How to Stop Worrying about Childcare
My first sitter, Maggie, spoiled me forever. We met, I adored her, she adored the baby, I hired her, and a love affair began. I left for work on her first day without a second thought -- really! I had no urge to run back and ask her 12 more questions about her experience, her references, her opinion on daytime TV or high-fructose corn syrup.
But the love affair had to end after a year -- we moved, too far to keep Maggie -- and we went through four more nannies before the next year came to a close. I had more than my share of irrational fears (like the time I was sure Christine had a boyfriend lurking around my house; she didn't, though she simply disappeared one day) and rational ones (like the time I was sure Danielle would quit to return to a glam fashion job; she did -- with no notice!). I second-guessed myself into a pretzel.
Even now, with 3-year-old Daniel and his little brother, James, happily and safely ensconced in daycare, I feel the uncertainty that seems part of handing over your kids to someone else. Should I work less or try again for a nanny? Shell out more cash for a ritzier daycare?
Fact is, "even when you know you've done it 'right' choosing childcare, the uncomfortable feelings come," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. Add in the childcare studies that periodically make alarming headlines in the media-like March's research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development about how kids in child-care centers exhibit a slight increase in minor behavior problems through sixth grade -- and it's a wonder any of us have a moment's peace of mind. (Of course, that study also found that kids who experience high-quality childcare, even in centers, have better-than-average vocabulary skills through fifth grade, but the guilt-provoking part of the findings got most of the play.)
The emotional tug-of-war is as much an unpleasant reality of childcare as late-pickup fees and the times your child calls the sitter "Mommy." To deal with some common childcare trip-ups:
The second-guessing trap
A few weeks ago, when I picked up my boys, I had one of those moments that only other daycare parents can appreciate. I tiptoed in so I could spy for a minute, and found Daniel, my hearty preschooler, on an indoor slide intended for a 1-year-old. My 1-year-old, one sock off and one sock on, was banging a plastic dinosaur against a shelf. The scene made me feel... unsettled. Shouldn't they have been steered to more appropriate activities? Had I made a grave error in choosing this place for them-or was I just having a bad day?
The truth is, you may find a place that's great in terms of location, cost, curriculum, and other quantifiable aspects, but much of the rest of your choice comes down to fuzzy-around-the-edges feelings. Erin Cecil, mom of 26-month-old Cole, never imagined she could replace the family daycare she had in San Diego after a cross-country move to Crofton, Maryland, so she opted for a daycare center. "I figured Cole would do well with more kids and structured activities," she says. But while the center was fine, she soon found that both she and Cole missed their former setup. "Our old caregiver was like a part of the family. She'd even come to Cole's birthday party," she explains.
Cecil called her former provider for advice. "She said, 'If there's a feeling in the pit of your stomach that it's not right, it's not right.' I started looking that day. We checked out a local family daycare with four children that we'd heard about, and we loved it. Cole now can't wait to go; I have to drag him out every evening."
The trick is to tease out which pit-of-the-stomach moments are the result of one bad dropoff or chaotic pickup and which may be genuine red flags. In my case, I decided it was no big deal if Daniel sometimes played with baby toys; he also painted elaborate pictures, sat on the potty more reliably than he would at home, and talked glowingly about Miss Rosie and Miss Allison at dinnertime.
Remember, too, that there's a difference between second-guessing and reevaluation. If you think your childcare choice is no longer working for your family, maybe it's time to make a change. And who knows? The process of reassessing may help you to see that your original choice is still right.
As you go about looking to see what else is out there, think outside the box of sitter interview questions or daycare must-haves. For instance, while you should still ask a potential nanny about her previous work experience, go deeper. "See if her child-rearing beliefs mesh with yours. Ask her if she believes in letting a baby cry it out, or if she thinks it's ever okay to admit you were wrong to your child," Smith says. "If they don't, don't be swayed if she assures you she'll follow your rules. When frustrations run high, she's more likely to respond from her gut."
When you're visiting potential childcare spots, try not to see things under the best of circumstances. "Go at a potentially chaotic time, like lunch or morning dropoff. You'll get a better idea of how they handle things," says Smith. If the center's director shows you the room your child will be in, ask to speak to the staffers inside. After all, they, not the director, will be in charge of your child's minute-by-minute care.
Denise Schipani writes for a variety of women's magazines, including Redbook, Women's Health, and Woman's Day.