A good daycare is hard to find

(I have been on a pregnancy theme, which I plan to continue, but the timeliness of this story struck a nerve with me.)

There was a story in the past few weeks I heard on NPR that really resonated with me. It was about how most parents polled in a new study describe the childcare for their young children as “above average.” There are a number of reasons this could be, and the story goes into them, those being primarily 1) parents don’t have a good concept of what young children need, development-wise, and 2) parents don’t want to admit they are warehousing their kids in anything other than “excellent” childcare facilities. I am going to add my own 3), that parents know what their kids need but have blinders on to the sub-par (or average) circumstances because the process is so guilt-inducing and horrible feeling and expensive to boot.

My kids all had childcare when they were babies/toddlers. I still remember touring different childcare places when I was pregnant; big centers, smaller in-home places, nanny-share type things. My impression was not that they were all above average. Some of them felt like little baby jails; I walked through double security doors into hallways that smelled of chicken nuggets, saw runny-nosed, pale babies standing up in their cribs and looking plaintively at me. One afternoon I visited a small in-home facility. When I got there, the director wasn’t even there and no one seemed to be able to pin down where she was. I made conversation with the young-looking, not especially informed young lady who worked there and, it turned out, was a student at the high school where I taught.

We found a place. It was an in-home situation, one woman (teacher? caretaker?) with a couple of other kids, and my daughter went there from when she was about six-months old to when she was about three. She had a good relationship with the woman, and she had a lot of fun with the other kids there. I felt pretty good about it all, and was happy to be able to work at my job, which I loved, and have my daughter in what seemed a pretty good situation.

But. But. There were those things. Things that I chose to ignore, because it was easier to, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of good options. When my daughter started talking, she started saying names I didn’t know. “Martha,” she kept saying.

“Martha?” I asked. “Who’s Martha?”

I asked her care provider about Martha. Turns out Martha was…a talking dog. From Martha Speaks, on PBS kids. So, they were watching tv during the day. At least it was PBS! They also drove around during the day. Which, logistically, with four or five kids under five, had to be a huge challenge. And the caregiver was not young. Like, I have three kids now, and I have a lot of energy, and errands and parking lots are still a challenge. How did this lady take all the kids across the parking lot? Was she ever tempted to leave them in the car? Would I know if she ever did? Going down this road is not fruitful, and it scares me now. There were signs that it wasn’t excellent care, and I ignored them.

Then there was the time when my husband picked our daughter up, and he asked if something was burning. He was informed that one (of the three) cats had just knocked down a lamp, and the lamp had started burning the carpet. The fire was out now, everything was fine.

This happened about the time my son was born, and at this point we gave notice. It felt terrible; we had a relationship with this woman, who had cared for our daughter for over two years. And when there is one caregiver, and she was taking the children into her home, there’s no way to keep it from being personal.

We all know, from watching Daddy Daycare, that setting up and running a great daycare is no easy feat. It requires lots of bathroom jokes and montages. 

We found a situation we felt was better for our kids, and pretty much nullified every bit of my income, and we were happy with it. Recently, due to a life change (large move across the country) I am staying home. My youngest is not quite two, and it is an amazing luxury not to have to take him to daycare. He’s at that age where I have to pull him off me to get him to go to anyone else, and I rarely have to do that. I had to do it with his siblings, and I always just took it as a matter of course. Oh yeah, separation anxiety,  I would think as I composed my face walking away from daycare, listening to the subsiding wails of my child. It will pass.

Now that I have a little distance from that, I have more questions about it. If separation anxiety is an evolved behavior to keep the mother near, what does it do to the baby to override it? What does it do to the mother? I know that long-term studies don’t stand by the idea that babies in daycare/preschool do any worse than babies with stay at home moms. But I do sort of wonder whether our modern society serves mother and child (and family relationships in general) the way it should.

Do primates have daycare? I think some species have group-care tendencies, but I don’t think it’s the norm. There is a paper with a lot of gathered primate data (Life history variation in primates, Harvey and Clutton-Brock) that I like to reference for basic comparisons. Like the hard data on weaning; what is the average weaning period for humans, historically, and how does it compare to, say, chimps? Human average wean time (don’t know how the data was gathered, clearly this is referencing historical and traditional cultures and not modern US) is listed as 720 days, which works out to about two years. Compare that with chimps, whose average wean time is listed as 1,460 days (exactly 4 years) and gorillas are about the same. Interestingly, average interbirth interval tends to be very closely related to wean time in chimps, gorillas and orangutans (about 3-4 years), whereas average human wean time is listed as two years, but average interbirth interval is closer to four years, more like our close primate relatives.

Why do we wean our babies so quickly? Why do we have a mere 12 weeks of (unpaid) leave before having to drop our helpless babies off with people who are basically strangers to us? Are we serving the needs of our children? I am generally a live-and-let-live type more than a crusader, but few things seem as important as those first months, and even years of a human’s life.

My kid never got left in a car, that I know about anyway. The fire from the fallen lamp, it got put out. The worst injury any of our children ever suffered at preschool was a bite on the back (bruised, but not broken skin) and it didn’t come from a caregiver. But all this could have turned out differently, and I’m aware that that it is dumb luck that has made it so, not our vigilance or our commitment to have to best for our kids. Everyone wants what’s best for their kids, it just seems like society isn’t set up right now to make choices that are best for them.

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