On Jack's last day at daycare before Christmas, I went to pick him up and found him as I usually do playing cheerfully on the other side of the room. Every time he sees me, he grins from ear to ear as he swiftly makes his way across the room to where I'm standing. I've seen him climb over blankets, balls and even other babies to greet me. It's the highlight of my day that he's so happy to see me. But on this particular day before Christmas, I was greeted by Jack and Andrea, one of the owners of the center and she was holding him on her hip. She is incredibly loving and affectionate with all of the children in her care and I know that Jack adores her and feels very safe with her. She handed him over to me and then went to grab a gift wrapped package off of the counter. "To Mom and Dad, Love, Jack". "A present from you!" I exclaimed. "Where did you get money?" He smiled at me and we waved good bye to all of his friends.
When Trevor got home we opened up the package. Inside was a cinnamon scented gingerbread cutout of Jack's hand with red yarn tied through it to hang on the tree. "2011 Jack" was written on the front. I held his "hand" and we looked at him completely touched by this great gift. "You made this?" we asked him. "It's sooooo beautiful!" He beamed. I remember thinking how funny it was that he helped make us a Christmas gift and so easily kept it a secret because he's still a baby, but somewhere in the twinkle of his eye I got the sense that he knew that he had helped make something very special for us (he's very wise that way).
This is not the first gift we've been given. For Father's Day, they took pictures of Jack in three different poses holding up the letters D, A, D and made a Father's Day card with it. This week I got little white footprints on blue construction paper with the words "Those tiny feet tiptoe into your heart and stay there forever" written on it along with the date.
Now, I'd like to think that Trevor and I are the kind of parents that would have an endless supply of construction paper, macaroni noodles, glitter and glue lying around the house, but I know us, and to say that we're "less than crafty" is generous. Because I need to work outside of the home to support my family, I sacrifice time with Jack. What I've learned about daycare is that I get some wonderful gifts in return and not just the ones of the arts and crafts variety.
During my first couple of weeks picking up Jack from daycare, I'd rush out of work in a mad dash to get him. Without fail, I always found him playing and smiling. What I soon realized is that picking him up early is not the same as "rescuing him" from daycare. Despite the fact that he is over the moon to see me, he was having the time of his life just moments before I walked in the door. Recently, we took full advantage of a Saturday afternoon when daycare was open to get things done together free of any working parent guilt about not spending every waking moment with him that we could. Why? Because I know for a FACT that he would much rather spend 3 hours playing with his friends than being dragged around Bed, Bath and Beyond. Side note- come to think of it, that statement could easily apply to Trevor too...
What helped me come to peace with all of this were two key things:
1) Trust and respect for my caregivers
2) Re-framing my ideas about what daycare means
Trevor was going to be a stay at home dad all summer long, something that both he and I were looking forward to very much. I returned to work on April 1, a Friday. On April 2nd, a letter arrived in the mail informing Trevor that he had been awarded a Fellowship to obtain a Masters in secondary education. It was an accelerated and prestigious honor and one that he had 2 weeks to accept. This threw our entire summer into a tailspin. Emails were sent, calls were made and through the power of social networking, a friend told me of a little place that had recently opened up down the street from us. We called, they had an opening and a tour was scheduled.
Jack wasn't even 4 months old yet when we arrived for our tour. We were greeted by Andrea who was warm and friendly. I had a great first impression, but was sold when she sweetly said good bye to Jack who gave her a huge smile (Andrea's young daughter is one of the first people Jack walked to).
For an entire summer they accommodated Trevor's fluctuating schedule. We were able to start him part time so we could all get used to it and then slowly up his hours. It would have been very easy for them to turn us away in favor of a full time baby, but they welcomed us during a time of great anxiety and change for our little family. Since then, I have referred two friends there and would refer dozens more if they had the room. They have earned every ounce of trust I have placed in them for the care of my precious son. I could not have made the transition to being a mom working outside of the home without them.
I have blogged about my thoughts on the damage that is done to moms like me who hear comments about how parents who stay home with their children are doing the best thing for them. None of us can say with any certainty what is best for our children, all I can tell you is that when I pick him up at the end of the day I'm not rescuing him and if you have a daycare that you love, you will never feel that way, nor should you.
Re-framing is a device that asks you to examine the negative frame through which you're looking at a situation and change it to a healthier and happier point of view. Every morning when I get Jack dressed, I tickle him and kiss his little feet and ask him over and over again "Are you ready to go play with your friends today?" That simple question has changed my entire outlook on daycare. If I re-frame daycare from a place where I stick my kid for 8 hours so I can go work to a place where he plays and interacts with other babies, then I realize that I'm actually doing a great service to him. No one will love him like we do, but that's not what I pay them to do. We pay them to become part of the wonderful tapestry of friends and family who are making up his world.
In the end, I don't aspire to be Diane Keaton in Baby Boom with a severe haircut and an enormous shoulder padded blouse. Women of my generation realize that we can't and don't want to have it all. It's not about work life balance, it's about work life integration. What's the difference you ask? Well, for one, you'll never find balance, the scales will always be tipping and it will drive you absolutely nuts to try and keep it all together. Example? How about the time I was trying to respond to work emails while breastfeeding at the same time and ended up squirting my baby in the eye (those jets are powerful, man). Putting a little in the work column and the home column constantly just isn't practical. Integrating those spheres is. Example? The fact that I am able to work from home on Fridays to spend that extra day with Jack. It's a delicate distinction, but an important one- one that can keep a working parent sane.
Jack turns 1 on Saturday. He has transitioned from a sweet, serious baby to a talkative, laughing, cheerful toddler. He could barely roll over when he started there and now he walks across rooms. I owe so much to those women who care for him so sweetly everyday. I have a baby who loves where he's been and loves where he's going; who leaps out of my arms to play every morning and scurries over to me every evening.
And I have a little hand and two tiny footprints to forever remind me of these precious days. Of who he was and who I was and how we both just tried to figure it out together.