I'm in love with my day-care center. Yeah, I know that's pretty drastic
but before you tell me I'm some kind of unnatural mother, hear me out.
Lily's been going there ever since she was 4 months old, over two
years now. She began going because my husband earns too much money to
quit and stay home, and I like my job too much to quit and stay home. So
the whole thing did start so that we could both work. But what I've
slowly realized during these past two and a half years is that I need
that day-care center for much more than keeping Lily safe and entertained
three days a week. I need it to help me raise her. The men and women
working there are her playmates, extended family, informal pediatricians
and child psychologists.
We live alone. What I mean is that my mini-family is stuck up here in
Boston, far from in-laws in the Midwest and generations of my family in
the Southeast. Sure, we have friends, but no doting grandparents ready
to offer advice or dandle the baby while Bill and I share some rare and
valuable face time. When Lily started at the center, that all changed.
Suddenly we had not only baby-sitting but a coterie of experienced
I was relieved, because shortly after Lily was born I realized that my
friends with children were completely clueless about newborns. They had
already forgotten the minutiae of pablum textures, latch-on, growth
spurts and poop colors. As their kids grow older, parents apparently
brain-dump all previous information on, say, early walking, to make room
for the new stuff on Hanson and Tamagotchi.
My mother's group was a better resource because the kids were all born
in the same month. But there were only six of us, so the information
pool was pretty limited. At the day-care center, however, were Anne and
Lucy -- professionals who had cared for hundreds of children. For me, their
information pool was an ocean.
For example, when I started struggling with solid foods, Anne suggested
mixing the tasteless cereal with juice when I ran out of expressed milk.
When Lily stopped lying quietly for a new diaper, Anne showed me how to
do a diaper change while a wriggly toddler is standing up. From
watching the young toddler room, I learned that any transition goes more
smoothly if you make up a goofy song to move things along, like, "It's
time for that/coat and hat/bundle up/to go for a walk! Yay!"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
When I found a red dot on 16-month-old Lily's belly, it was my day-care
center I headed to, not my pediatrician. Chicken pox was "going around,"
and we'd already had one false alarm. My pediatrician doesn't like to
see those highly contagious kids in her office, so her diagnosis was,
"If she develops more spots and they itch, then it's chicken pox." Since we were throwing a party the next evening, I needed to know whether I had a contagious
kid. Kathy, the day-care center director, stepped out of her office to do
a quick confirmation in the hallway. She even told me how long the pox was
going to last and what kind of calamine lotion to buy.
My pediatrician tells me that even if Lily weren't in day care, she'd be
catching all of these viruses eventually until she builds up her immunity.
Fortunately, the place where she's catching them is also the place where
lots of other kids are catching the same things. Now, for any illness, I
call my day-care center first. "Yeah, that's going around," Kathy will
often say. "It starts with a high fever, then maybe some vomiting. It
lasts for about five days. We've got eight kids out now with it." Even
my pediatrician can't give me information that specific.
I keep Lily home four days a week. But even if I were with her seven, I
wouldn't know as much about her as I've learned from talking to her
day-care providers. She's my only child and few of my friends are
parents, so I don't have much context to work with. But watching her
play at day care, meeting her little pals and talking to the teachers
clues me in to Lily's social and learning styles. When I recently
started talking to pre-school directors, I could spout some convincing
child-development-speak, such as, "she transitions well, interacts best in
smaller groups and is very aware of her surroundings."
If I kept her home for seven days a week, not only would I be crabby and
professionally unfulfilled, but I doubt I'd come up with as much
kid entertainment as the day care does. Every day in their huge
play-space they make wonderful messes. One rainy day they made "mud"
with cocoa powder, water and salt. They make "goop" with cornstarch and
water, a miracle mixture that dries to an easily vacuumed dust. I know
that babies and young toddlers learn a lot through touch, but I just
can't bring myself to spread paint out on the kitchen floor for her to
walk in. Or to let her smear colored whipped cream in her hair. I do
manage to come up with a few play ideas, most of them sparked by looking
around her schoolroom and studying what toddlers like to do.
Those things I've learned about Lily are all important. But here's the
real jewel in the crown for me: I don't have much patience, and I'm
eternally thankful for the three days a week that Lily and I have apart.
On Monday night, I happily anticipate packing her off to "school" on
Tuesday morning -- three whole days of going to the bathroom alone! Three
days of working on projects that I can control and complete! Three days
of uninterrupted phone conversations with other adults!
And then by Thursday night, I'm looking forward to spending Friday
helping her make Play-Doh cookies or reading a new Babybug magazine. The
time away refreshes me so that with her, I can be more patient, more
reliable and more fun. And I'm not the only one who needs the break -- my
husband and I spent 10 years together before we had the baby, and we
still need time alone with each other. Several of our day-care providers
moonlight, so we've never had to scramble for a reliable sitter, even
when we've started calling around only a few days in advance. Whenever
I've had a particularly busy work week, the center has cheerfully taken
Lily for a few extra days.
Don't get me wrong. There are a few flies in the ointment. When there
was no space in the older-kid rooms, Lily was held back with smaller
kids longer than she should have been. And when she was about 18 months
old, we had The Potty Incident. At home, she had started using her beloved
potty several times a day, staying dry and clean fairly often. She
probably would have potty-trained in a week or two -- if the day-care center
could have helped. But their child/teacher ratios didn't allow for
someone to take Lily to the bathroom very often. She quickly lost
interest and is back in diapers, even at home. But I know that the potty
thing is only a matter of time, so I'll gladly trade a few poopy diapers
for everything else I've gotten.
The full weight of what day care does for our little family hit home last
fall, when we spent two weeks in Europe. After three or four days of
chasing Lily through Venetian cafes, sharing a small hotel room and
gazing longingly into charming little shops filled with delicate blown
glass, I'd had enough of the "vacation." Travel-weary Lily quickly
turned into Velcro Baby and talked constantly about her day-care pals.
Trapped in the hotel room during her naps, I managed to scribble a
scarce few postcards. The first one I sent was to our day-care center. It
said, "We miss you, can't wait to get back."