The voices reach Alice Maskowski in the kitchen, where she is readying a lunch of sloppy joes. “Oh Miss Alice, Miss Alice,” cry several children from what might have been the Maskowski dining room.

“Here I come,” says Maskowski, and she walks into the room in which six children, ages three to five, are sitting on primary-colored chairs around a small wooden table. The food she carries is the only hint of the room’s original function. There are plastic containers everywhere, little ones filled with markers and pens, big ones with Duplo blocks and Lincoln logs. A bookshelf, groaning with picture books, is topped with eight bottles of Elmer’s Glue. Various hats occupy a corner; numbers and letters paper the walls.

It is late morning on a sunny Friday. Maskowski, a large, pleasant-faced woman with permed hair, holds up one of her hands, on which she is wearing a glove covered with Velcro.

“Does this glove look like a tree?” she asks. The kids look puzzled for a moment.

Maskowski begins to recite: “Five little leaves in the autumn breeze trembled and fluttered from the trees. The first little leaf said, ‘I am red. I shall rest on the flower bed.'” Then she sticks a red felt leaf to her hand.

“The second little leaf–an orange one–said, ‘Pick me up! I’m cold and wet.'”

Onto Maskowski’s glove goes some orange felt.

“The third little leaf said, ‘I am yellow. I’m a happy-go-lucky fellow.'”

She adds a yellow leaf.

“The fourth little leaf said, ‘I’m still as green as when I was part of the summer scene.'”

The hand receives a green leaf.

“The fifth little leaf said, ‘I am brown, and I shall blow all over town.'”

The brown leaf goes on and the poem is done. The children applaud.

“OK, kids,” Maskowski says. “David brought us a big leaf today. Let’s see what we can do with it.” She directs the children to take white paper, place it over David’s leaf, and outline it with crayon.

Kristin, a bossy five-year-old, soon tires of outlining and picks up the Velcro glove. “Meghan,” she instructs one of her juniors, “you can wear the glove, but only I get to put the leaves on.”

One of the boys announces that he isn’t going to outline anymore. “Alice, I have to go pee-pee,” he says.

Kristin tells Meghan, “OK, now you put your thumb in the thumbie.” Her words are briefly drowned out by splashing–the bathroom door was left open. Kristin is oblivious to the sound–she wants the glove back. “Meghan, let me have the glove!”

From her Berwyn bungalow Alice Maskowski runs a day-care home, which is incorporated under the name Rainbow Tree Home Day Care, Inc. She cares for up to six children at a time while their parents make a living. She also minds her own two school-age boys.

Many people have the impression that American day care occurs primarily in day-care centers–in spacious, well-staffed “schools” on major streets. In fact, much more day care is delivered by Alice Maskowskis in their homes. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 30 percent of American preschoolers with employed mothers are tended to in their own homes, 36 percent go to someone else’s home, and 25 percent go to day-care centers, nursery schools, and junior kindergartens. The working mothers manage to care for the others. “They talk about the future of America,” says Maskowski’s husband Mike. “The future of America is running around other people’s living rooms.”

Home operators are often ill-trained, underpaid, hassled by their neighbors, and thought of as second-class–as just baby-sitters. Indeed, most of the parents who now patronize Maskowski first tried to put their children in day-care centers. They came to Rainbow Tree because the center of their choice wouldn’t take them–or turned out to be less than they had hoped. These parents like what they’ve found, and Maskowski is not surprised. She believes home day care beats the centers hollow.

Now and then she meets someone new and the subject of work comes up. “What do you do?” she’ll be asked. “I’m self-employed,” Maskowski invariably says. “I’m a home day-care provider.” The new acquaintance will think for a second and say, “Oh, you mean you baby-sit.” The assumption always annoys her. “Not exactly,” she will say.

Meghan, the first of Maskowski’s charges, arrives at the three-bedroom house each weekday at 6:30–15 minutes after Mike Maskowski leaves for work. Around seven o’clock, Alice welcomes Julie, who’s three, and Scott, a seven-year-old who makes Rainbow Tree a brief way station before school. Throw in Maskowski’s kids, seven-year-old David and six-year-old Michael, and you have what Alice calls “the breakfast group.”

This morning Alice announces at eight o’clock that breakfast is served. Michael and Scott spill in from a side bedroom, where they have been playing Nintendo. The other kids put down their toys. Everyone assembles around the wood table in the dining room.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) sets nutritional standards for home day-care meals, and Maskowski obeys the rules. “No oatmeal or pancakes,” she explains. She dishes cornflakes into bowls, slices on bananas, and pours glasses of milk. She makes sure that Meghan, who is a tad plump, stops eating after three bowls of cereal.

The breakfast-table discussion ranges widely. Meghan says she is going to be a bunny for Halloween. “I’m going to be a horse,” says Julie. David Maskowski asks Scott, his second-grade classmate, whether he saw the movie about turtles that was shown at school. “Our class got to pick out shelves for the fourth grade,” says Scott, apropos of nothing. In response, David Maskowski fluffs his short hair and burps. “Ex-cuse me,” he says, and advises the other children, “Scott’s got snot on his shirt.”

“David, talk nice,” snaps Alice. But her rebuke doesn’t restrain him. David and Scott discuss the campaign at their school to discourage Bart Simpson clothes. “Bart says bad words,” Scott observes. “I like it when Bart shows his butt,” says David.

Alice Maskowski had to miss this exchange because a new batch of kids had just arrived at her door. There’s Stevie, who is three and comes 16 miles from Lemont; David D’Antonio, a bright-spirited child of four; and Kristin, five, who is in afternoon kindergarten and only spends mornings here. For a period the Maskowski house resembles a train station–as the new kids settle in, Maskowski must get her boys and Scott off to school. Alice barks at her David to get a move on. “My foot is broken,” he explains. “We’ll take care of it when you get home,” says Alice, shooing her son out the door. “See you after school,” she yells from her stoop. Off they walk.

No sooner has the door slammed than Alice is getting on the shoes and coats of the remaining six children–twice weekly they attend a gymnastics class at Sokol Tabor, a Czech gymnastics club in Berwyn. Just before leaving, Meghan balks at putting some toys back in a toy box (cleanup is a Rainbow Tree must), and Alice issues a mild threat: “Do you want me to talk to your daddy about your being uncooperative?” Meghan complies, and the entire brood, led by Alice, marches outside and climbs into Maskowski’s maroon van.

The van has three identical car seats in the second row. Under state law, any child lighter than 40 pounds or shorter than 40 inches must ride in a car seat, and Maskowski’s tribe contains three takers–Stevie, Julie, and Dena, a flaxen-haired three-year-old carrying a gray teddy bear whom Alice picks up on the way to Sokol Tabor. Maskowski plugs in a children’s tape for the ride, but it doesn’t prevent Kristin from singing her own ditty: “Hey, hey, smell my feet. Give me something good to eat.” Maskowski rolls her eyes. “Mind if I smoke?” she asks.

The Sokol class takes place in an old, large gym. Two lithe young women known as “Mrs. J.” and “Mrs. D.” put a group of 25 youngsters through their paces. Maskowski has taken her children here twice a week for four years and she thinks the class has great value. “This gives them social exposure, in that they have to deal with more than just me and each other,” she says. “They learn group cooperation and teamwork. They also learn spatial relationships. This gives them an opportunity to work off energy–and they aren’t doing it in the middle of my living room.” On Thursday, Maskowski takes the children to another day-care home for “patty cakes,” a music program taught by a man known as “Mr. P.” There are also field trips and summer excursions to a swimming pool.

Mrs. J. and Mrs. D.’s gymnastics class draws a lot of parents, and as the class begins some of them join their offspring in a circle for stretching. Maskowski stays on the sidelines. “If I go over there,” she explains, “they will all vie for my attention, ’cause day-care kids have to share their day-care mom. It’s better for me to hang back unless something happens.” Stevie often provides that something; he’s been coming to Alice for a year and a half, and although he is exceedingly well coordinated he tends to come undone at Sokol. “I expect Stevie to start crying,” Maskowski says.

But today Stevie is OK. It’s Meghan who approaches Maskowski complaining of a stomachache. “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” Maskowski wonders. Meghan shakes her head no. Maskowski advises Meghan to get a drink of water then rest for a minute. “Let’s see what happens,” Alice says.

The class ends with an alphabet song. Not wanting the recovering Meghan to miss the fun, Maskowski takes her over to the circle and cradles her in her lap. Suddenly the other five Rainbow Tree kids converge on Maskowski–their one and only day-care mom–and she tries as best she can to be all things to all preschoolers.

Alice, who is 43, was born in California. Her parents divorced when she was a young girl and she moved with her mother and brothers to Oklahoma, where her mother’s family was from. Alice saw her real father just one time after that, and she assumes he is now dead. In Oklahoma her mother quickly married a farmer, and the couple had a daughter of their own. “My stepfather never mistreated us,” recalls Maskowski. “Actually, he adopted us. But he was most attracted to my stepsister, who was his natural child after all.”

After business college, Alice joined the Air Force and trained as a dental technician. Her first husband was a chaplain’s assistant whom she married when she was 21. After leaving the Air Force, the couple migrated to Chicago in 1968, but the marriage soon foundered. Alice became a single career woman, working first as a secretary and then as a designer of life-insurance forms. She was content to be alone. “I was in control of my life, and I enjoyed myself. Not that I had a party life, but I wanted things my way.” She met Mike Maskowski, a molding technician eight years her junior, when he helped her move from one apartment to another, and after two years of courtship they were married. “I was ready to settle down,” she says.

To have children, Alice needed surgery to remove benign tumors on her ovaries, but within six months she was pregnant. After David was born, Alice tried to stay home with him, but it turned out that she couldn’t afford to. “Six months exhausted our savings,” says Maskowski. She placed David with a friend of the family in order to return to the insurance firm. “That lasted about two weeks. David was too much of an inconvenience. So I scrambled to find something else.” The local day-care center didn’t take infants, so Maskowski settled for a grandmother who tended five other babies. “She was very nurturing, that I’ll say, but she kept all the kids in her living room. She’d line them up and feed them one after another with the same spoon.”

The arrival of Michael in 1984 decided the issue of working. “I think I conceived Michael in the first place because I wanted to stay home,” Alice now supposes. “I knew we couldn’t afford two kids in day care, so I was delighted when I got pregnant. I wanted to stay home with my kids.” Maskowski never went back to work; she used her maternity leave to launch herself into the day-care business.

An advertisement in the local newspapers produced the first batch of parents interested in Maskowski’s services; since then, her parents have been referred to her by DCFS and the Illinois Home Day Care Association (IHDCA), a private advocacy group, or by word of mouth. She started with three small girls from one family, plus David and Michael. Scott has been with Maskowski since he was 21 months old. For the first few years, while Mike worked an evening shift, he helped out at home during the mornings and afternoons.

Despite her husband’s help, Alice Maskowski almost gave up after two years. “Parents were paying me only $40 or $50 a week, and then they were making me feel guilty because they didn’t have the money to make their car payments,” she says. “Mike was helping a little bit, but I was the primary person. I didn’t know anybody else doing day care. I was contemplating leaving my kids, my husband, and my job.”

What saved her was a scheming parent who reported Maskowski to DCFS for running an unlicensed home. (Maskowski says the woman wanted to stay home herself and do day care and coveted Maskowski’s clientele.) One day Alice found herself facing a DCFS inspector who had showed up unannounced and now warned her that her lack of a license was a misdemeanor offense carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. “I didn’t know I had to have a license,” Maskowski says. “At the time I really didn’t know any other people doing day care.”

Illinois law requires day-care providers who tend four or more children, including their own, to be licensed. It’s a requirement often honored in the breach: Maskowski says she knows of several unlicensed places in her neighborhood, and in 1988 the Chicago chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women estimated that there are as many unlicensed homes in Illinois as there are licensed ones. (As of September 1990, DCFS reported 6,200 licensed homes as well as 2,200 centers.)

When DCFS discovers a home that isn’t licensed and should be, says Espy Raspberry, the head licensing supervisor for Cook County, the department will try persuasion before notifying the state’s attorney. “Mostly they comply,” says Raspberry. That is what happened with Maskowski. “DCFS gave me a break,” she says. “I got licensed in five weeks.”

If the applicant will care for no more than eight children at a time, a license is not especially hard to get. DCFS checks its own files to see if an applicant was ever charged with abuse or neglect, but no check of police records is made. No training in child development is required–all that’s mandatory is a two-and-a-half-hour orientation session–and neither is insurance. A licensee must be at least 18 years old. At the moment, it takes up to six months to be certified by DCFS, but the department insists that additional staff are trimming the backlog.

License holders are subject to pages of regulations regarding nutrition, hygiene, discipline, safety, activities, and transportation. Some strictures are rather general (“Members of the household who have contact with the children in care shall treat them with respect, courtesy, and patience”), and others are very specific (“The toilet seat or potty shall be cleaned after every use”).

There are no square-footage minimums for day-care homes. However, the state prescribes that homes be equipped with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and protective coverings over the electrical outlets, and that they be stocked with play and learning materials. The operator must provide space for outdoor play, and a drinking cup and “sleeping arrangement” for each child, be this arrangement a cot, bed, crib, or playpen. “Sheets shall be changed when soiled, and all sheets shall be changed routinely two times per week,” say the state standards.

Operators have to provide a well-balanced lunch and morning and afternoon snacks (charts advise on what’s proper), with servings offered in bite-sized portions and new foods encouraged though not forced. Physical punishment is outlawed, as are “shaming, frightening, or humiliating methods” of discipline. The operator must keep emergency numbers for all youngsters, make a note whenever they’re given medication, and have on hand signed parental consent forms covering a wide variety of eventualities.

A licensed operator must apply to DCFS for a new permit every two years; meanwhile, department inspectors drop in once a year without warning to see how things are going. “In most cases people with licenses follow our standards,” says Espy Raspberry, “but sometimes you find that housekeeping standards aren’t quite up to snuff or they are keeping more kids than they should.”

Since becoming licensed, Alice Maskowski seems to have been an exemplary day-care provider. Although she doesn’t like the inconvenience, she has become accustomed to the yearly drop-in inspections. The DCFS put her in touch with the Illinois Home Day Care Association, ending her isolation from other providers. Realizing she had no schooling in child development, she attended classes nights and weekends at Triton College in River Grove, and earned a certificate in early childhood education. The sheepskin hangs in her vestibule, along with other framed papers attesting to her affiliation with various day-care organizations–the display assures everyone who enters that the proprietor is a professional.

The “dining room” is the hub of Alice’s day-care operation, but it spills into just about every part of the house. A side bedroom contains the computer and a guinea pig named Abby, plus a file cabinet full of records. Alice has a folder on each youngster, with emergency phone numbers, doctors’ approvals, logs of shots and medications, and releases for relatives who make pickups. In the living room are a comfy plaid sofa and a large TV, with a toy barn that the kids love to use in one corner. Pretty much off-limits–except at nap time–are the bedrooms that belong to David and Michael Maskowski and to Alice and Mike.

Alice’s kitchen features one narrow four-burner stove, a microwave oven, a small table, and tulip wallpaper. Displayed on the refrigerator are a calendar and a weather chart. The pantry brims with boxes and cans. The freezer chest in the basement is also full of food–fish sticks, pizza, macaroni and cheese–that she purchases at a market day sponsored by her sons’ school.

Alice goes to the grocery every week or so, normally on Sunday afternoon, spending more than $200 on day-care provisions alone. She’ll buy six gallons of milk and ten pounds of apples at a time. She’s reimbursed for up to $400 in monthly food costs under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that helps subsidize home day care on a sliding scale related to need.

Maskowski’s goal is to prepare her kids for school. “Kindergarten is what first grade used to be years ago, so when you start you need to know what used to be kindergarten skills: how to color, how to cut, your name–first and last–and how to write it down. You have to know your address and phone number . . . how to count to at least 100 . . . the alphabet . . . how to recognize upper- and lower-case words. My kids have to learn how to get along with one another, to share, to make friends and separate from Mom. That way, crossing into kindergarten will not be traumatic.

“I do not do baby-sitting,” she says emphatically. “This is educational exposure for the children.”

Maskowski, who incorporated under the Rainbow Tree name for tax purposes, grosses $700 a week. After deducting her expenses, which include liability insurance, a cleaning woman, and an assistant who comes in afternoons, she finds herself with a net income of $75 a week. That’s less than $4,000 a year, well below the $9,593 that the IHDCA says is the annual profit of the average married home provider.

Maskowski says she makes so little because she spends so much. “The last two weeks I dropped $200 at Toys-R-Us, and that’s nothing,” she says. On the other hand, those corporate expenses include a share of the mortgage, utility bills, and van costs, all tax-deductible. In addition, certain day-care expenses also benefit the Maskowski household. “We have a sandbox outside which my kids enjoy,” she says. “That was $840 Mike and I didn’t spend but Rainbow Tree did.” Maskowski adds that it’s next to impossible to entirely distinguish the day-care food from her family’s. “Can’t say I know who exactly paid for that can of peas my kids just ate for dinner.”

Maskowski never takes a vacation, although she does manage the occasional long weekend. “Two days away can feel like a week when you’re around the house as much as I am,” she says. She tries to ward off illness by taking an antibiotic when she feels the slightest upset; once she got the flu, and Mike took off work to run Rainbow Tree.

The overriding benefit of the life Maskowski leads is that it’s put her home with her boys while they’re young. “I had a burning desire to be home with my kids,” she says, “and I made it happen.”

The lunch of sloppy joes is served at the wooden table at 11:30, as soon as the kids are done tracing leaves. Alice has run out of hamburger buns but the hot dog buns will do. The kids wash down their meal with apple juice. David D’Antonio is less than impressed with the menu but his whining leaves Maskowski unmoved. “My newer kids are always finicky eaters,” she explains, “but the one thing we aren’t is a restaurant. There are no substitutions here. If I substituted, I would end up with six separate lunch orders.” Before Maskowski has to, Meghan gets on David’s case. “David, once you taste the sloppy joe it’s real good,” Meghan says. David takes a bite. “Alice, look, David is eating his bun!” Meghan announces.

Alice consumes her own sloppy joe while serving.

After dessert–apples that Maskowski carefully sections–the youngsters drift into the living room to watch television. Maskowski says she uses TV sparingly: “TV is for transitional time, like now, between lunch and my having to take Kristin to kindergarten. Besides, they’re watching Nickelodeon, which is for children.” David D’Antonio and Stevie wrestle as the TV drones on. Julie brings in the mail. Kristin, due at kindergarten in minutes, is uncharacteristically quiet; she snuggles into the plaid sofa, sucking her thumb.

“OK, coats, coats, coats,” prods Maskowski suddenly, and the kids slowly don their shoes and outerwear and move out the door and into the van. It’s a five-minute trip to Kristin’s school. Kristin’s mother is a teacher there. When Kristin started kindergarten, her mother would stand at the school door to welcome her when she arrived; but Alice explains that the arrangement just made Kristin more anxious about school. So now Kristin’s mother is somewhere else. “Bye, Alice,” says Kristin, bounding from the van toward the playground.

Maskowski drives the other kids back to her bungalow, and now it’s nap time. They walk into Mike and Alice’s bedroom and each takes a quilt from a rack. David and Stevie find their sleeping places in the Maskowski boys’ bedroom. The girls disperse to the other bedrooms. Meghan takes a Winnie the Pooh to bed with her. Usually Dena can’t nap unless Alice lies down next to her, but today she manages to fall asleep by herself. It is nearly one o’clock, and Maskowski moves to the kitchen for her first break of the day.

She takes a seat at the kitchen table. “As a day-care provider, I can never replace a mother or father,” she says. “I add to that relationship–I’m an extended part of a day-care child’s family is how I see it.” It doesn’t pain her to think of the parents off at work, missing so much of their children’s first years. “I think to myself, if I was still working and I had found a place like Rainbow Tree I’d have had no qualms about continuing to work. I just never found it.”

Yet Maskowski concedes the best setting for young children isn’t necessarily a day-care home. “The ideal situation is the father working, earning more than enough to support the family in everything they need,” she says, “and the mother able to stay home and spend unending hours with their kids and using volunteer work to use up the rest of her time.” She sees drawbacks even to this arrangement. “If the ideal happened anymore, which it doesn’t, you’d turn out a whole bunch of selfish children. Even the ideal wouldn’t be that good.”

About her day-care kids she says, “They’re sweethearts. I enjoy each one of them. I relish the chance to see them grow. I miss them when they aren’t here.” But she acknowledges, “I don’t love them in the same way I do my own two boys. When my boys were little and took naps, I could just stand there and watch their eyes close and be in awe over their eyelashes and how long they were. But when the day-care kids settle down for their naps, I breathe a sigh of relief.

“In their hearts they have their limits with me, too. Sure, Julie walks up to me and says ‘I love you.’ And I say ‘I love you’ back. It’s affirming for both of us, but she doesn’t mean it the same way she does for her own mother.”

Maskowski believes her career, all in all, has been good for her own boys. “When I started this, David was 15 months old, Michael was six weeks old,” she recalls. “If they felt competitive with the other kids I really didn’t recognize it. And in those early days their father was here, too. Mike’s switch back to working days came two years ago, and by then David was in kindergarten–the boys had more than adapted to sharing Mom.

“Now when David invites someone to come into our house, he’ll say, ‘Our house is really neat. We have our own school.’ There are other advantages. They have more toys than normal kids, because when I go out and buy Lego blocks I bring home $400 worth. When I shop for Tinkertoys, I think in terms of five boxes. I try to give my boys independent activities–they take Sokol some afternoons, and in the summer they go off with Julie’s teenage sister.”

On the other hand, Alice never has time to assist on her sons’ field trips or even visit their school during the day. And since David in particular has had academic problems, some visits would be nice. After-school etiquette is also tricky, she says. “The boys want somebody to come over to play Nintendo. I often have to say, ‘No way. I’m working.’ They can play outside until I’m finished working. Occasionally I hear the boys ask, ‘When are those stupid day-care kids going home?’ So once in a while they will come up with a comment, but it isn’t anything significant.”

She gets about a call a day from parents searching for day care. She believes these parents should want to know everything about her program–how she teaches, how she disciplines. Yet the parents seldom probe. Their first question is how much she charges. What are your hours? they ask next. The third and last question is if she has an opening. “They are desperate for day care,” Alice explains. The parents she accepts must sign a contract that sets out her fees, philosophy, and conditions. No one objects.

In Illinois, 157 day-care slots exist for every 1,000 children five and under, according to DCFS. Not every preschool-age youngster is in the market for day care, but Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy agency, guesses that enough are to create a pool of nearly 250,000 unserved kids. These kids seem less stranded than compromised. “Some arrangement usually gets made,” says Lee Kreader, the DCFS official cooordinating a new day-care resource network, “but how many times does that arrangement have to be remade? How many days does it fall apart?”

Within the day-care market are some 25,000 low-income families entitled to day-care subsidies under programs run by DCFS and the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Many of the parents are single women who “work for $13,000 at jobs that have no status,” says Maria Whelan, the city of Chicago’s director of children’s services. “They have my great admiration. They are putting their children in day care just to put food on the table. There are no perks here, no extra money to buy cute little outfits for their girls.” Under the federal Family Welfare Reform Act of 1988, Public Aid recipients whose children are older than three are supposed to seek work or education in order to retain their benefits. Illinois doesn’t enforce this law; if it did the demand for day care would be even greater.

Maskowski hasn’t had experience with subsidized families, since Rainbow Tree’s rates are higher than the $60 or so a week the government will pay. Also, Maskowski doesn’t take infants. “They’d hold me back, limiting what I could do,” she explains. “It’s hard to take everybody to the park when the baby needs a nap or a bottle.”

So the Rainbow Tree client is basically a middle-class tyke. The parents who send their children to Maskowski are couples in their 30s or early 40s earning between $40,000 and $70,000 a year–couples of roughly the same economic status as Mike and Alice. What makes them turn to day care is primarily financial; after the birth of the children, the wives can’t afford not to return to work.

Barbara D’Antonio, a marketing coordinator for Budget Rent a Car, is David’s mother. She and her husband Michael, a photographer, earn $60,000 a year between them. D’Antonio estimates that after the various expenses are deducted–for day care, clothing, commuting, and taxes–she and Michael clear an extra $8,000 from her employment.

Not a large sum, Barbara admits, but it allows the D’Antonios to own a two-flat in Oak Park, buy David a bike, and save for his college education. In addition, David has weathered six operations to correct a cleft palate; since Michael D’Antonio has periodically been a free-lancer, the operations would have been unaffordable without Barbara’s company benefits. Budget is also paying for Barbara to complete college at night.

“The money my husband and I make from my working is not fluff–it’s vital to us,” says Meghan’s mother, Kim Pomes, a neonatal nurse whose spouse attends podiatry school. “We’re meeting our bills fine, but it’s the extras we don’t have. We rent our apartment. I can’t get Meghan what she wants for Christmas. We go out to eat once every two weeks, and we never go to the movies.”

“To make it as a family,” says Kristin’s father, a food technician, “both my wife and I have to produce. Even with her working we go from paycheck to paycheck, but at least now we have a home and can feel somewhat secure.”

Most of Maskowski’s parents find their way to her by a circuitous route, turning first to day-care centers or friends before hazarding home care. The reason Maskowski is called “Miss Alice” by half her day-care children is that they picked up that form of address while attending a center.

The day-care history of the Pomes family is typical. Meghan was born in Louisiana. When she was six weeks old Kim Pomes returned to nursing; while her mother worked, Kim stayed with the sister of a coworker who watched three babies in her home. Several months later the family moved to Mount Prospect, and Meghan entered a day-care center that takes children as young as 15 months.

When Meghan was two, her family moved to Berwyn and Meghan entered another center. Kim Pomes loved the center’s director, who doubled as Meghan’s teacher, but she found the owner to be controlling and erratic. When Meghan’s teacher announced her departure, Kim moved Meghan to a Montessori preschool. Within days the school’s director told Kim that Meghan was having trouble listening and wouldn’t be allowed to go outdoors or on field trips. “I realized Meghan would constantly be butting heads with this woman,” says Kim, who once again pulled her daughter out.

Finally, Pomes began to consider home care. “I was kind of scared about it,” she admits. “I thought of it as glorified baby-sitting.” But she called DCFS for a list of providers. Alice was first on the list, and when Pomes took Meghan over for an interview she liked what she saw; what’s more, Alice’s rates compared favorably with what she had been paying at the centers.

“If we win the lottery, I’d buy Michael a photo studio,” says Barbara D’Antonio. “I would help him with sales but only part-time–I’d devote 80 percent of my time to David.” It continues to trouble Kim Pomes that Meghan “walked for a baby-sitter, talked for a baby-sitter, and rolled over for a baby-sitter, and I was never there.” Alice Maskowski, and not the parents, supervised the toilet training of four of her day-care children.

Rita Slager, who is Stevie’s mother, is a paralegal downtown, and during one stretch that lasted months she was kept late virtually every night. One evening Stevie called her office, and she had already left for home. “Mommy, good-night, and I love you,” he said into her voice mail. Now whenever Rita misses her son, she replays his plaintive message at her desk.

Yet Rita Slager believes in day care no matter what. “Stevie’s gaining a lot more being with Alice than he would with me,” figures Slager, who continues to take her son to Rainbow Tree even though she’s moved to Lemont. “I enjoy being with him, but I’ve always worked.”

Daniele Bogusiewicz, who is Julie’s mom, is a customer service representative married to a cabbie, and she thinks her daughter is experiencing a better childhood than she had. “My father wasn’t around,” she says. “I was raised on welfare. There were four kids, and we were hungry sometimes. We lacked for stuff. We had to move every year, and so we were one school one year and another the next. Sure, my mother was home when we got home from school, but that isn’t the only kind of stability. I feel now I’m providing Julie good care and a consistent education at a young age.”

As 3 PM approaches, the day-care kids rouse themselves from their naps. Coming through the door now is Virginia Salazar, a senior at Morton West High School who earns work-study credit by assisting at Rainbow Tree each afternoon; she is called “Miss Virginia” by the children. Salazar takes charge of the kids and Maskowski leaves to fetch Kristin from kindergarten.

Late afternoon is hectic in the Maskowski house. Alice returns with Kristin–and now it’s her time to do paperwork, talk with parents, meet visitors. Scott, David, and Michael drift home from school. Virginia Salazar serves a snack of apple juice and bite-size graham crackers, and then gets the kids started on an art project–gluing kidney beans and peas onto paper plates to make trees. The youngsters progress at varying rates, but soon the bag with the peas is suspiciously empty. “Hey, Kristin, did you use all the peas that were in the bag?” Virginia wonders. “Yes, I think I did,” says Kristin honestly.

After Virginia chides Kristin for her behavior, her peas are redistributed and the trees begin to take shape. Kristin’s tree is full and grand, with the pea-leaves spreading out handsomely. The tree of David D’Antonio pretty much stops with a kidney bean trunk.

The kids are examining their artwork when Mike Maskowski, a large, talkative man, comes home from work. After catching up on the day with Alice and grabbing something to eat, he descends into the basement with a friend to discuss renovating it into a Rainbow Tree playroom.

It’s close to 4:15 when the first parent arrives for pickup. “Mom, I have to show you my project!” Kristin tells her mother. Mom admires her daughter’s tree, then talks to Alice about a side venture they have begun, training day-care operators to teach art. Of the parents, Kristin’s mother is the only one personally close to Maskowski. Says Jim Slager, “We talk when we pick up Stevie, but it’s not like we go out to dinner with her. Certain things are separate in life, and she is separate from us.”

Mike Maskowski takes his sons to Sokol for a gymnastics class. The day-care kids are playing independently now; David and Stevie dabble with the toy barn, then make some block houses. The TV is on. Dena’s aunt picks her up, but not before Alice checks the aunt’s credentials. “You can’t be too careful,” she explains. “You don’t know if there is some ex-husband lurking in the background.” David, Meghan, and Stevie are fetched by their parents. The kids are enthusiastic about the projects they are taking home–the leaf rubbings and the pea-and-kidney bean trees–but the parents seem tired, eager to leave. “See you tomorrow, Alice,” says Rita Slager, as she edges Stevie out the door for the long ride home to Lemont.

It will be 6:30 before the Maskowskis sit down to a supper of Swiss steak, corn, and mashed potatoes. Midnight, the family dog, is let in–because of the kids, he has spent the day outside. Tippy, the family cat, emerges from the basement. The Maskowskis eat separately, David and Michael at the small wooden table in the dining room, Alice and Mike as they watch cartoons on television.

“Home providers are out there doing their own thing,” says Laura Pastorelli, a veteran home operator and day-care activist. “Their role is not publicized–they are the stepchildren of day care.”

Home providers have long functioned in the shadows. Isolated, often condescended to by their clients, many exhibit a lack of self-esteem. “I’ve seen providers who let parents into their home only to have the parents talk down to them,” says DCFS’s Espy Raspberry, “and the providers accept that behavior as normal.”

With only the brief orientation required before they’re licensed, the providers come to their work armed primarily with common sense, and sometimes with not enough of it. “We’ve seen places where the kids are packed in like cattle,” says Mike Maskowski, “and the kids don’t learn anything.” Kathy Miller, a neighbor of the Maskowskis, was shocked more than once as she scouted homes for her son. “A lot of places I would visit, the house would be fine, but the woman would have dirt under her fingernails. One lady was actually changing diapers–one baby after another–without throwing the used diapers out.”

Eventually Miller became a license-exempt operator herself–she watches just three kids–to avoid becoming a day-care client.

Large for-profit centers lead the criticism of home day care. “The lack of training is scary,” says Ed Peckwas, president of the 200-member Child Care Association of Illinois and the owner of three for-profit centers on the southwest side (whose teachers–under law–are required to have two years of college, including six credit hours in child development). “There’s also a lot of concern about abuse. It’s not necessarily the person in charge who’s doing it, but you know how security is today–everybody comes and goes.” Peckwas also says home day care is undependable: “A home person will tell a parent, ‘Oh, by the way Mrs. Smith, after Tuesday I’m not going to be taking children anymore.’ And it’s Monday.”

There have been “instances” of child neglect and abuse among home providers, reports Charles Johnson, DCFS child-care licensing director for Cook County. But they’re rare enough, he says, that there hasn’t been a single substantiated accusation made in the last seven months. “Very often when a parent makes a complaint it turns out to have roots in a money dispute,” says Johnson. “Complaints are much more liable to come against centers, where there are many more kids, a high staff turnover, and the familiarity with the kids is less.” Peckwas acknowledges that for-profit centers have been tainted by abuse cases involving the McMartin Pre-School in California and two centers in Palos Hills, although neither of the highly publicized legal battles resulted in a conviction.

Home providers argue that the care they dispense is far superior to center care. “There’s more individual attention here,” says Maskowski. “The student-teacher ratio is lower, and there’s not less stability but more, because centers have a high turnover of personnel–the staff they pay $4 an hour doesn’t stick around. Kids change more frequently at a center, too. You may be best friends with Johnny, but then next week comes and Johnny’s gone.”

There’s an ongoing national debate over whether to set minimum training standards for home providers. The National Association for Family Day Care, having witnessed a 75 percent surge in the number of licensed homes since 1983, urges states to step in. While Florida demands 30 hours of training annually and Texas 20 hours, states are more likely to require just two to six hours if they require anything at all. But many day-care monitors in Illinois, which requires no annual training, are pleased that the state doesn’t.

“To do so would drastically reduce the pool of people available,” argues DCFS’s Charles Johnson, who believes many providers would rather stay unlicensed than go to school. “At least if they are licensed, we have the ability to keep them in touch with a DCFS representative.” Jerome Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children, says it comes down to a matter of choice: “If somebody is good and untrained, it’s not the role of the state to tightly regulate that good experience. Anyway, if you’re talking about three hours of training, it’s going to be surface stuff anyway.”

Instead of mandatory training, last year the state created the Illinois Child Care Resource and Referral System, which is under the guidance of Lee Kreader of DCFS. The so-called R and R’s are really a network of 16 agencies across the state that recruit both center and home providers and guide parents searching for day care. In addition, the R and R’s encourage operators to get training at colleges or through agency-run seminars and support groups. Jane Addams Center-Hull House Association and the Illinois Day Care Action Council are the Cook County hubs in the R and R network.

Home providers still face resistance in some communities. In 1983 the village trustees of west-suburban River Forest, alleging problems of noise, traffic, and parking at existing day-care homes, prohibited any new ones. Last year Bellwood flirted with a similar crackdown, but the village backed off when a group of affronted providers objected, and eventually passed an ordinance formally permitting home day care.

The latest area to take action against home care is Golfview Hills Homes, a Du Page County subdivision near Hinsdale. In late July a woman named Sharon Rice rented a house in the subdivision and moved her family and day-care business there from Westmont.

Rice soon discovered that petitions against her were circulating in the neighborhood. The Du Page County zoning enforcement office cited Rice for violating a law that mandates a special-use permit in order to operate a day-care home in an unincorporated area. Rice was summoned before the home owners’ association and later notified by the association’s covenants committee that she had violated stipulations that control property she was renting. One stipulation bans all businesses from Golfview Hills. Another says that “no unlawful, noxious or offensive activity shall be carried on upon any lot.”

“There are lots of businesses going on here,” claims Rice, 30, who nets a mere $3,000 a year. “For some reason they don’t like mine. But a day-care home would be an asset. The old families in this neighborhood are going to leave soon, and who is going to move in? Families with young children. And, believe me, the first question they are going to ask is, ‘Where’s the day care?’ To have a lady down the block who does it would be beneficial.”

At the moment, “the neighbors don’t talk to me,” says Rice. “When I drive by they won’t even look at me.” In October she filed a lawsuit against Du Page County and the home owners’ group seeking declaratory relief.

“These crackdowns alter the stability of a community,” says Karen Boyden, president of the Illinois Home Day Care Association. “People are either going to go underground or stop doing it, but that becomes a problem because what are parents going to do then?”

The two-year-old association, which represents 430 home-care operators across the state, is intent on upgrading the image and skills of its members. The group wants the state to pay for fingerprint-based background checks on home-care applicants and seeks more training for operators. It hails a new kind of care called group day care, homes that can accept up to 12 kids but must meet more stringent standards. A group operator has to demonstrate a year of college or a year of licensed child-care experience–with six hours of college credit in child-development in either case–carry $100,000 in liability insurance, employ an assistant, and provide mandated amounts of space.

To heighten awareness of home care, IHDCA and other activist organizations staged a parade last September in the Loop. Scores of parents, operators, and kids with pom-poms on their shoes walked from Federal Plaza to the State of Illinois Building. There were clowns and floats, one of which looked like a giant red wagon. Everyone wore yellow T-shirts that said TLC Daycare. The parade confused onlookers. “People didn’t know what was going on,” says Laura Pastorelli. “They thought it was some radical thing, but no one seemed to be demanding anything.” The only official to speak with the demonstrators was an aide to Mayor Daley whom Pastorelli couldn’t identify.

Alice Maskowski showed up with Mike, who had taken the day off, her day-care kids, and three parents. The kids waved signs they’d made of colored rainbow trees. “What we were doing was showing the many children involved in home care,” Alice says, “and I think we did that. Business people and possibly bosses could look out the window and see us. I felt pride in myself. For once home care was not something hidden in the closet. We were quite visible for everyone to see.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.