Monday, September 20, 2010

Daycare: The Unabridged Lengthy Version

Before we know it, she'll be picking out her own tutu—tiara ensemble in the morning and hopping on her bike to ride to school.

Just over a month ago, I would've dismissed the notion of daycare as something other people do. Things were going smoothly and we were in our as-of-a-month-ago groove. I had a few massage clients who I visited in the evenings and on weekends and I was beginning to piece together support for a might-be, basement cottage sewing business.

Opal remained the nucleolus within the nucleus within the cell of a day.

And then.

I was offered a part-time job giving massage to the residents of a lovely Alzheimer's facility just down the road. Landed, plop, like a small, soft animal in my lap. Had it been three months earlier, I would have politely handed the animal back, or put in on the ground to scamper away.
But as of a month ago and as of now, what we have is an 11 month old baby who is ready for (very part-time, 10 hours a week, or so) a change in environment. More excitement and adventures.
And we happen to also have a mama who is just as ready for the very same thing, along with some money and an additional sense of purpose. So there you have it; the offer was just too good, as was the timing. I said yes on the spot and started the following week.

Opal stayed with grammy (Jesse's mama) while I worked and loved every minute of it. Playing with special grammy-only toys, chasing after their gentle canine-giant, Lucy, and being doted on by everyone who walked through the living room—grammy, grampy and auntie Alex to name but a few.

But when grammy was scheduled to leave town for over two weeks, I began my quest in exploring other options for Opal-care during work hours, saving other grammy-sitting possibilities for the luxurious variables like, perhaps, getting a haircut or going out for a date night.

My first thought was to hire a babysitter—classic, simple—for two afternoons a week. But that idea came with a very distinct question mark around never quite knowing how they would be spending their day. Would the sitter be on her cell phone all afternoon texting her boyfriend (like I used to do when I was a babysitter, ahem.) while Opal vied for her attention with her big figgy, dewy eyes? Would they stay in the house all day playing with the same toys and doing the same (anti-climactic) things she's been doing for months? Would our neurotic dog cause problems and force us to spend an extra $10 per day to put her in Doggy Day Care?

Then grammy asked about daycare, which, honest to god, hadn't occurred to me until then. As I said before, the idea of daycare did not exist in my Opal-under-one vocabulary, which has been the case with many developmental milestones: Oh, wow, I thought we had a lot more time before that one came. I best be hitting the library and emailing other mamas to inquire bout' this one.

So I called every commercial daycare center in Louisville and found that only two had infant-rooms, typically for children one year and under. Opal and I went to visit them both.
There were a handful of things I noticed right off the bat. Neither of the centers allowed children Opal's age to play outside. The cribs for the little ones were part of the play room and had very little privacy. Whether or not Opal would have little friends to play with depended entirely on the ages of the kids who happened to be there. So if the majority of the kiddos were very young that day, she'd have to entertain herself amidst a sea of status-quo toys, bless her heart, sweetly turning the pages to a board book while whispering the her-version-words to a nearby stuffed animal.

Another thing of note, as we were leaving our second visit, the infant-room staff woman (who, at first, I felt exuded a certain sense of calm but quickly realized it to be exhaustion) said softly to me when the director of the center was out of earshot, "This is so hard. Taking care of so many babies is so hard." And she shook her head as if caught in an inadvertent plea for help.

The following day, while sitting at the park watching our little ones crawl over blankets on the grass as if they were navigating their way over a series of rafts on water, one of my mama friends who has two young children in part-time daycare, reminded me, "Just remember, nobody will do it the way you do it. Nobody will even come close. That's just how it is. Nobody will ever match you or your environment. You're her mama, after all."

Good point. So then the question became, what did good enough look like?

When I was a wee peanut, I remember spending time in a home-based day care in a house that was so close to ours that you could just barely see the edge of the brown roof from our porch. I was much older at the time, elementary-aged, and I went before and after school. The details are fuzzy: the early morning cold and dark, the smell of microwaved oatmeal, my arms wrapped around a stuffed animal, seemingly lots of kids including a little demolishing tank of a toddler boy weaving about, the TV filled with Fragile Rock and Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Very different than my own mama did it, for sure.

I continued searching.
I requested info and suggestions from other mamas and checked out Craigslist, which is where I found two women who were intriguing enough to call. Both boasted extensive degrees in child development and had many years of experience under their belts. Both watched children in the comfort of their homes. Within the week, I had called and visited them both and found that one of the homes, the home of a woman named Cindy, seemed like a really good place for Opal. A really good place.

The scene from our visit: a large, clean, comfortable home with lots of natural light, hardwood floors, rugs, a sweet backyard where they do go out to play on nice days. There were separate sleeping areas for all of the children and rooms with closing doors for the younger ones. Pierce, Connor and Elisabeth, 2 years, 8 months and 3 years, respectively, played freely in the space, clearly relaxed and unencumbered. Toys of all colors, textures sizes, books galore. Within moments, Opal wriggled out of my arms and scurried over to where Pierce and Elizabeth were playing with an open-up farm house and joined right in. In that moment, I felt as if I'd discovered something I'd been looking for without ever knowing exactly what that particular missing thing was. It was as if my eyes declared in unison, Well, hello! You happen to be precisely what we want to be looking at.

I commenced to calling every single referral Cindy had listed in her orientation packet. Most of them were mamas who'd had, or have, children in her care. Nearly all of them took the time to either call me back and leave a message or to have a leisurely chat. In addition to handing out one after another gold star for Cindy's daycare, they also provided a hefty load of unexpected support as mamas who have also gone through this transition in their own respective ways.

Jesse joined us for another visit and our final decision was made. Just like that. Another parenting verdict under our belts.

I was so busy with the particulars of filling out forms and collecting what was needed to fill Opal's daycare bag that the reality of the adjustment didn't really hit me until that first morning, now nearly two weeks ago.
I was shocked by how hard it hit me. I woke up crying. I cried for the entire length of Opal's nap. I couldn't eat or check emails. I felt as if I were stuck out in an unexpected storm with no umbrella and no place to duck underneath. After a while, it dissolved and became just water that eventually stopped coming and dried up, for the most part, by the time Opal woke from her morning nap.

I made a plan on that first day to call Cindy at a specific time (while the kids were napping, so as not to distract her from their care) to see how little Doodlebug was fairing.
I stared down the numbers on my watch until my eyes were sore and my head a little achy until I could make that call (Opal fussed a little when you left, as all kids do at first, but she took her bottle and crashed for her nap in no time. Bless her heart.) and again as the minutes ticked by at a pitiless, lethargic pace until 5pm when I got to wrap my arms around her again.

Funny thing is, when I knocked at the door to pick her up after a grueling, meandering span of five hours, my body rushed with the nervousness of a brace-faced schoolgirl going for a first date, heart skittering and hands sweaty. I may have been a bit too loud and eager to smoosh her and kiss the under-part of her chin, a gesture she responded to with bright eyes and a smile, but certainly much less yearning than her mother displayed. She was perfectly fine. She'd taken a three hour long afternoon nap, as a matter of fact. She was that fine.

By day two, she was showing up to the door (in Cindy's arms) holding the most recent toy of intrigue. Day three, she was saying bye-bye to Connor and the cat as we stumbled out the door. Day four, she pointed to the ground to indicate wanting to continue with playtime and hollered when I put her in the car seat.

Cindy was mercifully tactful in her reply.
She withheld stating the obvious, which was that my daughter had indeed adjusted beautifully to being away from mama and in this new environment. She suppressed the desire to vocalize that it was and would continue to be mama who'd feel transitions more poignantly, more painfully, than Opal. That this was just the beginning and that it would presumably continue for the rest of my living, breathing life.
Instead, as she glanced back and forth from me to Opal and then back to me again, she said, "Yea. My daughter didn't like the car seat too much either."

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