Why I Love Daycare

James at his daycare "graduation"

James at his daycare "graduation"

I’m a big fan of daycare. Not just childcare (as in, having someone other than a parent taking care of a baby or child), but daycare.

My journey, as a working mother, to daycare, took me a year and a half and five nannies. Our first nanny, Maggie, was found only after I let go my new-mom fantasies about finding The Perfect Situation (a persistent fantasy, as I walked my newborn around the ‘hood during the snowy winter months I was on leave, was of running into a seasoned-yet-spry grandmother who had room and an empty crib just waiting for my boy).

Maggie was not that. She was a troubled divorcee from a depressed Northern English city who’d fled an abusive husband back home and landed in New York, eventually finding love with a local guy, but still horribly conflicted about having left her own children behind. She may have chased away her demons by working out too much and eating too little, but her babycare instincts were pure, and her love immediate and deep. Thinking back on it, Mags mothered us both, even though she was only a year or two younger than I. “Little Dan,” she called my son, wistfully, while telling me stories of her Daniel, back in the U.K.

I needed the mothering. Because I was clueless.

Sample phone conversation:

Me: “How’s he doing?”

Mags, whispering: “He’s napping in his crib.”

Me: “Really? How’d you get him to do that?”

Mags: “He looked sleepy, so I put him down, and he fell asleep.”

He looked sleepy, and she put him down. Genius, that woman.

A year later, though, we’d bought a house and were moving too far to keep Maggie. When the enormity of that fact hit me, I nearly backed out of the deal. I was dying to leave our cramped apartment, but on our last day, I clung to Mags, and we both cried.

Once in the suburbs, we blew through four nannies in a year. Gillian went back to school; Olga went back to Lithuania (which was too bad–I have a feeling she’d have had my boy toilet trained and speaking Russian at 18 months, and she might also have re-tiled our crooked kitchen floor in her spare time); Danielle quit, via email, with one day’s notice; and Christine? Gosh, I have no idea what happened to Christine. (If you’re out there, hon, can we have our key back? Thanks. Not.)

And that’s when I washed up, exhausted, defeated by nannies–and pregnant with my second son–at a local daycare. Where we stayed for the next four years. Louise, who ran the place (a licensed daycare facility, but run out of a small house that had been cleverly converted–a garage became a sweet infant room, with a blue-sky-and-white-cloud ceiling) could be mercurial, but she loved my kids and had a knack for hiring that meant  many of the same employees who were there when we started were still there when we left.

Whenever I think of daycare’s detractors, I think of a nose-wrinkling response I got from a woman I know a bit, whose young daughter is cared for by her (aging) mother in law (who is also, it must be added, caring for her even more aged mother. I leave you to figure out what’s better — a daycare staffed by energetic twenty-year-olds, or… well, you see my point). What she said about daycare matched a common reaction:

“Oh, I could never have strangers taking care of my child.”

Um. Yeah, strangers. How long were Louise and her staff strangers to my children? Five minutes? Ten? I left my second boy, James, in their care at 4 months or so. He grew up there, with Miss Allison, Miss Cathy, Miss Kaisha. Strangers?

Next argument: “They get sick more often.” They do? Mind didn’t. Next?

What about the possibility of abuse?

Err…. I’m not 100% clear on the stats, but I’m pretty sure it’s been researched and confirmed that most abused children are abused by people in their own families. One revelation I had about daycare shortly after Daniel started there was this: If a nanny, home alone with my nonverbal toddler all day long, was having a bad day and was lonely/frustrated/angry/tired/hungover, she had no backup. If one of the women at the daycare was in a similar situation? She could go make the lunches in the other room while the other workers picked up the slack and cuddled the babies. Right? Can I get an amen?

There’s this one: They’re more comfy in their own homes. Yeah? Doing what? There are a couple of nannies/sitters in my neighborhood now. I see them occasionally, pushing a listless-looking three-year-old on a park swing. Do either of them have anyone to socialize with? It’s true that nannying in the suburbs is harder, lonelier, but even still. I see those three-year-olds walking silently with a babysitter down the street, then I think of my own when they were that age, sitting at a diminutive table making a mother’s day gift or eating chicken soup for lunch, finding out which kids were good to be friends with and which had a problem sharing the trains, and I think, which is better?

Here’s one of my best memories of our little daycare. One day, I called to say I was picking James up early, just after naptime, because he had a pediatric appointment. We were in the midst of toilet training. I got there to see all the kids dozing on their cots. Miss Kaisha gently roused James and asked if he wanted to use the potty before he left. He willingly sat. And sat, and sat. (Obstinate little bugger; he knew, in his little lizard brain, that Mommy had things to do, an appointment to make, another kid to pick up at school). As my blood pressure rose (sure as I was that the kid would pee his pants either in the car or at the doctor’s), Kaisha crouched down next to him in the tiny bathroom, took his hands in hers, and gently stroked them while singing the ABCs.

I felt for a moment as I had way back when with Maggie. Like we were both being taken care of.

James didn’t pee on the potty then, nor did he have an accident (bladders the size of Kansas, my sons), but I give Kaisha total credit for maintaining the patience necessary to train him (and his brother before him; who was way more obstinate. In fact, Kaisha once confided to me that she enlisted the help of her own Grandma Gloria for ideas on coaxing stubborn boys to let it go already).

They made friends that we still see now and again, they felt love–and gave it back (Daniel, I”m sure, still has kind of a crush on a young woman named Miss Deirdre, a schoolteacher who worked at the daycare during summers, and I hope he remembers that, as a young man himself, and blushes happily when he does). They did the crafts, endless, endless crafts, things that I will not do at home with my craft-and-mess-averse personality.

They had a graduation that made me weep.

So yes, with kisses and apologies to Maggie, daycare was the best decision I made in their little lives. We all grew up there, really.