As soon as KC Sledd drops her son off at day-care, the push notifications begin.
“Ate turkey sloppy joe at 11:45.”
“Fell asleep at 12:32.”
“Woke up at 1:03.”
“Wet, applied diaper cream at 2:15.”
On any given day, Sledd, a media consultant based in Richmond, receives between 10 and 20 notifications from her son’s day-care center. The minute he eats, sleeps or goes to the bathroom, she told me, she knows. Every once in a while, she gets a picture.
Apps like Sledd’s are taking over the American day-care industry. Child-care software companies have been partnering with day-care facilities, offering parents up-to-the-minute updates on their child’s daily routine. Since it launched in 2013, HiMama — one of the three largest apps of its kind, along with Tadpoles and Kinderlime — has registered more than 500,000 active users; HiMama recently announced a partnership with KinderCare, a day-care company with more than 1,000 locations across the country.
The idea, on its face, is a good one: It’s hard for working parents to leave infants with relative strangers. Day-care notification apps allow them to stay connected, checking in on their baby, as they would Twitter or the weather. But these apps can also make it impossible for parents, especially women, to be fully present at work, says Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies the experiences of working moms.
“These apps are signaling that, yes, you might be at work, but your No. 1 priority at any given second should be on what’s happening with your child,” Collins says.
The first day Merideth Potter dropped her daughter off at a day-care center, she says, she struggled to leave her. “Everything in your body is screaming at you,” says Potter, who works in advertising in the District. “Rationally, you know you have to work, and you want to work. But all the primal parts of your brain are telling you that you should not hand the most precious thing in your life over to a total stranger.”
Sledd, too, says she felt “sick about it.” At work every day, she’d spend an hour and a half attached to her breast pump in a small room, smelling her son’s pajamas because someone told her that would make pumping easier. (Maybe it did, she says, but it also made her really sad.)
For both Potter and Sledd, the app’s constant updates made the initial separation a little less painful. As Potter left her daughter, crying hysterically, at the day-care center for the first time, the teacher assured her they’d “send extra photos that day.” “I knew [my daughter] was probably screaming her head off,” Potter says, “but it was really nice to see her having a bottle, playing with toys.”
After a while, though, the app became a major source of stress for Sledd, making it harder for her to concentrate at work. Her son, she says, has always been a “terrible napper.” Once she got the notification that he’d gone to sleep — around 12:30 every day — she would start to worry. “I’d see the notification that he woke up from a 25-minute nap, and be like, ‘no, God, please no.’ I’d know he was going to be an absolute nightmare when he got home.”
Soon, she was checking her phone obsessively. The notifications, she says, became her “digital tether” to her son. Potter eventually turned off the app’s push notifications, but Sledd has kept them on. Once she started receiving the full suite of updates, she says, it was hard to stop.
“It’s the natural instinct to want to know, ‘how’s my son doing, how’s my son doing, how’s my son doing.' It’s the most valuable thing I could possibly learn more about,” Sledd says. “There is really no quelling that type of addiction." (When asked about the possibility that HiMama could make it difficult for parents to focus at work, co-founder and CEO Ron Spreeuwenberg said that, as a father, he doesn’t find the information provided by the app to be particularly “urgent or distracting.” The updates, he said, “just bring a smile to your face.”)
While dads also use HiMama, as the app’s name suggests, the majority of its users are probably women, though HiMama could not provide The Lily with a gendered breakdown of its users.
Potter’s husband has the app downloaded, but doesn’t get any notifications, Potter says. “He definitely doesn’t check the app during the day. … In my experience I am the one who is more likely to be on top of diaper changes and naps and that type of thing,” she says. On the other hand, Sledd told me that her husband, Adam, has uses the app “at least a dozen times a day.”
American moms are already under enormous pressure “to raise their kids as if they don’t have a job, and do their job like they don’t have kids,” says Katrina Alcorn, author of “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.” Collins agrees: In interviews she conducted with more than 100 working mothers in the United States and Europe, she found that American moms experienced far more anxiety and guilt about leaving their children during the work day, attributing the trend to the idea — particularly entrenched in the United States, according to Collins — that “motherhood should be an all-consuming commitment.”
While most of the working mothers Collins interviewed were grateful for the new day-care technology, she sees the apps as a “Band-Aid” on a much larger, distinctly American problem. None of the European mothers Collins spoke with mentioned day-care apps; as far as she knows, nothing like HiMama exists in Europe. She suspects that is because European mothers often benefit from far better maternal policies: paid parental leave, affordable child care, and, in some countries, a legally protected option to work part time until your child reaches a certain age. (The United States is still the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave.)
“The reason women want these apps is because they can’t be with their kids when they’re infants,” Collins says. “In the face of more supportive policies, and men taking on an increasingly egalitarian role at home, these apps become less necessary.”
Until those policies change or men take on a far greater share of the child care, Collins says, these apps will be a poor substitute. The constant updates could exacerbate the guilt that parents feel, leaving their kids, she says, by showing them pictures of activities — and, occasionally, growth milestones — they wish they could be there for.
Especially right after returning to work, Sledd would sit in meetings, think about her son and wonder what she was doing in the office.
“I would try so hard to be present, compartmentalize and focus,” she says. But then she’d get another photo.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally misstated that Adam Sledd has checked his day-care app a dozen times. He checks it approximately a dozen times per day.