Picture it: You’re touring a daycare centre. You’ve asked about the food (it’s healthy and organic). You’ve checked out the outdoor space (it’s large, fully fenced and has a variety of new-looking toys). You’ve crunched the numbers (the fees work within your budget). And the best news: There’s a spot opening up just when you need it.
Then you meet the Early Childhood Educator (ECE) who will be taking care of your toddler. And it’s a man.
I'm a male ECE who’s worked in daycares for 20 years, and the look on parents’ faces when they find out I’ll be their kids’ lead child care provider is burned into my memory. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of them are happy or at least neutral. But many are surprised. And more than a handful can’t (or don't even try to) hide their apprehension.
Let me back up a second though. Being a dude in a daycare can be great. I love that the kids seem to adore and idolize me. Partly that’s because I’m a good teacher, but kids also seem to love having a male presence around—I’ve heard this from other male ECEs too. I think we offer them a bit of a different experience and vibe than female ECEs, and they seem to really respond to it.
Guys also tend to have a pretty easy time finding employment, even at the highest-paying daycares, and I think that’s partially because our resumés stand out. Smart child-care supervisors recognize the importance of a diverse staff, and that includes gender diversity. Some will even use it as a selling feature of the daycare.
But back to the parents who can’t hide their worry that a man is taking care of their small children. Some probably worry that I won’t be as warm, gentle and loving as a woman. But let’s be real. Many worry that I might be a pervert. That I might have chosen my career to get access to kids. That I might get off on diaper changes, or touch their child inappropriately. The thought of this is so abhorrent to me, so revolting, that I almost can’t write it.
I understand where it comes from though. I understand that fierce, deep, instinctual parental love. It implores us to do everything we can to protect our kids, even to the point of over-protectiveness. I’m a dad of two little kids so I really do get it.
I also get what news reports do to legitimize this concern. Unfortunately, it’s not super rare to hear that a man who works with or has access to children—the soccer coach, the pastor, the babysitter, and yes, the daycare worker—has been found to have inappropriately touched a child. And when these things happen, the media report on it, which adds fuel to parents’ suspicions.
But when these suspicions are cast upon me, it hurts like hell.
And yes—they have been cast upon me. Not full-on accusations, but what I consider micro-aggressions.
Like the time I was outside with the kids and a random community member, a woman, walked up to my colleague and asked her, “Is this man supposed to be here?”
Like the time I was walking down a hall consoling an upset child by putting my arm around her shoulders, and a concerned parent spoke to my supervisor about it.
There was even a time when my own supervisor told me and my room partners that she didn’t want me to change diapers. She says it was to protect me from accusations.
There are other issues that come from being the only guy at work. I’ve been expected to do all the “man” jobs in the daycare, like fix a leaky sink, catch a mouse or drill holes for a new paper towel dispenser. These are jobs that a supervisor would normally outsource to a repair person or pest control company, but I get asked to do them based only on my gender. And I’ve often felt like not just an asset, but a trophy. As in, “Look, we even have male staff!” Nobody wants to be a token. Women experience this same type of thing in male-dominated industries, and it needs to stop. Gender equality at work is a goal we should all be working towards.
Despite the challenges and the ongoing stigma, there are far more good days than bad, and more wins than losses. Like the time a family invited me out to dinner to thank me for paying special attention to their son who was struggling to acclimatize to daycare; or when families write me heartfelt notes to explain the impact I've made on their kid. These things keep me going and make any struggles totally worth it.
The writer of this story is a Registered Early Childhood Educator (R.E.C.E.) in Toronto. He requested anonymity.