It’s common for parents in the United States to leave their children in the care of family, friends and neighbors. This group of caregivers actually represents the most prevalent type of non-parental child care in the U.S. But it’s a job that often goes unseen and underpaid.
Many of these caregivers don’t identify as part of the child care workforce and have never even heard the term family, friend and neighbor (FFN) provider, which is used in the field to describe this type of arrangement. The workforce, which is predominantly made up of women, many of them Black and Latina, often receives little to no compensation and has minimal access to resources to support their work.
What difference might it make if these child care providers had access to support networks, training and financial resources? That’s a question I set out to understand as part of a research project about the lived experiences of FFN providers for my undergraduate studies at Harvard University.
I interviewed five women — all Central American immigrants — in Spanish, and with support from Early Edge California, a statewide policy and advocacy organization I interned for, I paid each participant a stipend for their time.
There are millions of FFN providers. In the state of California, where the women I interviewed live, an estimated quarter of parents with children under 3 years old rely on FFNs for child care. The California Master Plan for Early Learning and Care is one of the first major government documents in the state’s history to identify FFNs as a source for child care. That’s an important step forward for this sector of the workforce.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provided emergency child care relief by including a provision that allowed licensed and unlicensed child care providers to be eligible for subsidies. That was a game-changer for unlicensed FFNs, but ARPA dollars, like federal subsidies before the pandemic, were not reaching them. California was unique in that it issued ARPA funds to local contractors, who could issue individual stipends to FFNs in their preexisting networks, though these dollars are soon to sunset.
Many other caregivers, like Sara Martinez (read more about Martinez in part one), who immigrated from El Salvador to Los Angeles and provided child care for families in her community for two decades, experienced the consequences. With three children of her own at home and familial challenges that left her as the sole source of income, Martinez could no longer make ends meet with the wages she received caring for children. With no knowledge of the ARPA subsides and no connection to an organization that could help, Martinez said she was forced to stop providing child care and work as a janitor which, at California minimum wage, is approximately three times what she was earning as an FFN.
To sustain the women who perform this work, “There must be a consistent, trusting relationship between child care providers and institutional supports,” said Natalie Renew, executive director of Home Grown, a national initiative that works with home-based child care providers around the country. “[That relationship] promises consistent resources to FFNs, and provides critical data and information about community needs to interested parties.”
The interviews I conducted revealed common challenges the women faced while working and, at times, supporting their own families. They all described receiving low wages and little respect for their work.
But two of the women I interviewed were connected to local networks and received resources that ameliorated these challenges. Their stories — which have been translated to English, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, and assembled with anecdotal information based on my field notes — illustrate how these connections are critical for this workforce.
Leticia Martinez immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico in 2002 with her three daughters. While she briefly worked in a clothing factory, she soon married and became a stay-at-home mother.
“But I am not a housewife. I am a woman of action,” Martinez said.
In 2005, a neighbor approached Martinez about caring for her 4-year-old daughter while the neighbor’s mother, who usually provided child care, was out of town. Martinez agreed.
The experience was life-changing. Martinez recalled that the mother gushed, “My daughter is so happy with you. In the morning we get up and the first thing she asks is for me to take her to you.” This glowing review spread throughout the neighborhood and, come summertime, when schools closed and parents were left without child care, various neighbors asked Martinez to care for their children until school started again.
“In two months, I took care of six children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old,” Martinez recalled of that summer. She created a routine, carefully planning each day to include naps, meals and play time at the local park.
Families paid Martinez $100 a week per child for a full day of care. She knew it didn’t cover all of her costs, like the food she prepared and the cost of transportation to the park.
“That was what it seemed they could pay because their incomes were low. I felt guilty asking them to pay me more,” Martinez admitted, adding that parents contributed as best they could. One parent would bring a gallon of milk, another a carton of eggs, which Martinez would share with all the children.
After that summer, Martinez took a step back to focus on her family and on learning English at a local adult education center, but she picked up again in 2010 when a local mother approached her to care for her newborn for $100 a week. “The mother wanted to work … and she did not feel comfortable leaving her baby with a stranger. But I was recommended, so she trusted me,” Martinez said.
Caring for a newborn felt instinctual to Martinez. “He was young so he was constantly sleeping. By the time he was 3 months old, we had a routine. I would wake him up to feed him, and I would speak and play with him until he fell back asleep. It was like he was my baby.” Martinez cared for the child until he was 2 years old, when his mother stopped working and no longer needed child care.
In 2011, Martinez heard of a free breakfast being hosted at a local church. “I had nothing to do at the time, and I thought ‘wow, they are offering breakfast,’” she shared with a laugh.
The breakfast was part of a meeting hosted by First 5 LA, a branch of First 5 California, a state agency that supports safe and healthy development of children. The organization was launching a community program called Best Start, focused on delivering resources and information to local parents, and was searching for community members to lead outreach efforts. Martinez volunteered to be a community representative. “In my community, we have a lot of families with children and we do not really know about resources for them,” Martinez said.
As a volunteer, Martinez learned skills to help her recruit parents, such as giving an elevator pitch. “Say I saw a woman at the bus stop and I noticed she had a child between 0 to 5 years old … I would approach her, introduce myself and invite her to a meeting. I would leave her my card so she could call me if she wished to learn more,” Martinez offered as an example. Sometimes, she recalled, she’d talk about what Best Start offered, such as meetings where caregivers could learn about child development.
Martinez said Best Start supported her in various ways. “At the personal level, I learned how to better communicate with my children. I also learned about resources, such as Head Start, that I was then able to enroll my youngest daughter in. As a community leader, I received training on how to present, how to speak in public.”
This connection granted her access to child care development resources, information on programs for her children and grandchildren and a network of fellow FFNs. It also paved a path for professional growth and employment opportunities. For example, when a local organization or school affiliated with First 5 LA needed child care providers, Martinez would be notified. “When a local school hosts parent meetings, they may provide child care for parents who attend. They call us,” Martinez explained.
Years later, when Martinez became a grandmother, her children wanted her to care for her grandchildren. Starting in 2014, when her first grandchild was born, she began caring for him and, through the years, cared for all four of her grandchildren.
“Sometimes the neighbors see me with my grandchildren, and they ask me how I have the patience to care for them. I tell them this: Thank goodness I was given the patience and the grace to care for children.”
Martinez said her experience caring for children over the years prepared her for caring for her grandchildren. But she also credits her coincidental run-in with First 5 LA over a decade ago, which she said completely altered her work as an FFN.
Martinez has continued caring for her grandchildren, volunteering with First 5 LA and, for a time, she volunteered with her local community council. Her story serves as an example of how local organizations can empower FFNs in their work. And, because of their ties to their community, FFNs are critical for expanding the reach of these resources to other local families who may not have access.
Gloria Gonzalez immigrated from Mexico to Salinas — an agricultural city in central California — in 1993 at 21 years old with her husband. The pair moved in with her aunt, who supported herself by providing home-based child care. Gonzalez began helping her aunt with one of the children in her care, a 3-year-old girl named Jessica.
“That was where my experience taking care of children began. The truth is, I love the work. Ever since I was in Mexico, I had wanted to be a teacher,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez provided full-time care for Jessica under the supervision of her aunt for years. She was paid $25 to $50 a week.
Gonzalez and her husband eventually moved to their own apartment, where she continued to take care of Jessica and Jessica’s brother when he was born a few years later.
Over the years, Gonzalez had her own children and continued providing care for children in her family and community, beginning with her sister’s, and then her friends’ and neighbors’ children. Over time, people recommended her to their acquaintances, and she began to take care of children outside of her immediate circle. She estimates that she’s served about four to six families annually.
“I never earned more than $5 per day, maybe $8 if it was an infant,” Gonzalez said. “Now that I have more experience, I notice that when a child care provider does not have a license, people think they can take advantage of them.”
With a disheartened tone, she added: “The sad thing is that sometimes people ask what I do for work. I say take care of children, and they would say ‘that is not a real job.’”
Gonzalez picked up on two hard truths: People do not value child care for the labor it is, and that sentiment is worsened when a provider does not have a credential.
Around 10 years ago, Gonzalez bumped into a woman on the street who was distributing flyers inviting people to a monthly meeting geared toward families and child care providers. The woman worked for First 5 Monterey County, another branch of First 5 California, and she encouraged Gonzalez to attend and to invite anyone she wished.
“It seemed interesting to me, so I attended. I took the children I cared for, and we played different activities. We got free snacks,” she recalled. Some of the providers she invited showed up. “Others were scared,” she said, adding that they asked her: “What if they report us for not having a license?” Gonzalez told them: “We are only taking care of the children of our family and friends.”
Mistrust toward institutions came up a number of times across my interviews. It is why Renew, of Home Grown, emphasized to me the need for trusted organizations to help communities access helpful resources.
Through First 5, Gonzalez signed up for courses and seminars on child development that helped her understand how to best support the children in her care and she said she has grown as a child care provider as a result. “With Jessica, I would ask her to color in the lines. Now I know that that’s not always right, that it is OK to let children be creative.”
During 2020 quarantine orders for COVID-19, Gonzalez’s husband asked her to stop providing child care, but she felt she had no choice. She said the two families she served needed her.
“One parent was a single mother with two children, so she had to work. The other mother had a husband, but they had to pay rent and their bills. They all worked in the fields, and in the fields, there are no shifts. Hours are unpredictable. Their shift started at 5 or 6 a.m., and they would return at any hour in the afternoon or evening,” she explained.
Gonzalez cared for these children through the pandemic, all of them wearing masks. “First 5 was a great support. They would set up stations, and providers could pick up cleaning supplies,” she reflected.
While these resources helped Gonzalez, her financial constraints remained. She charged a daily rate based on age: $15 for younger children and $10 for older children. But she also took into consideration how much the parents worked and tried to accommodate families.
“A woman I know told me that I am too considerate because I ask parents how many hours they will work before I charged them. She told me to charge for my labor,” she said. “But it weighs on my mind, how any child care cost would be a burden.”
Gonzalez was drawing on an important aspect of the nationwide child care crisis: the cost to families, especially those headed by single parents or those who work nontraditional hours that cannot be supported by center-based child care.
After 30 years of experience in child care, Gonzalez is still a staple provider in her community.
“I always ask myself, ‘How do I want that child to remember me?’” she said. “And that helps me do the best job I can.”
Read about the lived experience of three other family, friend and neighbor child care providers in part one of this story.
Family, Friend and Neighbor Caregivers Need and Deserve Resources
Martinez and Gonzalez were connected to trusted local organizations by chance, but more FFNs need and deserve resources. While Martinez and Gonzalez have still experienced economic challenges, their connections gave them access to support, including a network of fellow FFNs, development courses and tangible resources, such as money in Martinez’s case and supplies in Gonzalez’s.
For them, identifying as an FFN provider, understanding that they’re part of an ecosystem of other child care workers and connecting with organizations that could support them made a big difference.
According to a 2022 publication released by Home Grown, FFN care is “the setting in which we find the most children, families and caregivers from marginalized and underserved communities. These are the caregivers who care for children whose parents work late nights and early mornings, weekends, and swing shifts; who care for families with home languages other than English; who provide care in child care deserts.”
At a time when policymakers are grappling with how to strengthen the child care system, it is critical that the voices of family, friend and neighbor providers are heard.