addiction doctor” who helps young people, Scott Hadland is quick to separate himself from his colleagues treating COVID-19 patients in emergency departments, but his work is also urgent. “We have a massive teen mental health crisis in the wake of the pandemic. Rates of depression, anxiety, substance use are all at unprecedented levels,” he says. Hadland’s husband, Jason Vassy, is a primary care physician with the VA Boston Healthcare System.
Both doctors worked from their home in Jamaica Plain early in the pandemic, talking to patients by phone at first and continuing their research (Vassy specializes in genomic medicine). But for one week in April 2020, Hadland gowned up and put on personal protective equipment to see COVID patients at Boston Medical Center. “It was a real indication of just how short-staffed our hospital was — and all of our hospitals in the area were — that they were calling on pediatricians,” he says. With his 2-year-old son, Jeremy, at home, Hadland worried about exposure. “I would strip down in the backyard, carry my dirty laundry upstairs, immediately run it through the washing machine,” he recalls, “and take a hot shower from head to toe before rejoining my family.”
That family was growing — Hadland’s older sister, Marissa, had flown in from Vancouver in late March to help take care of Jeremy. She watched him for the first half of the day; in the afternoon, Hadland or Vassy took over so she could focus on her own work as a website designer. “We were basically three adults parenting one kid, while trying to work full-time jobs,” Hadland says, but occasionally “all of our schedules would sort of converge on these moments where none of the three adults were available to take care of our one child.”
Around two weeks later, in mid-April, Yaidy Abreu entered the picture as a part-time nanny. Abreu was then a college student at UMass Boston (she graduated this past May) and commuted from Dorchester to work half-days. Marissa returned to Canada that June; Jeremy’s Spanish-immersion school, Pine Village Preschool, reopened in August. By the time Louisa was born in October 2020, Abreu was in place to care for her and her big brother.
While Hadland acknowledges they had more support than many, they couldn’t hire someone full time in “super-expensive Boston,” he says. “We really did need this piecemeal approach.”
Now, Abreu picks up Louisa, who just turned 1, and Jeremy, 3½, from VA Medical Center Small World Child Care Center and Pine Village, then plays with them for about an hour. She also works as a patient care associate at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. She wants to become a physician assistant and to work in pediatrics or obstetrics so she can “continue to be with kids,” she says.
A few months ago, Hadland left Boston Medical Center to start a position as chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School. He credits his sister and Abreu as well as the teachers who’ve “really put themselves out there, to be there every day.”
“Having somebody who looks after my kids, I’m able to help care for the kids of Greater Boston,” Hadland says. “It’s just that simple.”
The Knight Family
Ann Knight was working at Stop & Shop when the pandemic hit hard in March 2020 and things got a little wild at the supermarket. “Everyone was just going crazy — trying to find toilet paper, trying to push down the doors,” she says. As an assistant manager in the Northampton store, she became an essential worker, but when schools closed, she was missing essential support: child care.
Ann and her husband, Rick, had recently become foster parents for their grandsons Nate and Kayden, then ages 11 and 4; they were already guardians for the boys’ siblings Alyssa and Gabe, 17 and 13. Ann worried she’d be forced to leave her job to stay home and monitor remote learning for four kids.
“It was hard for the kids because all of a sudden, you can’t go to school anymore, but here’s a Chromebook,” Ann says. “It was awful.” She relied on Alyssa for tech support.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Goodrich, founder of the Center for Martial Arts & Fitness in Chicopee, was also facing challenges. When COVID-19 shut down his classes and before- and after-school programs, leaving 100-plus kids with nowhere to go, Goodrich leapt into action, applying for a state exemption so he could stay open and provide care to children of essential workers, many of them single parents. By March 23, he’d transformed his training center into emergency day care for ages 5-13 — open weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — one of more than 300 emergency programs made available across Massachusetts.
The Knights had known Goodrich for a while — Alyssa, who recently graduated high school, had gone to his after-school programs from around the age of 6 to 14. When they discovered he was opening full-day emergency child care, “I was ecstatic,” says Ann, who signed up Nate and Gabe and stopped worrying as much about the kids being able to get their schoolwork done. Thanks to state funding, Goodrich’s emergency program was free.
The goal, Goodrich says, was “to just create some normalcy.” Though he initially provided care for 20 kids, he expanded into two more facilities, working alongside his staff of eight, including program director Lori Cognac. They all knew the risks but “didn’t miss a beat,” Goodrich says.
With the program located on a busy street, at times Goodrich “got a lot of flak” for being open at all, but inside the kids wore masks and sat 6 feet apart while doing schoolwork, coloring, playing games, building with Magna-Tiles, practicing martial arts — even breaking boards. Goodrich is a third-degree black belt in taekwondo and has won a number of world championships. “He’s a strong male role model for these boys,” Ann says.
For Ann, center-based care has been a safety net when the unexpected happens. Rick, who owns a home-improvement company, was diagnosed with lung cancer in spring 2021. As he was finishing chemotherapy, the entire family contracted COVID-19; Ann was hospitalized. Except for when they all had to quarantine, Nate and Gabe continued their remote learning at the center (they’re now back in school). Kayden had returned to his child-care center in Chicopee and is now in kindergarten. He and Nate attend Ken’s after-school program, which Ann calls “a godsend” for the community.
“Did I think I’d be doing this at 57 years old, my husband’s 59, with all his health issues — and then you throw a pandemic and remote learning on top of that?” she says. “I thank God every day that I can call Ken, I can call Lori. I can text them, ‘Hey, I’m running late,’ and they work with you. They care.”
There’s no book called What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Middle of a Pandemic, but Rina and Raymond Littlefield could have used such a guide. Their baby, Kirra, was born in August 2020, leaving the first-time parents with many questions and few people to turn to for answers. “I don’t really know what ‘normal’ means, but apparently there’s get-togethers where moms hang out and share stories,” Rina said wryly on a Zoom call earlier this month. Her parents live in Australia and Raymond’s are in Kentucky. No chance for the first-time parents to drop in — pandemic or not.
For help transitioning back to work, the couple turned to Thaty Oliveira, a nanny who commutes from Cambridge to the Littlefields’ two-bedroom apartment in the South End to care for Kirra around 40 hours a week. Originally from Brazil, Oliveira first came to the United States as an au pair almost 20 years ago to work for a family who ended up paying her college tuition, which enabled her to get a student visa. She has worked with families ever since and started caring for Kirra when she was just 6 weeks old, speaking to her in English and Portuguese.
For the Littlefields, Oliveira has provided essential support, not just for the baby but for them as new parents who work remotely as executives for a global consulting firm. At the company, “Our principle is to create processes that will stay solid once we leave — that’s the mark of a true coach,” Rina says, noting that it’s Oliveira’s approach as well.
Oliveira led the Littlefields through sleep training and helps them document and anticipate their daughter’s developmental stages. “It helps us mentally prepare for all the shifts we’ll need to make,” Rina says.
With frequent meetings, scheduling quiet time was essential — and “challenging,” says Oliveira, because Rina’s office was in the living room, the largest open space for Oliveira to be with the baby, who was moving around more. As Kirra grew and became more mobile, the nanny suggested how the parents could reconfigure their workspaces to accommodate everyone. Oliveira gives the mother “the guidance that perhaps I would have received if I had more family around,” Rina says.
Oliveira gives that guidance to other families as well as child-care providers through her own consulting business, Carethatycs. Though she still works full time with the Littlefields, they’ve shifted their schedules to accommodate hers. Rina thinks of Oliveira as an extension of their family.
Whenever Thaty arrives, Kirra is always happy to see her.
“It’s nice to be able to see that connection,” Rina says. “It helps give us peace of mind.”
Brooke Hauser is a writer in Northampton. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.