It is knowing that your child is not in the ideal situation: he eats ketchup sandwiches or spends too much time in front of a screen, no one reads to him. There may too many kids and not enough adults. There may be people who you don't know taking care of your child instead of the person you give your money to. Your infant cries as you leave and you hope it is just separation anxiety and not fear of their current geography. There may be smoking somewhere in the house because you can smell it. It may cost 1/3 of your take home pay for that shift. It may even be licensed by the state but the state doesn't do an adequate inspection of daycares in your state. If you're lucky you find a better situation. If you are lucky you can afford a better situation.
In 1993 I was a single parent for the first time. My 6-week-old son was going to need some sort of care while I went back to work as a nursing assistant on evening shift for 24 hours a week. I was able to cover some of that time with my son's dad. I did not have family nearby who could help out. So I was advised to call a local social service agency to apply for a childcare subsidy. The waiting list was 18 months long. This would still leave 6 days a month when I would have to find evening childcare for my newborn that had colic. Friends, friends of friends and coworker's kids all took care of my son for his first few months while I was at work. Let's just say it is easy to burn through the good intentions of others when they have to take care of a baby with colic for 10 hours.
The most memorable babysitter was a college aged woman who called at midnight to complain about the amount of money I gave her -- 25 dollars for the night in which my son slept most of the night.
"I don't think you paid me enough."
"How much do you think I should pay you?
"Fifty dollars a night."
"If I paid you fifty dollars a night I would make no money a day"
"But I am taking care of your son."
And that is the crux of the situation right there.
Eventually I did find someone to take care of my son consistently for the amount of money I could pay. But as my work hours increased I essentially was giving this woman the total sum of my child support so I could work for a paycheck that had less and less value. And it was far from ideal. My 22-year-old son tells me now that the woman treated him better than her own children which I suppose is something. I searched for other structured days cares but they were only open during the day and so my eventual choice was to take a cut in pay and work day shift.
My divorce 3 years ago meant I would be returning to work and my younger son would need after school care. I found someone who was affordable, on my route home from work and who genuinely liked kids. Unfortunately, it was not ideal, somewhat chaotic and eventually I had to find someone else. Now I pay a significant portion of my modest paycheck for the assurance that my son is well cared for.
This is what bad childcare looks like: your child gets in the car and tells you that the worker was on her smart phone most of the time and not aware of what was going on with the kids in her care. You have conversations with the obviously unhappy child in the back seat while your thoughts are trying to think of alternatives for the rest of the week. But nothing can happen for a week or two and in the meantime you and your child will just have to manage because you have no choice.
Fortunately, I have never had a phone call at work telling me something horrible has happened to my child. But I have heard of things after the fact that have kept me awake with worry at night. I could resort to rhetorical arguments about the need for universal, affordable, decent childcare for all families. When we think about what bad childcare is it is usually a horror story we read on a Facebook feed and it happens to other children. That is not bad childcare that is horrible childcare. Bad childcare is what you get when you don't have enough money, the resources aren't available in your community and there is no accountability by the agencies who are suppose to regulate providers. It is not something unique to my situation. Of this I am sure.