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All My Children

Among the tykes in Barbara Shipley’s care, there’s little daytime drama.

Photo: Suzy Clement

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By Christine Foster

Robin Niemeier knew her child care search wouldn’t be easy. She’d been at home with her daughter, Anneliese Moriarity, for three years. For her new nursing job at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, she needed to find a caregiver who would provide overnight care three times a week. Eventually, she found two names through a county referral service. When she interviewed them, she knew right away that Barbara Shipley was the one she wanted. One reference referred to Shipley as “the most nurturing person you will ever meet.”

Shipley, ’70, is one of about 430,000 people nationwide who care for children in their homes—in her case, a rental unit in a modest Mountain View duplex. She has fashioned the largest room into a playroom, and it looks like toddler heaven. Little Tikes kitchens, Fisher Price farms and several dozen stuffed animals surround her young charges as they shape Play-Doh, cluster around a chalkboard or snack on cereal.

It was Shipley’s desire to avoid placing her own children in day care that led her to start taking care of others’ kids. A single parent from the time Jenny and John, now 27 and 25, were young, Shipley wanted to care for them at home and earn enough to support them. Child care seemed a natural fit. “I believe Jesus called me to do this work,” she says.

“It was so effortless for her to take care of kids,” says Karen Fredrickson, the first parent who placed her child in Shipley’s home. Fredrickson, ’67, urged her to take on more children, and in 1984 Shipley got licensed to watch up to six children at once. These days, she usually has about 10 pre-kindergarteners on the rolls, most of whom have part-time schedules. Full-time attendance costs $240 a week. Shipley says her biggest challenge isn’t juggling six kids of varying ages, but keeping the business fiscally sound. During Silicon Valley’s last downturn, many of Shipley’s clients lost their jobs—and took their kids out of day care. At one point, she was caring for only three children, and her income dropped by about 50 percent. Recovering from that financial setback has taken years.

Shipley’s educational pedigree is unusual in her field: 45 percent of child care workers have at most a high school diploma. But her Stanford credentials are beside the point for many parents. Lara Hunter, whose baby, Tessa, has been with Shipley since April, says she’s most impressed by how Shipley is in tune with each child. “What cemented it for me was how my baby responded,” Hunter says. “She could have a master’s from Harvard and Stanford, but if my baby cried all the time, it wouldn’t work.”

When she has an opening, Shipley brings in prospective parents and their child for an interview to see if it is a good fit. Once she accepts them, she has no contract and simply asks for a month’s notice if they are leaving. “I want it to feel like a family,” she says.

For Shipley’s own children, it did feel something like the Brady Bunch, says Jenny Tyner, now a high school music teacher in New York. “It was like a bunch of younger brothers and sisters.” The downside? Naptime in a day care is sacred, so Tyner sometimes had to vacate her bedroom so a little one could sleep. “I can open a door more quietly than anyone I know,” she says.

These days, little Anneliese Moriarity sleeps in a small bed beside Shipley’s three nights a week. Shipley “has been like another parent to Anneliese,” Niemeier says. “She sleeps better at Barbara’s than she does at my house.” When Anneliese started at Shipley’s, she wasn’t potty trained and still was attached to her pacifier. Guided by Shipley, Niemeier has worked on Liese’s sleep, bathroom and binky habits. Liese’s attachment to her caregiver is clear. In the midst of playing, she turns to Shipley and says, “I love you, Barbara.” Shipley’s reply is immediate: “I love you, too, honey.”

CHRISTINE FOSTER is a Stanford contributing writer living in Mountain View.

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