Published on May 14th, 2021 | by Meg Lemke


Who’s Been Caring for the Kids of Essential Workers? Loira Limbal On Her Documentary THROUGH THE NIGHT

Ever just stopped by a supermarket after 8pm, or picked up bread at a bakery in the morning that was baked overnight? Ever had a nurse at the night ER who, by their bedside manner, clearly has their own kid—and stopped to wonder, what’s her childcare situation? Or maybe you’ve done the hard work to get care for your kid in seemingly impossible circumstances. But, just as likely, like me, you have not fully realized the ways that you’ve benefited from those who have had to do that work, who do it day and night. The pandemic radically exposed the fragility of the infrastructure of American society’s reliance on essential workers. Many of those workers may be mothers, who struggle to find care at odd hours—from healthcare professionals to food service employees, with night shifts or hours that might change weekly or even daily. For many single parents, but also folks whose co-parents also work night shifts, their profession requires childcare “through the night.” One warm, loving, space that provides that care is showcased in a poignant and powerful new documentary from Loira Limbal. The message underlying the documentary: the system needs to change. Yet, there is so much joy and love in this film. It’s a tribute—first, to the mothers who find this special place for their kids, who work so hard for them and for themselves. But it also celebrates the truly remarkable caregivers, especially Deloris (“Nunu”) and Patrick (“Pop Pop”) who run a home daycare, Dee’s Tots, as a married couple and devote themselves to these mothers and kids—who love so relentlessly that they lose themselves, yet still have the margin to pick up a crying baby, to plan a garden and help the kids grow it, to create ways to mark milestones, and comforting rituals that anchor kids, and at all hours stop to rally moms when they come back tired and missing their family, letting them know what a good job they’re doing. We live in a system that makes mothers pay, in so many ways, for an underpaid career helping others. This film is about the need for change and the need for gratitude and respect for those women. My gratitude goes to Loira Limbal for making this film, and for taking the time to talk to MUTHA about it – Meg Lemke

MUTHA: Your film was undertaken pre-Covid, but it highlights the impossible situation already in place for nurses and grocery clerks and other essential workers who are parents, especially single mothers, in finding sustainable childcare. Can you speak to how the pandemic affected the daycare, and the mothers featured?

LOIRA LIMBAL: Everyone in the film is an essential worker. Shanona is a pediatric ER nurse who has been on the literal front line of the entire pandemic; Marisol has been working 6-7 days a week making sure our supermarket shelves are fully stocked; and Nunu and Patrick never closed their doors precisely because so many of their parents are essential workers. Right now, mothers of color are grieving the loss of loved ones, struggling to pay bills, facing unemployment, homeschooling their children, or making the impossible choice of leaving young children with older children to go out and clean our public transportation systems and hospitals, care for our elders and children. Nunu told us “We are staying open until they shut us down because our parents need us. It is a little bit scary because every person who walks in could bring in COVID-19.” As the crisis wears on, their financial model has collapsed because enrollment is down. They have been forced to deplete their savings in order to keep staff employed and keep the lights on. Childcare providers already operated on very thin margins and the pandemic has decimated them financially. It is estimated that over 1 in 4 child-care providers nationwide still remain closed.

A child talks to his mother at work before his bedtime at the daycare center

MUTHA: Schools went remote during the pandemic early on, but not childcare centers in many cases, who in fact filled in the gap for some families whose kids were home from schools—can you speak to how this reflects the treatment and status of childcare workers in this country?

LOIRA LIMBAL: Mothers were forced to leave their careers to take care of their families. Just in December, there were a total of 140,000 jobs lost, 100% of them by women and over 5 million jobs were lost by just women in 2020 (Forbes). Similarly, child care providers (who are mostly women) were asked to fill the rolls of teachers with virtual learning much like at Dee’s Tots. Deloris had to set up a separate classroom where kids could watch their teachers and she required a certain number of employees to monitor the children’s progress, making sure they didn’t mute their teachers or fall asleep. This just illustrates taht childcare providers are not babysitters. They are certified, licensed, and adhere to so much goverment oversight. They deserve to be paid more than the average $11 per hour.

Shanona, a nurse, and her kids who get care “through the night” while she cares for others

MUTHA: How did you find the daycare featured, and is this an unusual situation as a home daycare that runs both day and night, or is it representative? How did you go about getting access and building trust with Deloris (“Nunu”), Patrick, and the families/community?

LOIRA LIMBAL: One day I was browsing through an online mothers’ group that I am a part of and I came across an article about the daycare at the heart of our film. I quickly became obsessed with the idea of making a documentary about the community described in the article because what I read was so similar to my own experience, my mother’s, and that of so many other working class Black and Latinx women that I know.

When I was nine years old, my sister Glomery was born. Shortly after her birth, my mother had to return to work to support us. She was a single mom. Babysitters would cancel. Family would flake. My mother was a home health aide. She didn’t have paid time off and she could not call out sick last minute. And so she was often forced to make the impossible decision of leaving me, her 9 year old, home alone to take care of my infant sister. While that may sound shocking, you should know that my mother was devoted, hard-working, and above all incredibly loving. She was a great mother. She just didn’t have many options.

I was inspired by the stories of our protagonists, my mother’s story, and my own. And while I want to shine a light on the many systemic problems in our society, I was ultimately most inspired by the abundance of love and interdependence among the women, children, and families in our film and our communities.

I worked up the courage to cold call the daycare center. I finally did and at our first meeting, Deloris agreed to participate and told me time and time again how comfortable she felt with me and that even though we had just met, she felt like she knew me. She said “I know you get it and I want to make this film with you.”

Deloris “Nunu,” holding one of the children she cares for “through the night”

MUTHA: I loved the love story between Nunu and Patrick, can you talk about their relationship and how it features into the story of the film?

LOIRA LIMBAL: Patrick and Deloris’ story started like many other home based childcare providers. They filled a need in the community and decided to turn it into a business. Deloris often refers to Patrick as her “right hand.” While I believe their support for each other has helped their 24 hour business thrive and their love for each other is felt in how they care for the children in their daycare, they are also working harder and longer hours than anyone should. They talk about the sacrifices they made with their own family, their health, and their savings to keep the business open. Many people would call them heroes but that diminishes their lifelong work. This is why I wanted to make Through the Night, to show working women of color as full human beings with triumphs, struggles, and complexity.

Patrick “Pop Pop”

MUTHA: The film, to me, also powerfully acts as an argument for the need for a national minimum wage—what other policy shifts do you hope this could inspire?

LOIRA LIMBAL: More and more people in the U.S. now work one and a quarter jobs. Many of those jobs require nonstandard hours including late-night and early-morning shifts. The national debate about the challenges facing working class people in this country is still dominated by the narratives of white men working in industries such as coal mining and manufacturing. While those stories are no doubt important, the conversation is woefully incomplete because women are already nearly half of the U.S. workforce.

In nearly half the country, it costs more to send a 3 year old to daycare than it does to send an 18 year old to a state college. Not only is childcare expensive, but for Americans working multiple jobs or irregular hours, it can be difficult to find care at all. This spurs a set of impossible decisions that parents, and single mothers in particular, must make every day.

The irony is that while child-care is unaffordable for most, providers themselves can barely make ends meet. The overwhelming majority of home based child-care providers are women of color and immigrants whose income is far less than the median in other lines of work. As one interviewee told me, “there have never been decent jobs in this sector because it’s women’s work. It’s caretaking work. Our society doesn’t value that as a whole.”

Through the Night will add complexity to the national conversation about issues that affect working class families and the working poor by centering the experiences of women and children of color. I want women of color to feel seen and affirmed. 

filming in the community
Director Loira Limbal

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About the Author

Meg Lemke is the Editor-in-Chief of MUTHA. She is also the comics and graphic novels reviews editor at Publishers Weekly. Her past roles include as chair of the comics and graphic novel programming at the Brooklyn Book Festival, series editor at Illustrated PEN and curator of youth and comics programs at the PEN World Voices Festival, and program development for the French Comics Association. She has been a book editor at Teachers College Press at Columbia University, Seven Stories Press, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her writing has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Seattle Review, The Atlanta Review, The Good Mother Myth, and Seleni, among other publications. She lives with her family in the dense mother-zone of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Find her @meglemke and or read up on her formative years at Lady Collective.

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