Daycare seems easy until you have kids. When you’re driving around the neighborhood, it feels like there’s a daycare place on every corner your neighborhood. And with their brightly-colored paintings of kid-friendly images, they look equally warm and inviting. But once the kid’s born and your parental leave period starts to run out, you quickly learn the truth: Unless you’re Loughlin-level wealthy, daycare can be as hard to get into as college. And while it’s cheaper than college, daycare is far from cheap. One out of three American families spending 20 percent or more of their annual income on childcare costs.
But the high cost of childcare doesn’t always result in real life good care of children. Sometimes, the cheerfully decorated — or not so well-appointed — outer walls conceal hotbeds of intrigue and misuse of authority. When we asked parents for their worst daycare experiences, the answers ranged from petty dictatorships to unpleasant surprises. But they all had one thing in common: they were almost impossible to avoid. Good daycares fill up fast, as one dad interviewed for this story noted. “We heard from other parents that the second you find out you’re pregnant, you need to go start interviewing daycares,” Mike, a father of two from New Jersey told us. “We said ‘there’s no way on earth that’s true.’ And it turns out it is true.” In areas with high demand for limited supply childcare, daycare facilities can have a lot of leverage over parents. And sometimes those facilities cut corners. This won’t change. But, as these stories prove, vigilance is necessary when investigating facilities.
Every time we dropped off or picked up our kids, the daycare owner recorded it. She would sit in the back office and there was a microphone by the entrance so she could record everything that was being said. And if she didn’t like any of the exchanges you had with any of the daycare personnel, she would call you at night and give you a two-hour phone call about why she doesn’t want you talking to these people. These people are taking care of my kids. I’m not allowed to say hello to them? By the time I left, we weren’t allowed to talk to any of the daycare staff. We’re only allowed to talk to the owner. —Mario, New York City
Meet the New Boss
On my son’s first day of daycare, we took him to the door of the place where we interviewed the owner a couple of times, toured, discussed programming and paid our fees. On the other side of that door that first day, a woman stared back at me. After a few moments she opened the door. I said hi, this is [my son], it’s his first day. “Mine too,” she said, confused. “I’m the new owner.” — Ned, Brooklyn, New York
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A Breastmilk Mix Up
There was a very scary incident I learned about when visiting prospective daycares with my wife The daycare owner seemed very nice and sweet and we were, up to that point, very pleased with what we saw. She appeared to be attentive and it checked all the right boxes — the kids there seemed happy and well cared for, they seemed honest about their worker-to-child ratios, and all that. We had some other appointments with other prospective daycares so we didn’t agree right away but we were heavily considering it.
A few days later, we heard from another parent that there was a big incident: the owner had fed a baby the wrong breast milk. We thought oh that’s really scary but it must’ve been an mix-up because there must be so many different marked packages in the facility. But the women we had interviewed with had apparently very casually indicated that she’d done that a few times and what’s the big deal? The big deal? You don’t know what might be in that other milk. Who knows anything about the milk that child received. I couldn’t believe it! I don’t know if the woman, who was quite old, was from another time or what but we were very fortunate to not have gone there. It was scary. — Stuart, Chicago
The New Neighbors
The first daycare we looked at was in the poor part of a rich town, across the street from the train station I use to commute. I figured, Hey, this place is in this rich town near the train station so the parents must be rich professional commuters with high standards, right? Well, we toured it. It had only opened that year but already seemed run down. It was the first place we saw so I didn’t have a basis for comparison. I thought that might just happen when kids are in someplace all day. My wife was way more critical from the start but I was like “let’s keep an open mind.” Sometime later I noticed there was a group of shambling-looking people lined up on the sidewalk outside the building next door to the daycare. When I looked it up, it turned out to be a methadone clinic. i know people who’ve been through recovery for opioid and I don’t want to knock anybody struggling with addiction but it was one red flag too many. — Robert, New Jersey
Calling Out Sick
I started getting calls two, three times a week from the daycare operator saying that my daughter has really rosy cheeks and she thinks she’s got a fever so I need to take her to the pediatrician. I lived five minutes from the daycare and my pediatrician is super-welcoming. He’d see that she’s got no fever. And then I’d bring her back with a note. And so it got to the point where three days a week I was going to the pediatrician’s offices. And he’s like, no, she’s not sick. She’s been running around. That’s why her cheeks are rosy. I work from home and can get away with it. But for a lot of the other parents had to leave work early and tell their boss, I’m sorry my kid’s sick. I have to leave. There’s one dad who was like, my boss is going to fucking fire me. If I pull another one of these, my boss says if I don’t want to do the job, somebody else will. –Enzo, New York, NY
A Bad Babysitter
A girl from our daycare program also babysat our son for about a year or a year and a half. We trusted her, we let her drive [our son] around and bring him home from school to playdates or the zoo or whatever. Mysteriously, around the same time, we started noticing random charges on [my husband’s] cards, for high amounts. Like $300 for Michael Kors or $300 at Victoria’s Secret. It was around $1,200 on one card. My husband asked me about it and I was like, “do I look like I’m shopping at Victoria’s Secret?” Then I started missing pieces of jewelry. I had a sense something didn’t feel right but I 100 percent honestly never suspected the worker. She seemed very responsible.
But one day another mom who used her as a babysitter called me and told me that this daycare worker no longer works at the daycare and that she’s going to be arrested. She said she’d noticed a lot of weird charges on their accounts and they traced the deliveries to the daycare worker’s aunt and she went to the police. I told her she was living my nightmare.
The daycare fired her when they heard about the arrest. It was a Monday. That day, [the daycare worker] called me and said she had more time to watch [my son] because she’d left the daycare. And the other mom called me that Tuesday. I was shocked because she was a complete sociopath. She’d look me in the face and tell me a bald-faced lie. I don’t know how you can do that. — Jill, New Jersey
A Rough Visit
We had signed up for this daycare when my son was a couple years old. It seemed like a good fit for us and the interview went well. But when we toured the facility, I caught one of the daycare workers pickup a child who was crying. It was pretty aggressive and I did not like it. I thought I had just seen a bad moment that wasn’t intrinsic to the state of the facility. However, a few minutes later I saw similar rough handling of a child from a different member. Could I have just witnessed two moments of poor human judgement? Sure. But that was enough for me to leave the facility and want to never, ever put my kid in such a place. In fact, it convinced my wife and I to take a deeper look at our situation because it scared us so much. I ended up becoming a stay-at-home dad so I could . — Marcus, Oakland