Stephanie Ratcliffe
When my marriage ended, I had no means by which to support my 18-month-old son. I had no job and no hope of child support until the divorce was finalized. I needed to find work, but was reluctant to put my son in day care. Then it occurred to me: maybe I could find a job as a nanny, which would allow me to care for my son while earning a living. Sure, the pay would be a lot less than a full-time job, but I would save on day care, which can cost around $800 a month in New York City.

The problem was finding a person willing to hire me. Few families want a nanny who comes with a child in tow. After three weeks of searching, though, I found a single mother who offered me a job. Like me, she needed to work to support her child. When she didn’t pay me for a week, and then two, I understood. On the third week, my refrigerator was empty and my bank account down to almost nothing. Rent on our illegal, six-foot by six-foot windowless room was almost due. I went to work determined to confront my employer, only to find when I got there that she had moved and left no forwarding address.

Standing at the locked door of her apartment, I realized that I might have to put my son in day care. My dream of working as a nanny wasn’t panning out. I needed to find steady work. And while the idea of parting with my son every day saddened me, I had little time to dwell on the matter. I didn’t have money for rent, and now I needed to pay for day care while I embarked on a serious job search. With elderly parents on a fixed income and no child support, I did the only thing I could think of: I went to the New York City Department of Human Resources Administration, commonly known as the welfare office.

Blinking away tears, I pushed the baby stroller past four men who shifted from foot to foot in front of the boxy brown building’s glass doors. The ground floor waiting room was noisy with the cries and screams of toddlers clutched in their mothers’ laps. Like me, these parents had had to bring their children with them. Women and children occupied more than 100 upright seats, and men leaned against the walls. After filling out the initial paperwork, I estimated my wait would be over an hour. So I took my son out of his stroller to walk him around the edge of the room and then picked him up to play with him. After a few minutes, the security guards insisted that I put him back in his stroller. It seemed cruel to leave a toddler cooped up for such a long time, but I did what they said.

Eventually, I was sent to a waiting room on the third floor, where lines of 10 to 15 people waited to clock in. Here too, many children were crying. It struck me as ridiculous that no area had been set aside for the children to play.

I waited for three hours to see a social worker. The initial interview was quick and curt. We met in a gray cubicle in the largest room of gray cubicles I had ever seen. After entering my information into her computer, she told me that food stamps and vouchers for day care required that I submit proof of address. I didn’t have proof, I said, since I was living in an illegal sublet. When she asked if I wanted to continue to look for nanny work, I said I wanted to find a jobany jobas quickly as possible. That option, she said, was not in her computer. So she set up another appointment for me a week later.

I left, disappointed that it would take so long to get help. I had no idea it would take a week to convince my landlord to write a note confirming that I lived at his address; he was afraid that his landlord would learn about my hide-out.

My second appointment with the social worker was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. I put my son in his stroller and arrived an hour early. By 2:30 p.m., my name still had not been called. Such a long wait did not seem unusual. There were no resources for job hunting in the meantimeno bulletin boards with help wanted ads, no newspapers, no computers, no phones. Several of the children waiting on their mothers’ laps were screaming, so I started singing to a few of them, inviting them to clap along. Some of the screaming stopped.

At 5:00 p.m., my name had yet to be called. I spoke to a security guard, who told me to sit down and wait. Then I saw my social worker, calling another name. I ran to her and asked if she had called me. She said she had, many times. I told her I had been there since morning. She asked if I had brought a companion, or anyone who could prove I had been waiting all that time. I looked about; no one had been there longer than Ino one I had talked to, at any rate. She said that since I had missed my appointment, I had to start again. Missing appointments would not be tolerated.

Though I had entered the building broken, I left angry and determined, not only to find money to put food on the table and pay this month’s rent, but to send my son to day care and get a small apartment.

I went straight to the public library, went online and answered every nanny ad I could. That night I got a call back from a woman with a small boy who promised me a lot of hours, because she often took business trips. At first I thought the job would pay enough to cover an apartment rent, but I soon realized it would not be adequate. Instead, I used the money to enroll my son at a Christian day care center, then set about finding the editorial work I had enjoyed when I was single. Although I did not find it right away, I did find temporary work as an administrative assistant and enough income to secure a small apartment after a few months.

During my job search, I thought of the people seeking public assistance. They had to spend hours, even days, waiting simply to prove that they could not make it on their ownthat they had failed. Such a blow to self-esteem is a poor way to begin a job search, which is a test of self-confidence for anyone. Proof of neediness is actually the opposite of what employers look for in a prospective employeeproof of resourcefulness, intelligence and skill. Learning how to be successful in such a welfare system may make it harder to find a job in the long run.

Eventually, I found a great job in the literary field. While I do miss spending more time with my son, I am proud to have met these challenges. I also hope some day my son will understand and will be proud of me.

Stephanie Ratcliffe is assistant to the literary editor at America.

Comments

ANNA M. SEIDLER | 1/19/2007 - 8:06pm
Bravo to this sturdy, determined mother. She has the important "can do" attitude most employers seek. Also, congratulations on her finding a good position.

Anna M. Seidler

Richard Kuebbing | 2/26/2007 - 2:58pm
This letter is a response to a letter from Anna M. Seidler (2/5) about “I Need a Job—Any Job!” by Stephanie Ratcliffe (1/29). It is a great article, but the part I best liked was that tiny little credit, “Art by the author.” Let’s hope we are blessed with more of the same—art and heart.

ANNA M. SEIDLER | 1/19/2007 - 8:06pm
Bravo to this sturdy, determined mother. She has the important "can do" attitude most employers seek. Also, congratulations on her finding a good position.

Anna M. Seidler

richard kuebbing | 1/29/2007 - 11:17pm
"I need a job -- any job" -- great article -- but the part I best liked was that tiny little credit "art by the author". Let's hope we are blessed with more of the same -- art and heart.

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