Get access

Managing Childcare: The Experiences of Mothers and Childcare Workers


  • The author would like to thank Professor Gerald Handel for his valuable advice on earlier drafts, Connie Hoffman for her research assistance in the early stages of the project. Please direct correspondence to: Alice Fothergill, Department of Sociology, University of Vermont, 31 South Prospect Street, Burlington, Vermont, USA; e-mail: lice.Fothergill@uvm.ed


This paper discusses the findings from an ethnographic study of childcare. It examines employed mothers and their experiences with sending their young children to childcare centers, and childcare workers and their perspectives on their work. In this 2-year-long research project, I studied two large, urban childcare centers, one independent, non-profit and one part of a national, for-profit chain. Methods included participant observation, in-depth interviewing, and focus groups. I found that mothers’ experiences with childcare are shaped by three factors: (1) cultural messages; (2) feelings of anxiety and guilt; and (3) the perceived quality of the childcare. I explore these three factors and discuss how the mothers are affected by the “intensive mothering” ideology. For the childcare workers, their work is affected by: (1) the level of respect and economic rewards they receive, (2) their commitment to the children, and (3) their role as expert or authority and other issues of power. By examining the two groups of women together, it becomes clear that both groups of women face interwoven challenges in a culture that devalues children and childrearing, and that alliances to address these interwoven concerns are essential.