Jack Frost, I Salute You

I’m a member of several child care provider groups and every winter there’s lots of buzz about whether or not we stay open for snow days. I finally started closing for them a few years ago, and it’s been incredibly liberating.

I know for my parents it can be a hardship (sorry guys), but usually there’s at least a little warning time and they can prepare for the possibility with a backup plan. It’s not like my sick days where they get a call at 5AM with the bad news that I’m not making it today.

I try to tell people my snow day horror stories so they understand why I do it: I’ve had kids stuck here until 7:30 at night because their parents are out in the storm somewhere. I once had to carry a child through knee-deep snow to meet his parents at the end of my street because it wasn’t plowed. That was fun. And really, if the towns and safety officials are saying it’s too dangerous and we should stay in, why push it? Isn’t it better to just be safe?

But there’s more to it than that. Child care providers never get to play hooky. Even my kids don’t really get to play hooky. They don’t get to have sick days at home with mom tending to their icky-feeling-need-lots-of-extra-hugs time, because she’s watching the six other kids who don’t care if you have a headache, and they just keep on screaming and crying and doing what they do.

Heck, I don’t even get to go to doctor’s appointments without having to pay a sub. I can’t just tell my boss, “I have to see the dentist this afternoon,” and then not come back after lunch. So I either neglect my own checkups, or have to go through the trouble of finding a sub, and coordinating her schedule with the doctor, and then paying both of them for the privilege of getting a mammogram.

It’s not fair. So that’s what snow days are to me. They’re for the half day of school last week, when my mom friend posted a picture of lunch out with her kids, and my heart blazed with jealousy while I fought my way through quiet time, trying to keep the after-schoolers settled so the babies could nap. Or girl-day manicures or trips to Six Flags or all the other awesome things that people with normal jobs get to do when they sneak away from their responsibilities and have a day of fun with their kids.

The title of this blog refers to the movie Rise of the Guardians, in which Jack Frost is mad because no one appreciates him. He has to learn why he’s a true Guardian and what his center is. Spoiler alert: his center is FUN. And not just fun, but the kind that comes in the dead of winter when there’s really no good reason for it except that we all need a break.

That’s what snow days are about. No school, no work, snowmen, shovels, cold fingers, sleds, hot chocolate. The thrill when you hear your town’s name in the list of closings, and then you listen again to make sure it’s CLOSED, and not just a delay. And turning the alarm off and pulling the covers back up over your head.

So I ask you to put aside the work for a day. Be the most important person for your kids, not your co-workers. Because these days are short, and fleeting, and you only get to play hooky for a few joyous childhood years.

Big Bird is Saved!

As I was looking around my child care room today I noticed exactly how many ways PBS is part of my life – literally on a daily basis.

Miss S got me started. She picked up my Oscar toy and asked what it was for. I said, “When those men were running for President, one of them said he would get rid of ‘Sesame Street.’ But he didn’t win, so I put Oscar out to celebrate.”

She said she knew, and started speaking quite eloquently about it. I’ve had her since she was two – I forget she’s in second grade now and can comprehend things.

She told me that a boy in her class talked about it because his mother works for PBS. I said, “He must have been afraid that his mother might lose her job.”

She nodded, very serious. Then she asked, “No PBSKids?” Which is one of her favorite things to play on the computer, and it’s one of the ways I entertain her when the littles are napping.

I said yes. Then Younger Son asked, “There’d be no Wild Kratts?” and I was actually a bit stricken.

Through their shows, the Kratt brothers have stoked my son’s love for everything wild. He is obsessed with nature and all its creatures and how to preserve it. In fact one of the things he wants to be when he grows up is someone who “travels the world and helps animals.”

So with this conversation in my mind, I began to pick out all the things I see every day that came from PBS.

This poster came with my “Mr. Rogers Plan and Play” curriculum book. Most of the time I forget it’s there, like everything that eventually blends into the walls, but whenever I do notice it I get a smile.

I made this t-shirt for my sister but she’s not sure she can wear it in public without offending people. It’s a nightshirt now. (For those of you who don’t remember, it was “The Electric Company” teaching us about tolerance. What nonsense PBS fills kids’ heads with!)

I found this gem in a library book sale and as soon as I opened the book I remembered the pictures from reading them as a child. It was a visceral reaction.

OK I’ll just say it. I was screaming at the book sale and embarrassing my children.

On Monday of this week we listened to “Songs From the Street” while we were using Play-Doh. I used the Frontline website to research an education article the other day, and recommended a Nova documentary about doctor-assisted suicide to a friend. The list is practically endless.

I don’t know if the President even has the ability to eliminate PBS. But I’m just so glad we don’t have to find out.

By the way. Best children’s book ever?

Snapshot of My Day

The second grader, Miss S, is hiding behind the big garbage can, crying. One dad is trying to put his screaming son onto the buggy to go to school. Three others are already in there waiting to go. Another dad arrives, apologizing for being late, and I’m waving at him to just please put his two kids in the buggy without my help. Younger Son is standing by with his backpack, ready to go to school, surveying the chaos.

I am on the phone with Miss S’s mother, and we are both trying to devise a way to “talk her off the ledge,” as mom put it. Miss S left her backpack in the car and it was driven to work, 40 minutes away. When we discovered this she seemed fine, and I told her I’d give her some lunch money so she would be able to buy one.

That was the moment when it all went wrong. She went absolutely ballistic and wouldn’t let me help her at all. I called mom to ask if the backpack happened to be left at home, in which case I could swing by and grab it. Nope – in the car. She finally said (as she could hear me trying to console Miss S, and her wailing in the background), “Let me talk to her.”

Ah, brilliant – mom to the rescue!! I gladly handed Miss S the phone, briefly said thanks and goodbye to the dads, and started pushing the buggy down the street. At this point we were in danger of being late to school. Miss S followed me reluctantly, and I could hear her yelling, “I can’t hear you!!! I tried moving it!!!” into the phone. I – gently…carefully… – moved the phone a little lower on her ear and finally mother and child were reunited.

They talked halfway to school and Miss S gave me the phone back. Mom said she’d bring the backpack after she finished teaching her first class (ah, the life of a mother). Miss S straggled slowly behind us, stopping to hide and cry every ten or fifteen feet.

I tried to figure out why she was so upset. “I just want my backpack!” she shrieked. I said, “Are you afraid people are going to say something mean to you because you don’t have it?” NO! “If you’re worried about your homework I’ll tell Miss Johnson what happened.” NO! “I know you’re upset but it’s OK, you’re not going to be in trouble.” GET AWAY FROM ME!!!

Hmm. As there was nothing I could do and Younger was going to be very late, I just kept walking (and turning around to make sure Miss S didn’t at some point run screaming down the road). When we got to the school she didn’t want to cross the street and started crying all over again. I was already halfway into the street with the giant buggy, so I had to – again, gently – nudge her closer to me as she swiped my arm away.

I told her I’d talk to her teacher and she stormed to the line that was already forming because the bell rang three minutes ago. One of the wonderful aides at the school saw her crying and went over to her. I heard her say, “You forgot your backpack?” and I whispered to her, “Mom’s bringing it at 11:00.” She took it from there.

Thank GOD for that woman. I didn’t know if I’d even be able to get Miss S into the building, and was considering just taking her home with me.

Later on Mom called me to let me know she’d dropped off the backpack and to deconstruct what had happened. She explained that Miss S hates the school food, has never bought lunch, isn’t quite sure how, and hates to stand in the line. Ah-haaaaaaa…..

It just goes to show how little you can know about a person no matter how much time you’ve spent with them. I’ve had Miss S in my care for FIVE YEARS – from the time she was two! But I had no idea she hated school lunch so much. If I’d known that I would’ve made her a lunch. Of course it was time to LEAVE when she discovered the backpack was missing, but I could’ve finessed it a little better and avoided the breakdown.

By the way. While Mom and I were on the phone, I heard a crack and a crash, and turned to see that her other daughter had fallen through the front of one of the toy ovens and was now trapped inside of it.

My big boys had moved all our outdoor toys into a giant pile so they could play wiffle ball. I was in the middle of putting them back in place when mom called. The oven was laying on its back and for some reason Miss D thought it would be fun to climb on it.

Mom could now hear the cracking plastic and me asking her other daughter, “Are you OK? Are you bleeding? Nope it looks alright, no cuts.”

She laughed and said, “I don’t know how you handle this constant chaos!” I said simply this: When you expect constant chaos, nothing phases you.

Should You Put Your Child in Day Care?

Today I am finally going to answer the question that gets asked on my blog about once a month:

Am I a bad mother for putting my baby in day care?

YES!!! Day care is HORRIBLE! How DARE YOU!!?? I am calling child services RIGHT NOW!!!

OK. Are we done with that bit? I know we all get emotionally involved in this decision (and pretty much every other decision regarding our children, especially our babies) but let’s try to look at it from a rational perspective.

If you love your baby, and are going out to get a job to support that baby, and are leaving them in the good care of a qualified (and hopefully loving) provider, how the hell can you be a bad mother?

And why do we never, ever, nevernevernevernever hear the question, “Am I a bad father for putting my child in care?” For one thing men don’t worry about this stuff. But for another, men never, ever, nevernevernevernever get attacked or judged for choosing to work while their baby is with someone else. In fact, they are praised for doing the right thing and being the breadwinner for their family.

So yeay, Dads! Good for you. Mom – you’re another story.

There are a lot of voices out there right now and they are very loud. They will tell you that if you truly love your baby you will give up everything to stay home with them. Well you know what? Those voices represent the MINORITY of parents. But because they are so loud (and unfortunately many are in a position of power), we all believe them.

I’m pretty sure that in reality there are far more working moms than those who stay home. And are they running around telling the stay-at-home moms, “You should be out working!!?” No. Because you can’t question the moral superiority of a woman who chooses to stay with her child all the time.

At the same time, some of us would envy those moms, especially in the throes of having to hand over the sweetest bundle we’ve ever seen to another woman to care for him. So we feel guilty and beat ourselves up and suffer over something that’s simply a choice. (That each family should make according to what works for them and let everyone else mind their own damn business.)

Some moms are actually quite a bit happier to work and have a break from parenting. Letting someone else care for their child allows them keep a sense of who they are. Their careers are less interrupted by having children – I’ve even had a few moms get promoted in the time they’ve been with me. And some moms have no choice. It ain’t easy finding and keeping a good job these days, and you gotta hold onto it once you’re there.

So let’s look at the child’s experience in day care. First of all they probably won’t remember a thing before age three. It’s true. I’ve seen kids I cared for through infancy and toddlerhood and they look at me completely blank. No idea they’ve ever seen me before, let alone spent years at my house being changed, fed, played with, and snuggled.

But I’m not bitter.

Just kidding. It’s biological – it’s something called autobiographical memory. I once had a professor ask us to remember the color of our first crib. I swore it was white with blue flowers, I could actually picture them in my mind. Then she said you can’t really remember it, and most people answer white or blue. Well at least I’m typical in my stupidity.

So rather than being scarred for life (and blaming you for putting them in day care for all their problems), your child may not even remember much of the experience in the early years. If they cry for a bit because the provider is doing something else and can’t get to them immediately – they will survive. Crying is OK.

But, people say, that’s going to stunt their brain growth! It’s true this time is crucial for building a foundation, but crying doesn’t cause brain damage. Neglect and abuse do. So if you find quality day care with a loving provider, that foundation will be growing strong. If the baby has to wait for five minutes before getting a little lap time, she’ll really really really be OK.

Now here is the crucial part of child care that doesn’t get a lot of press. Babies are constantly watching and connecting with others and learning about people, and this is the key to the brain-building that everyone is so desperately chasing after. Growing a baby’s brain is about making connections – all those bazillions of neurons being able to form into a whole – and in day care they have a whole bunch of people to learn from. It’s not all about the enrichment that we adults can bestow upon them. It’s about them learning with their peers.

Child care isn’t only about the relationship between the provider and your child. As soon as your baby sees another baby they’re socializing. I have a friend who is doing a fascinating study on how infants actually teach each other, and I see it happening all the time. I could even get into how advanced the twins are, and how quickly they developed, simply because they’ve had each other all along.

I honestly 100% believe that the benefits of this socialization, that comes from being around other infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, are immeasurable. A lot of the parents who bring me their kids mention that as a big motivating factor. People worry, “But will Johnny hit my Janie?” And yes, Janie probably will get hit in child care because children hit. An occasional smack from a 2-year-old isn’t going to cause permanent damage. In fact it’s teaching Janie how to handle herself.

If a child has siblings they’ll get some of this socialization, but it’s a different dynamic (and they’ll definitely get smacked – HARD). At home the siblings all want mommy’s attention and they’re with their brothers and sisters so it’s a completely different dynamic. At child care, they don’t have that emotional investment with their provider. Sure they want her love and attention but they aren’t relying on it quite as much. It’s the first steps toward independence.

As in so many other parts of parenting, those of us raised in the me generation have to step back and look at what’s good for our child, not us. It’s not all about us! This idea that in order to be good parents we should be giving up every part of ourselves and running around attached by the hip to our children is just ridiculous.

To be honest, to be really, brutally, harshly honest? I think it’s better to let them go. Personally it’s been the biggest challenge of my parenting experience, and I’m still far from mastering it. But I know I’ve hurt them more than helped when I’ve held on too hard or for too long.

For the first six months or so, sure, keep them home (if you can swing it). That time is precious for bonding and you won’t get it back and it will – trust me – despite the endless days of crying, nursing, and exploding poops, it WILL go by fast.

But remember this: no one else is mommy. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and no child ever stopped loving their mom because they spent their days with me. They WANT to go home at the end of the day. And after they’re done with me they move on to preschool, and kindergarten, and mom will always be there. I’m just a stop along the way and we make the best of our time together. But it’s mom who holds their hand and wipes their tears and walks them through the rest of their life.

Whaddya Know, I Do Have a Teacher Voice

I had the opportunity to chaperone both of my boys’ field trips over the past couple of weeks and I was so thrilled. They actually wanted me to go so I figured I’d better take that chance while I still had it.

Going on these trips always makes me a little nervous. I have a teaching degree and figure eventually, one day, I’m going to use it. I was trained to be a teacher, I am one in my child care, and it’s the natural next step for my career. But I still feel daunted when I walk into a classroom.

My situation is so different – I’m in my home with really little kids, and it’s just easy and natural. When I go in to school I doubt my ability to be in charge of a classroom and have the authority over so many more kids.

I watch how the teachers behave on the field trips. All it takes is one look or sharp word and they’ve got those kids in line. While I follow them around reminding them fifty times to stop running away from me, and they turn around and sass me.

But I have to remember that on these trips, I’m NOT the teacher. I’m just a parent, and I also don’t want to embarrass my own kid, who’s been nice enough to say I can go and trust me not to do that. So I just get through the day without really stepping it up.

But this morning while playing in the driveway my littles started to fight over a toy and I just barked. I realized it was automatic and they responded. I DO have a teacher voice!

After thinking about it I know it’s because here, I AM in charge. This is my house, my rules, and the kids know my expectations. I also know the kids. I know who needs a firm voice, who needs a lighter touch, how far I can let one push the boundaries, how quickly I have to step into an argument.

This trust is built over time, and not just on an 8-hour field trip. During those days I was able to pick out personalities pretty quickly, and I already knew what was motivating some of those kids. If I had to work with them daily I would figure out how to handle them.

And I’d have no problem using my teacher voice. So my confidence is restored. I do know what I’m doing! (Phew.)

This One’s for My FCC Ladies

I was having a great little chat with Famous Carol the other day about the state of family child care. She subs for several other women and shares my worry that home day care providers are a dying breed.

Between us we know several home day cares in the area that are closing. Maybe more parents are choosing centers. But it might be that for some people the workload is starting to outweigh the rewards. Carol pointed out how sad it is that we’re becoming more and more institutionalized.

It really hit me hard when she said, “It used to be like dropping your kids off at Grandma’s house for the day.”

That just sounded so sweet, and I would love to have that kind of house. It’s getting harder to maintain that family atmosphere with all the requirements we have to meet. I have to admit that I barely skate by as it is, especially since I just started a four-month-old who needs to be held a lot (as all babies do).

So I got into my usual funk of comparing myself to other providers and coming up short. Carol told me to stop being hard on myself (she knows this is what I do). She tells me if the kids are happy I’m doing a great job. Well, they’re happy a lot of the time…

But then the very next day a funny thing happened. My after-schooler went to girl scouts, two kids stayed home sick, and another got picked up early with a fever. I was left with just three girls for the afternoon and quickly realized I had a lot of time on my hands.

As we came home from the school pickup (I still had my own son to get, don’t forget about him) I said, “Instead of me making a snack for you guys, how about we bake our own together?” YEAH!!! They ran in the kitchen. “Amy remember when it was Miss A’s birthday and we make cupcakes?” “Remember I got the egg on my hand and I cried?” “Do we still have the halloween holders?” (Cupcake wrappers. Yeah, it’s been a while since we baked.)

And in a strange twist, Older helped us while Younger played video games. It was delightful for me, first to see him bonding with the kids instead of being annoyed at them (his usual state), but also because I don’t think he’s made muffins with me since he was about five years old.

So when I don’t have a four-month-old plus five other kids plus an after-schooler plus my own two kids, I am really damn good. And it’s not that hard.

Today I was down to one at the end of the day with half an hour before her dad came to pick her up. I asked if she would be scared if I vaccuumed. She said yes but I tried it. She covered her ears and watched me. I said, “Do you want to try it?” An old trick to get kids over being scared of the monster.

She jumped at the chance. Of course it’s too heavy for her to push so I took the hose off and showed her how to magically suck up the cracker crumbs and popcorn pieces. She was delighted.

While she sucked up the snack detritus from under the table, I used the dustpan on the hardwood floor. We knelt side by side and she giggled hysterically every time the vaccuum hose sucked up her dress. It suddenly felt a little old-fashioned to me and I thought, this is like grandma’s house.

Until she thought it would be fun to see if the vaccuum would suck up her sock. That thing was whipped off her foot and up the hose faster than I could even blurt out one word in response.

It was kinda funny.

Then it was more like Grandpa’s shop than Grandma’s kitchen, and the boys were back to see me doing surgery on the vaccuum, and then they all played jumprope with the hose (which I had to remove), and Older showed me how they learned about waves in science class by sending jolts of different size and speed down the length of it, and Miss M had a chance to use the screwdriver, and I had to stick my fingers into the bag to fish out the sock. (Gross.)

But we got it straightened out. And the whole scene was something I don’t think you’d see in a center. Hang in there family child care providers – the children of the world need us.