THE FIRST THING I HAD TO DO at my new job was wipe shit out of a two-year-old's vagina.
Well, vulva technically. At the early-childhood care center I'd just begun working for, most teachers use the word "vagina" in reference to the pubic area of the girls they are speaking to (e.g., "You just used the potty all by yourself, but uh oh! You forgot to wipe your vagina!"). When you're teaching basic human anatomy terms to toddlers, functionality has precedence over literalism.
I'm exaggerating a little bit; cleaning a child after she had pooped all over herself was one of the first duties I experienced as a substitute early-childhood teacher. Not that it would have been a dealbreaker if it had been Duty Number One. In the summer of 2010, I was so desperate for work that I would have done almost anything. Compared to many of the jobs I applied for and was turned away from—dishwasher, grocery clerk, animal hospital custodian, adult "arcade" night janitor—the opportunity to shape little lives promised to be almost as lucrative... with less danger of grinding my soul down to a nub.
And the latter part proved true! Working with babies and toddlers is one of the most fulfilling and difficult things I've ever done. My perspective on the world has shifted with a new, rosy focus. Every day I deal with every bodily fluid—plus love, war, sex, death, jealousy, anger, loss; all the nitty-gritty bits of the human experience in its protozoic form. I've seen a two-year-old pick up a rock the size of a grapefruit and hit another kid on the head—just to see what would happen. I've witnessed a three-year-old get a visible erection and then demand that I take my pants off. I've explained to five-year-olds why it wasn't funny when my father died. Seeing all the tragicomic and hilariously sad aspects of humanity play out in miniature has recontextualized everything.
As a de facto role model, little people are constantly looking to me to validate the succession of confusing, new experiences that make up early childhood. When you're sick, sometimes you throw up. It's okay. When you're angry, sometimes you want to hit somebody. It's okay to feel that way, but it's not okay to hit somebody. When you dump your food on the floor, you're telling me you don't want it—so I'm not going to give you any more food. Let's try again at lunch. When you act like a little shit, I still love you because you are worthy of love... no matter what.
Basically all the things a parent teaches. Except I'm not a parent. I'm somebody who couldn't get a job as a porn-store janitor. I'm taking care of your children. And what's more, I'm a dude.
The biggest hurdle I had to clear in settling into this job was convincing myself that I'm not a secret perv. No matter how convinced I am that children are the opposite of erotic, early childcare is a peculiar field that forces one to analyze one's own feelings about being around other people's half-naked children.
Being a straight white male means I already fit the profile of what everyone assumes a child molester looks like—including me. This is a fact that's been hammered into my head my entire life; from a confusing afternoon in second-grade Cub Scouts when we silently watched a PSA warning about the dangers of predatory male adults, to the compulsory abuse and neglect training I attended with other Oregon childcare workers.
By willingly taking a job that, in part, required me to assist little kids in the bathroom, rub their backs during naptime, and build trusting relationships with them, wasn't I waving every red flag? Was I some sort of deviant who just didn't realize it?
I soon discovered that I wasn't the only white male in this profession haunted by gender politics.
"I had abuse and neglect training about a year ago," says Joe Bryan, a coordinator at a local preschool with 10 years of childcare experience. "One of the things that really angered me was I felt the trainer was making a connection between homosexuality [and child abuse]. The teacher made a statement about how you know abuse is happening when you're with someone and they just give you an icky feeling and you know internally that something is not right and that's when you need to make a report. And she made the comparison about how she once made a report because someone looked like the Green River Killer, and then it surfaced that this person was a sexual predator."
"Being single and not having kids and not being gay, I get a lot of weird looks," echoes Sage Hilbush, an infant/toddler teacher with 11 years of experience. "When mothers would ask if I'd be changing the diapers I would sometimes turn to them and say, 'Does your husband change diapers? Or do you tell him not to? Aren't you usually complaining that he doesn't change enough diapers?' I'm willing to change a kid's diaper because I know what I want to do for the rest of my life: I enjoy raising children."
"I don't ever allow myself to be alone with a child. Ever. And that's saved me before," says Bryan, referring to an incident years ago when a five-year-old told his parents that Bryan had "slept with" him during a school-wide sleepover:
"There were two teachers and we structured it deliberately so neither of us was ever alone with any of the children. When I found out that people had these questions about me, I asked the director to open a formal investigation—because I knew that I had taken precautions. The implication was I was a sexual predator," Bryan says. "The culture I grew up [in], being a teenager in the '90s, being kind of a punk rocker, that's the worst thing I could be.
"My public face with the [child's] family was 'I'm so glad that you feel uncomfortable with that idea. I feel uncomfortable with that idea. Here's how I made sure that could never possibly have happened,'" continues Bryan. "But internally I got sick and had panic attacks—that's what my doctor diagnosed it as. It was really scary stuff, just to know that I'm under that level of scrutiny."
This same scrutiny sits differently on my shoulders, and is not at all lessened due to the fact that I'm a substitute. Rather than meet me through an administrator at some point before the school year begins, my first contact with parents is at the end of the day—I'm the stranger reading Hop on Pop with their child in his lap. During the workday my masculinity is only an asset; my mere presence to some kids is pretty novel in itself. But when I have to introduce myself to someone while I'm, like, helping his daughter into her bathing suit, I can see the gears fucking smoking in that parent's head. There's a brief second of panic as they try to marry the idea of their child's safety with the image of that child, naked, talking to some twentysomething dude in cutoffs.
The pressure of feeling like a sheep in wolf's clothing can be heavy. Compound that with the fact that I'm making less money shaping the lives of children than I was stocking milk in a grocery store, and it gets heavier. Add in the literal months of sick days I've had because a kid sneezed in my mouth or forgot to wash their hands after sticking them down their naptime diaper, and one can lose sight of the numerous, profound ways this job can be so fulfilling.
The profundity of that fulfillment comes from the same things that make this job so hard. Most times when I'm embarrassed or shocked by something a child does, I realize it's because it forces me to examine obvious truths I sometimes forget: people who look different than me are fascinating; being naked is no big deal; if I'm allowed to eat too much fruit I will shit everywhere and it will be more interesting than anything ever.
When I think back to the male role models I remember as a toddler I realize that most of them were dicks. Gruff, emotionally distant, competitive, violent—these learned traits were inseparable from my early concepts of a masculine identity; an identity I always thought that I fell short of. My biggest fear beginning this job was that I would be irreparably screwing up impressionable minds. Now that I sort of know what I'm doing, I've realized the powerful flipside of that potential.
"I think it's so rad when there are men working in this field, because it makes us less of an other," says Bryan. "That is the radical potential of this work—that we can help to erode the culture of domination that is our dominant culture."
Ultimately, this job gives me a nonthreatening, male role-model high—a high from teaching kids some self-assurance and decency before adolescence comes around to fuck up their heads; from demonstrating that being male doesn't have to mean the same things I thought it did. But is this high good enough to make me turn down some lucrative night-janitor position if one should come up?
Ask me when the economy evens out.