Feeling Contemplative on a Bike Ride

A day for me. As a home child care provider, let me stress to you how rarely this happens. I have worked for 12 years in my home, every day, all day. Think about it – when you’re a child care provider, you can’t leave the house. You don’t run out for a cup of coffee, or take an afternoon off for a dentist appointment. You don’t even get to stop at the market on the way home for a gallon of milk. You just – stay home. It’s a little confining. Don’t have claustrophobia and become a home child care provider.

Lately I’ve found myself taking a few steps back into the world. It’s been wonderful getting re-acquainted, and seeing the town around me for the fun and lively place it is. Of course in true motherly fashion, the day for me became the day I scheduled the recall work on the car. But that’s OK because it forced me to take a bike ride around my town, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I dropped the car off early and relished the quiet morning before the world woke up. I rode to the bridge over the river and took pictures of the rowing crew working out. Smelled the fresh air and flowers (and the garbage truck), and watched all the people dressed up in business clothes heading to work.

As I passed the sights along the way my moods changed wildly: traffic building at the highway entrance. A homeless man sleeping along the bike path. A grandmotherly lady with her bike basket, smiling and ringing her bell. The words “kill you” graffiti’d on the bridge underpass. A nanny with two young boys on bikes. A young guy with headphones actually smiling pleasantly. A serious bike racer all decked out in spandex.

My mind wandered and I couldn’t help but flash back on the days when I used to get up and go, like these folks, to a real professional-like office job. I thought about the plans I’ve made that have come true, and those that didn’t. How I felt about the loss of those things and how I’ve come to be content where I am. The benefits of a corporate job versus being my own boss and working with children. I thought about working at home and how nice it would be to work away from home again. Did I make the right choices, for myself and for my children?

I was probably in this speculative mood because we spent the weekend at a family wedding. My sons got it – the meaningfulness of what was happening. They knew they were part of something big and they took it seriously. They loved every minute of spending time with family and were incredibly sad when it was over. When I asked Older why he didn’t want to leave he said, “I don’t know when we’ll have everyone together like this again.” I promised right then to find an occasion, or throw a party for no reason just to make it happen.

My husband and I have recently had some deep conversations about the meaning of real parenting. Is it sending your kids away to camp to teach them independence? Is it letting them lay around the house all summer and get the desperately-needed downtime their bodies require for summer growth spurts? Is it strict discipline or having fun? Where is the balance and what is right? Does any of it matter that much, if they grow up to be relatively happy and sane people?

In the end that’s really the most you could ask for. I think parenting comes down to this: having fun. Teaching them to be grateful for what they have and to share what they can. Keeping them interested in trying new things, and showing them the joy of exploring new places. Letting them know that things may turn out as planned, or they may not, but you move on and find the next thing. Giving them a sense of hope, and the resiliency to keep moving ahead no matter what comes.

How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.

Yep. Child Care is Expensive.

Ooo, I love it, just love it whenever a new article about the high cost of child care comes out. This one by Alissa Quart covers the usual territory. Parents who use child care are stumped, and rightfully so, as to why they should work full-time and be away from their children, and then hand over most of that pay to someone else to watch said children.

With the biggest complaint being the cost and scarcity of care, the next question is why are we paying this much money for sub-par care? And then comes the litany of horror stories, which this article dutifully serves up.

That’s the part that always makes my skin crawl. Every time you hear “this woman locked the kids in one room for six hours” it makes us all look bad. The vast majority of child care providers (at least all the ones I’ve known in over ten years of doing this job) are dedicated, loving, incredibly hard-working women who would do anything for their kids. They are, in fact, required to go above and beyond by state regulations that have them putting in many unpaid extra hours after their long day with the kids is over. But I digress.

An obvious answer to the question “Why do I keep working?” is that few people can afford to take themselves out of their career path. You step away and you’re out. This is a big decision, especially for someone who now has a home, cars, and a child to provide for. Moms who keep their full-time jobs are doing it for the good of their family, but they often get knocked for leaving their little ones.

Stay-at-home moms give up as much as working moms do by being away from their babies. They are walking away from a good career and all the benefits of it, the experience they’ve been building, and possibly everything they’d been preparing for up until that point. (That’s the power your child has over you, but that’s another story.)

Every family chooses what’s best for them and we all need to stop vilifying each other. But while we’re at it, let’s stop vilifying the child care providers.

The reason child care is scarce is because it’s an incredibly difficult job. Home child care providers are on their own with very little support. We work long hours, have incredibly stressful work environments, and a physically and mentally demanding job. But we are expected to be saintly at all times. We can’t make mistakes. So people burn out, and those who want to make a decent wage often go find another job.

It’s true, parents give us a huge chunk of their income. But we have no benefits, no paid time off, no sick time, and personally I just cover my bills. I can’t even get into the doctor for an appointment for myself or my children. I accrue nothing. There is no safety net. And the job is over-regulated by state agencies who don’t give the support necessary to cover their requirements.

Another thing that people often overlook is that when you work in child care, there is no upward mobility. You may become a director if you work in a center, but the stress of that job isn’t commensurate with the pay (again, very low, and “Director” at a child care center has far less cachet than “Director” at a company).

We often turn to the proposal of federally-funded child care, as Ms. Quart does in her article. But this idea usually makes people go ballistic. My taxes are not going to pay for your child!

Why doesn’t anybody get this enraged about their taxes paying for endless war, destruction, and general misuse around the world? It confounds me when people get angrier about taking care of babies and toddlers at home than they do about killing children in other countries.

But I digress.

Ms. Quart actually does a good job of hitting all the major points in the debate over child care, and I often found myself agreeing with her. But her conclusion touches on my single biggest problem with the way we view child care: that parents have “a discomfort with center-based day care and even the term ‘day care,’ preferring terms like ‘educational enrichment’ and, yes, preschool.”

This is the trend that makes all child care providers crazy. We know children. We know what they need. They don’t need early educational enrichment. We see what the school systems do to kids once they get there. They are over-tested, over-stressed, have no recess or down time, and then are blamed for bad behavior, which is a normal human child’s response to extreme pressure.

Providers know that we are the last bastion of protecting babies and toddlers’ freedom. What babies need is love, consistency, sleep, and fun. They do not need curriculum, and early enrichment will not help their future success. In fact, studies show that over-stimulation at early ages causes children to withdraw and perceive themselves negatively, while those in child-centered classrooms thrive.

Child care providers give kids what they need in so many more ways than “enrichment.” Nurturing and building a strong foundation of self-esteem leads to enrichment. We teach them ABCs and 123s, and that is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a toddler. The rest of what they need will come later.

Articles like this will always pop up every few months because of our country’s anti-woman, anti-family policies. The sweeping reforms often suggested by their authors aren’t backed up with enough political capital to ever happen. Child care is expensive, but not always as bad as they make out in the articles. It will continue to be hard to find as long as high quality is demanded but no support systems for providers exist. And the discussion is incomplete until you include and respect the voices of providers who actually do the job and have the wisdom needed to change the system.

Parents who have had to pay for child care are immensely relieved when their kids are old enough to attend public schools for free – which, egad – are supported by taxpayer dollars. So when the push gets big enough, when enough people demand subsidized child care, perhaps we’ll see a change. But a system that doesn’t value families, that pushes individual success above all else, that fights against health care and elder care and any kind of perceived “handout,” will never willingly embrace this idea on its own.

First Day of Summer

Let’s talk about today.

First off, I started the week by putting my back out. Mr. O is going through a second phase of stranger anxiety but at 18 months instead of nine. So now he’s twice as heavy as a 9-month-old. And I’m twice as old as somebody who should be hauling around any baby.

When Famous Carol came to sub for me to go to Younger Son’s graduation from elementary school, I picked up a screaming Mr. O, the back went pop and so, pretty much, did the rest of my week.

With school out I don’t have to transport the boys back and forth, which is great, and I love having them home more than anything. But they are two extra bodies in the house who, however self-sufficient, still need attention and feeding and leave a trail of dishes, crumbs, and wet/dirty/smelly clothes in their wake.

Younger actually wants to help with the day care kids, which is awesome, but requires extra work in finding supplies and cleaning up after the highly complicated art projects he chooses at random each morning.

I had an interview coming at noon and had to print out a contract – and the printer was out of ink. I should add that an interview makes you want to have everything clean and tidy. But there are seven kids underfoot who don’t care all that much about cleanliness. And that just creates a lot of angry noise in your brain that you’re carrying around on top of the usual chaos.

The weather has been crazy this week and it was downpouring all morning. At 10:15 when there was a break in the rain I told the kids, we need to get out in the yard now before it comes back! Once we got there, the skies cleared and the sun was beating down on us.

I hadn’t brought out any supplies for swimming (towels, bathing suits, change of clothes) but the children were already half-naked and jumping in the pool full of rain water.

Well, OK fine, they’re distracted, we’ll deal with that mess later, I thought. Now is the perfect time to put together my new climber that the neighbors donated and are bringing over at this very moment. The interview will see it and think, what an awesome place to bring my daughter. That climber will put me over the edge, I’m sure of it!

The babies were running around naked with soaking wet “pendulum diapers,” as my neighbor noted. Miss A was playing a half-serious game of chase with Mr. L in which she showed him her doll, he tried to take it, and she ran away screaming, “You can’t have my doll!”

I stopped her and explained that she should stop showing it to him if she didn’t want him to take it. She listened politely, showed Mr. L the doll again, and ran away screaming with him trailing behind her.

I realized the climber was going to need more help than a good swift kick to pop it together, so I went to grab the rubber mallet out of the garage. Not there. But this small axe should do the trick!

The two big girls were playing a game of princess rescue in which one of them hid somewhere in the yard and screamed in pain to warn the prince that she needed help. This game intersected with the baby doll chase and four children were now running through the yard tackling each other with various levels of real- and fake-pain screams. The babies were beginning to melt down, lunch time was approaching, and I feared my interview could walk in at any moment.

Pay no attention to the axe in the play area.

I hustled the sweaty, dirty, crying, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, droopy-drawered children into the house and somehow miraculously managed to get them all cleaned up, changed, and sitting down ever-so-beautifully at the lunch table when the interview arrived.

I found out five minutes after she arrived that she used to be a preschool teacher. She was completely nonplussed by the disaster, and sat down with a book and two kids on her lap while I finished cleaning up lunch. Some things are meant to be.

They left and I put the kids down for nap and to have a lie-down on the living room floor (oh yes the back is still twinging amidst all this). I have lately fashioned a pillow out of two comforters and a pillow case for Mr. L who, instead of drinking his water, dumped it out in his bed and wailed about having a wet bed.

It’s 1:50. I’m just sitting down to lunch. We’re only two hours behind schedule. And I’m just a few clicks away from a nervous breakdown. Welcome, summer!

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.