Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How We're Surviving (and Enjoying) Day Care

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a mom was leave my 3-month-old daughter at day care for the first time. I remember driving to a café after leaving her off, to sit in the car, sip a coffee, and cry. There was also relief, glorious relief, after spending the last 3 months with my daughter literally attached to me almost 24 hours a day. Then relief mixes with guilt for feeling relief, and it all melds into this weird confusion and questions pop into your mind like, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Could we afford to have me stay home full time?”

But the truth is that, day care works for our family. No, we couldn’t afford to have me stay home full time, and to be 100% honest, I’m not sure it would be good for me emotionally. Sure, I would adjust, but the reality is that I’m the type of person who needs some “me,” time to be me as an adult, time to be my own person, even if that’s only at work.

So, this is how we learned to survive and enjoy day care, to get to a point where it worked, and continues to work, really well for our family.

This list does not include criteria for finding a new day care. However, this link (via Baby Center) has some great advice if you’re an expectant mother looking for day care opportunities for the first time.

The Obvious – Find the Right Day Care For Your Family
Trust your gut. I always imagined finding an at-home day care, but when my daughter was born, we were newcomers to our town, and I didn’t know many families personally. I received a few recommendations, made phone calls, and most women who answered sounded rushed and rude. Okay, they’re running home day cares. I get it -- it’s stressful during the day. But my sister runs a home day care in New York, and she’s always polite, friendly, and open to having a conversation with new clients. Business 101. So, I opened up my search to day care centers.

We found a small one in the next town over. When I went in, the kids were painting and playing happily. There was music on and just the right amount of chaos – fun chaos. The owner had that typical Kindergarten-teacher attitude. She was relaxed, laughing at silly things the kids were doing, but keeping the right amount of order in the room. I liked her right away and knew this was the place for my daughter.

Decide Your Schedule
If you have any flexibility with your schedule, know your needs ahead of time and where you feel you can compromise. We decided early on that we wanted to do half days for our daughter. I asked the owner if she would be willing to do mornings (most day cares won’t), and she happily agreed. Another reason this center was a good fit for our family.

Keep Communication Open
No matter how much you love your day care, something will come up that you don't like. Just expect it. I had a lot of typical (and atypical) new-mom anxiety with my daughter. I remember asking the day care owner all kinds of silly questions like “Exactly how many mosquitoes have you encountered on your walk this morning?” and “How wide should her sun-visor be to optimize eye-coverage and prevent sunburn?” And, the owner actually treated me like I was normal and recommended products I could try.

Wait It Out, Be Kind, State the Facts
One day my daughter had a dirty diaper when I picked her up. I changed her before I left day care and found that she had a horrible diaper rash which had caused an open sore on her skin. My first thought was that the owner hadn’t changed E’s diaper frequently enough. I wanted to blame them, make accusations, and insist they change her more frequently, but I didn’t. At the time, I was too upset and overwhelmed.

I brought E home, cried to Mark, then took her to the doctor. The doctor said that it didn’t look like she hadn’t been changed but just that she ate something with too much salt or sugar. Yep, I had given her a little diluted juice for the first time when she seemed a little dehydrated after a virus. And, experience now tells me that, if someone had actually left a child in a poopy diaper for more than an hour, the poop would have stuck on and taken about 8 baby wipes to remove. This just wasn't the case.

I was glad I waited to talk to the day care owner, and now I always make it my policy to wait until I've given myself time to think and gather information. If I had been accusatory at the time and hadn’t waited it out until my emotions and anxiety had returned to a normal level, until I had more information about the situation, I would have embarrassed myself and potentially damaged a really open and positive relationship I had built with the owner.

When I did talk to her, I was able to tell her the facts and express my concerns without emotion: “E has a really bad diaper rash. The doctor says it was most likely because of something she ate. Do you mind keeping an eye on it and letting me know if it gets worse? Also, how often is her diaper changed?”

I found out that they have a very strict schedule for diaper changes, that they keep a log for each baby. The information is listed on a daily sheet, given to me when I pick up E in the afternoon. If I had doubted the validity of the info on the day-sheet before, I didn’t after seeing how diligent they were at keeping their own records.

Of course, if something more serious than diaper rash is going on, your approach may be different. Still, I've seen quite a few moms yelling at the owner in the morning, in front of their children and other parents, about less-important issues. It was uncomfortable for everyone and didn't help resolve anything.

Nowadays, if you find it difficult to talk to the owner in person, you can send an email. For most conversations, talking in person has felt more comfortable to me, but some conversations may require more privacy to discuss, or it may just be easier to communicate in writing. By all means, do what you need to do to keep communication open. Again, be kind. I like to make it my policy to only put in an email what I would feel comfortable saying in person or over the phone. Never use email as a chance to say rude things behind the safety of your computer screen. It only makes it more difficult when you have to eventually talk to the person face to face.

These are the people caring for your child, and you want the experience to be positive for everyone involved.

Fill Out Surveys
Our day care puts out surveys twice a year for parents to fill out. I make it a point to offer my feedback. Again, I try to approach this feedback constructively and in a positive way. Last year, there was a higher turn-over rate with teachers in the toddler room. I felt like new teachers were popping up every few weeks who I didn’t know. I trusted the owner to find good people, to do background checks, and I genuinely liked the teachers working there, but it was difficult to walk into a situation unaware. I just wanted to be prepared for my toddler to possibly have a rough morning, to have the extra time to introduce my child to a new teacher.

On the survey, I didn’t complain about the high turn-over rate. I had spoken to my friends and sister who were familiar with day cares and found out that was the norm. Most day care workers are women in their late teens or early twenties. Their lives are constantly changing! We had many teachers leave due to returning to school, getting married, having babies.

I wrote instead, “Whenever possible, I’d like to be informed about (and introduced to) new teachers and notified when a teacher leaves so that I can better prepare my child for the transition.”

I heard other parents criticizing the owner, the center itself, and insisting that the high turn-over rate be remedied immediately, which just wasn't realistic. This was an issue best discussed with the owner in private, where actual details could be discussed.

We later found out from the owner that she wasn't always able to let every parent know right away as things changed, but she did change her procedures for keeping us informed which helped. She also worked to fix the high turn-over rate and has a more permanent staff now.

Trust Your Kid, But Be Realistic
My daughter was an early-talker, so she often came home with elaborate stories about the day's events at day care. Early on, I found out that most of these stories were entirely false or that she had built a detailed story out of one little moment that happened during the day.

I asked the teachers if they were true just to gauge my daughter's level of awareness and authenticity of the stories. These were stories that the teachers had no reason to lie about, so we could talk about them and laugh -- "Did Jody spill a bowl of spaghetti on the floor and dance in it today?" No. "Did you tell E not to touch a bowl that a baby threw on the ground?" Yes. Sort of. The teacher laughed and explained that a plastic planter had cracked and frozen in the ice outside. They were unable to get it out of the ice by the time the kids went outside, so they didn't let the kids near it, just in case the pieces were sharp. Good. Great!

Now that my daughter is 2, I trust her reports a little bit more. The other day she told me that one of the other kids was pulling her hair. She wanted me to talk to the teacher about it. So I said to the teacher, "E says that one of the kids is pulling her hair. Do you think this is just her imagination, or did you see this happen?" E also told me that the teacher had told the boy to stop. Good. So, I thanked her for intervening.

By having this conversation, I also found out that E is not standing up for herself when the other kids push her or pull her hair. E told me in detail how she was standing up for herself (and I've since witnessed otherwise), so this was a surprise to me. At home, we're dealing with a very assertive and independent child!

The teacher said she always intervenes if she can but that if she's changing another child's diaper and can't walk away immediately, she wants E to be able to use her own voice. Talking about it with E and working on it at home is helping, and I feel like I'm giving my child much-needed survival skills for those times when a teacher isn't readily available to help. I also felt good for both standing up for my child and keeping communication positive with the teachers.

Take an Active Role
This is something I could do more of. Though we have gone to all of E's day-care events, I haven't taken the opportunity to spend a morning at day care with E. Most homes or centers offer volunteer opportunities if you want to go and help with morning snack or share a talent -- like play music, etc.

Immersing yourself in the experience gives you really good cues about how things run on a daily basis.

Focus on the Positive
Overall, day care has been a wonderful experience for us. I've had my rough days with it, but the benefits have more than outweighed the disadvantages for our family. I struggled with school growing up, and I felt that exposing E to a school-like scene and socializing her early on would help her fight against my tendency to be socially awkward and half-introverted. And it has! In fact, it's been more a struggle for me to keep up with a very brave, outgoing, and social kid!

Adapt to Change
Another thing I struggle with -- adjusting to change. Aspects of day care can change frequently -- children and teachers leaving, a new curriculum, new activities. Take the time to gather information and adapt at a pace that you're comfortable with. Decide where you can compromise and keep communication open. If you decide day care isn't for you or you want to switch day cares, make the change that's right for your family. Be okay with starting over.

If I could be my own best friend, I'd tell myself, "You're doing your best to figure out what's right for your family as a mom. That may take some trial and error. Your child will remember your successes more than your failures and your efforts more than your successes."

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