An educator guides little hands during free play at Heidy Escobar-Rocha's family child care program in Van Nuys, CA.
Michelle Peng
May 19, 2022 7:23 AM EDT

Like so many others, Nichelle Waddell started working from home for the first time in early 2020—but instead of the Zoom calls and Slack messages that filled millions of workers’ days, her new workday involved reading lots of picture books, managing snacktime, and educating a group of 12 young kids.

Waddell is a family childcare (FCC) educator, a licensed childcare provider who cares for children in her own home in Stamford, Connecticut. She opened her FCC business in 2020, joining thousands of providers across the country who have supported families throughout the pandemic. And these workers, who teach countless children colors, shapes, and letters, also have lessons for an older age group: remote and hybrid workers.

Nationwide, one in 10 families with children under five rely on FCC programs for childcare. For these providers, home has doubled as a workplace for years. Although their responsibilities look different from those of the average knowledge worker, their field is rich with takeaways for anyone whose home and work spaces blur together, whether temporarily or for the long term.

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To find mentors when you don’t sit next to your co-workers, try looking closer to home.

For many remote workers, especially those at the beginning of their careers, one of the greatest challenges of not being in an office has been finding opportunities to learn from older mentors. Certainly, there are ways workplaces can intervene—planning effective company offsites, scheduling regular team check-ins, and assigning a buddy throughout the onboarding process, for example.

But for Heidy Escobar-Rocha, a FCC educator in Van Nuys, California, these relationships didn’t come through colleagues or any sort of formal program. Other than her mother, who also runs an FCC program just a few blocks away, her oldest mentor has been another neighbor, Mia, a fellow FCC educator who has over 20 years of experience in the field. She first introduced herself to Escobar-Rocha after seeing her around the neighborhood.

As they got to know each other, Mia started connecting Escobar-Rocha, then six years into running her own program, with clientele and resources for FCC educators in their area. Escobar-Rocha remembers how transformative the connection was: “I was just like, ‘Where were you all this time? Where were you six years ago when I was struggling to figure out how to fill out forms and talk to administrators of these programs?”

Spending more time at home provides a unique opportunity for remote employees to stay rooted in their communities and invest in relationships with friends, family, and neighbors. Those connections are valuable in their own right, but they might also be game-changing for careers.

Put safeguards in place to prevent burnout.

When Waddell first started her FCC business, she looked forward to no longer having to commute to New York City to her corporate job in finance. “I’m not losing three hours going from home to work, so I can put that back into the business,” she remembers thinking.

Work soon took over her mornings and evenings. There was always more to do—sanitizing toys, planning activities with the kids, communicating with parents, handling the logistics around licensing and business operations. This kind of schedule creep is familiar to many who work from home: According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, which analyzes activity on Teams, after-hours and weekend work are up 28% since March 2020.

It wasn’t long before Waddell started to burn out, affecting both her mental and physical health. She eventually spent three days in the hospital with pneumonia, which she says is due largely to stress.

Now, she sets strict boundaries, silencing her phone and logging out of her email when she stops working for the day. Evenings are now for taking care of herself, spending time with her family, and gardening. To remember why these boundaries are so important, she keeps a hospital slip in her wallet. “That slip in my wallet always reminds me that I’m human, not superwoman,” she says. “And if I don’t take care of myself, that can happen again.”

Professional support networks help build better workplaces.

Eventually, both Escobar-Rocha and Waddell found professional networks to which they credit much of their growth as educators. For Escobar-Rocha, it was Education Workers United, a local chapter of Service Employees International Union composed of FCC educators in Southern California. For Waddell, it was nonprofit All Our Kin, which provides FCC providers with community, professional training opportunities, and advocacy opportunities.

Many remote workers’ professional networks shrank during the pandemic, as work from home increased isolation and reduced professional connections. But these networks remain more important than ever, as workers search for new jobs amid the Great Resignation, engage in employee activism at unprecedented rates, and continue to advance their careers.

For Waddell, Her fellow All Our Kin providers have given critical support as she’s gotten her program off the ground during the pandemic. They have helped her find staff, prepared her for licensing inspections and land-use hearings, and given endless amounts of advice.“When I get to speak to one of them for 30 minutes on the phone, it’s the equivalent of six months of work,” she says.

According to All Our Kin president Erica Phillips, these connections are central to the mission of the organization. “One of the main reasons providers leave the industry is isolation. Many do not have a community that they can turn to for motivation, support, to answer questions, and to be an advocate for them,” she explains. “All Our Kin is able to fill that gap for the family childcare providers we work with.”

Both All Our Kin and Education Workers United also give the women a structure to advocate alongside other educators. As small business owners, FCC providers receive compensation through the tuition they charge families and reimbursements from state governments. Their compensation is so low that providers’ take-home income is often far below minimum wage—one report from Connecticut Voices for Children found that after expenses, Connecticut providers make as little as $6.10 per hour.

All Our Kin and Education Workers United educators have advocated on the state and national level for increased reimbursements for a living wage, as well as benefits like medical coverage, sick leave, and professional development opportunities.

For remote knowledge workers, investing in professional networks can be just as impactful, whether they’re employee resource groups, professional associations, or unions. Even in a virtual world, they can be critical sources of connection and support while equipping workers to change their organizations or fields for the better.

Caregiving is work.

Since the early months of the pandemic, many parents have struggled to juggle their careers and new caregiving responsibilities created by school and childcare closures. The burden fell disproportionately on women, contributing to historic decreases in women’s workforce participation. In response, advocates, lawmakers, and businesses have called for greater investments in the care economy, including paid family leave, increased childcare funding, and an expanded child tax credit.

Despite these calls, the U.S. still lacks a national paid family leave policy and comprehensive child care benefits. Many childcare centers remain understaffed or closed due to labor shortages amid stagnant wages in the childcare industry. As a result, many parents are still struggling to find caregiving arrangements that work.

For Escobar-Rocha, seeing that need among parents is what pushed her to start organizing. “That’s why I decided to step up and advocate, not just as a provider myself, but as a member of my community and an extension of my kids’ families. Our job doesn’t stop at the door.”

Through their advocacy—and their day-to-day labor—FCC educators offer a powerful reminder to be bold in imagining a world where caregiving is recognized as essential work and valued as such. Families, children, and providers themselves are counting on it.

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