Published on September 15th, 2014 | by Amra Brooks1
AMRA BROOKS on the Childcare Hustle
I went back to teaching fulltime when my son was seven months old. I felt so lucky that I was able to have that much time off of work to be with him, and at the same time incredibly guilty that I would be leaving him and that I wasn’t going to be the stay-at-home mother that I had, that so many of my friends had chosen to be.
We had moved to a new state for my new job that I had accepted before I knew I was pregnant, it was the reason we were in this new city far away from our network of family and friends. We looked around our area, asked every one we knew for childcare recommendations, and toured countless daycares. I am a researcher, I like to know all of my options, and I like to find the very best I can. I make informed decisions, have wish lists of the things I might one day need—I’m the kind of person that knows who makes the best hatchet even though I’ve yet had a reason to touch one. Many daycares had long waiting lists, most were totally unaffordable, and one we toured was both of those things on top of being really dirty – and when we visited a “care giver” was yelling at a child for crying. I often left these tours crying myself. Another that touted all the progressive Reggio Emilia and RIE pedagogy (wait, I had to be thinking about pedagogy with my infant??? I did.) only let you observe the classroom through a Plexiglas window and didn’t allow you to actually speak to a teacher until you were enrolled. A friend toured that same facility and listened as the tour guide told her they didn’t have plastic toys to play with because they liked to use more organic materials for open-ended imaginative play, for example “pretending a block was a telephone.” As she said this, my friend was watching a child with a that same plastic Fisher Price telephone that we all had when we were kids. Clearly what so many of these places were selling wasn’t what they were practicing.
We ended up choosing a place where two women I worked with sent their twin boys who are a year older than my son. We had become fast friends and I thought, what’s good enough for them, is good enough for us too. But my son hated it there from the start, and I think I had a harder time leaving him than I had anticipated, which certainly didn’t make it easier. I would give pep talks to myself and my husband, about how we had to exude confidence when we dropped him off, so he would feel secure, but it was a struggle to muster it up when saying goodbye to our crying baby. Perhaps hate is a strong word, as there were some positive aspects: there were four very kind women there who I really liked, they had space for him and there wasn’t a waiting list like most of the others we saw, it was affordable and offered the hours we needed, it was clean, and there were windows and some natural light. What became quickly apparent were the atheistic differences. It was full of light-up plastic noise making toys, gendered toys that we never allowed at home. This I had to quickly let go of for my own sanity. They sent home cute art projects that he clearly didn’t make on his own, and set him up for creepy holiday photos.
When I filled out the form at the daycare we chose they asked us what we wanted for our children and I said I just wanted someone to love him, comfort him, make him feel safe, and encourage his freedom and individuality. What the hell was I supposed to say when they asked what we wanted from a childcare provider? What we got was a place where we knew he would be clean and dry and fed, being on a state mandated schedule that centers strictly adhere to, but also a place with a constantly revolving door of care givers with inconsistent schedules, and not enough arms to hold all the crying babies at once. I remember picking him up and seeing him crying on the floor and a woman saying, “they all cry at the same time and we can’t hold them all.” This broke my heart. I was the mom who believed you wore him in a wrap or carrier all over the house and all over the city, who believed babies should be held and kept close as much as possible. It is really hard to be a working mom and someone who believes in many of the principles of attachment parenting; the balance isn’t an easy one to find. I breastfed a lot at pick up, and there were a lot of nights when I woke 3 or 4 times to nurse because he needed the time with me and the comfort.
Leaving my son at that daycare was something I never got used, but being back at work was actually a good fit for me, and that was surprising. I actually still loved teaching, and seeing people; having adult intellectual conversations and being in the world. It was important for me to have to get dressed and not look like the spit-up breast milk-stained slightly nineties thrifted pajama-wearing zombie I felt I was becoming. And more importantly it was important for me to write again. Only that one was harder because I didn’t have to show up for any one else in the same way that I did with a real job. I’m still trying to allow myself the time to make that a regular practice, realizing that it’s not a luxury, but an essential need that grounds me in who I am. I want my son to know that part of me and to see me modeling that behavior.
I remember talking to the chair of my department while I was pregnant; I said I imagined it would be really hard coming back to work after my generous maternity leave, and he replied with something to the effect that I may really enjoy coming back. In a sense he was really right. I learned that being a stay at home mom wasn’t the best fit for me. I find it a strange world where you are either a stay at home mom, or a power hungry career mom, and I don’t feel like either. I know there are lots of us in the grey area, it’s just not talked about or recognized, and like anything, it’s hard to be in-between. I carry a strange guilt for enjoying my job, and a similar guilt for not being able to take more time for it.
My local psychic works across the street at the vegan juice bar. He gives tarot readings on the last Sunday of the month. The first time I went he told me that whatever is best for me and for my career, for my writing, is also best for my baby. He also told me to remember to be totally free with him, and to hold sacred space when we are together. These are three things I really needed to hear. The mom guilt of going back to work when my son was seven months old, the anxiety of being the schedule keeper, meal planner/family chef, and running a creative writing program, while not letting my own writing career die often kept me bound and tight and feeling opposite of the free, open, easy person I wanted my son to see when he looked me. Plus, keeping track and making sure everything happened was taking me out of the moment—remembering sacred space was really important, and sometimes impossible. But I welcomed these reminders and hold onto them like mantras.
After many months of emailing and a lot more research, I found a program that my son was able to join when he was 15 months old and it has changed our lives. It’s a home childcare program run by someone who is Montessori trained and has been doing childcare for over 20 years. There are 6 children ranging in ages 13 months to 3-years-old, two caregivers and giant yard and garden where they spend 80% of their time. These women and children have become family. My son runs into the yard every morning excited to see everyone, and it’s often difficult to get him to come home with me in the afternoons. They pick peas and tomatoes, candy violets, collect seeds, have dress up and drum circles and daily dance parties. I picked him up last week and he was in red silk Chinese pajamas with a tiny Mandarin hat. I still breastfeed at pick-up and miss him while I’m at work. And even though every cent we have goes to pay for this care, everyday I am so grateful for it. It makes going to work completely different. I wish that there had been more infant care available to us earlier, and I know we did the best we could at the time, but I hate looking back on those days. The mom guilt does eat me up sometimes.
The crazy thing is that day care only lasts until preschool, and then there’s real school to think about which induces a serious anxiety attack. We’ve already started some waitlists, and some e-mailing, and there are some lotteries on the horizon, and probably some sort of move again to be in the right zone or district. Childcare and education is a serious hustle, but for the moment I don’t have to fake the confidence when I drop my toddler off in the morning and as mom who enjoys her job that has been the biggest gift.