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Farah L. Miller Headshot

The Surprising Benefit Of Daycare

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There are many things I worry about when it comes to childcare. During my maternity leave, I couldn't figure out who would take care of my daughter if she didn't get into the one place we'd applied to while I was pregnant. (She didn't.) Then, we found an appealing alternative -- aka a daycare with a spot -- and I was concerned about leaving my baby somewhere that didn't even have a waitlist. And, much more than that, I was terrified about leaving a 12-week-old somewhere at all.

The party line from anyone who wanted to make me feel better about sending an infant to daycare (mostly from people who have babysitters or don't work outside the home) was to say how lucky we'd be when she starts school. "You won't get any of those germs from kindergarten!" several of them said. We did, however, pick up every possible sniffle, hacking cough, stomach virus...

Miraculously, though, that was only the first year and a half. My little girl has just turned two (today, in fact), and has been going to that same no-waitlist "school" ever since. And, despite her being happy, learning, thriving...and bringing home no less than fifteen hand turkey projects at Thanksgiving, I still have panic moments. When we go to an "open play" session on a Sunday morning and she goes all "Mine! No!" crazy over a fake plastic jar of ketchup, and I think, Omygod, that study about how kids who go to daycare become more aggressive later in life -- it's totally true. Or I blame the childcare providers in my head; they must not be reinforcing good sharing skills.

Worse than that are the days when drop-off suddenly turns hard. We have these great runs where I leave her at school in the morning and it's completely drama-free. Then, bam. Hysterics. It doesn't matter how much I can explain it away. Separation anxiety comes and goes, sure. Sometimes Mondays are harder. But those are the days when I start calculating whether my family could stay afloat if I didn't have a job and stayed home (nope) or if we should reconsider the whole nanny thing and find one highly devoted person to take care of the baby.

So, in light of all that worrying, any news about the benefits of using childcare makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And, this week, an article written by Meera Lee Sethi for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley brought up a whole new argument in favor. Sethi wrote about sociologist Mario Small, who has found that "mothers using childcare reap social, psychological, and even financial rewards."

Friendships, Small has discovered, form between mothers and other parents who go to daycare with their kids. That's right. This one is for you, Sophie's mommy. I met you at a new mom's group. You told me about our school without the waitlist, and you're still in my life. You too, Vivian's mommy. There was that day in the summer when we went to the park with the girls after pickup. It may not have been drinks after work, like it would have been in pre-kid days, but that little bit of socializing -- y'know, the 15 minutes when we got to chat while they were on their swings -- that was exactly what I needed.

The really great part about Small's research, however, is that the people who benefit most from sending their kids to daycare are low-income mothers. It's not only meeting parents who are in the same boat that helps. The upside -- which includes decreased risk of depression and better financial status -- comes from their ties to the childcare institution itself. As Sethi reports:

By plugging into childcare centers that were themselves connected to other nonprofits and government organizations, mothers effectively multiplied the size of their support networks with no effort required on their part.

A few days ago, I sent an email to the director of our daycare -- a list of grievances: "You asked us for a second sippy cup and said it's because Zadie doesn't need a bottle anymore. This implied that you were still giving her a bottle, which she SHOULD NOT be getting. Even though you did tell my husband you are not giving her a bottle, I want to make sure all the teachers know that she doesn't drink a bottle during the day. Also, yes, I will bring a green sippy cup." That sort of thing.

But, the sippy cup question came the same week that one of the teachers referred to my little girl as "he" in the daily progress book... Don't they know those three sentences in our beat up notebook are my only lifeline to what Zadie does all day? And they are just copying the same information from one child's book to another? Or worse -- is there a teacher there who doesn't even know what gender she is? Those questions = panic moment.

There was no immediate response to my note. About 24 hours later, the director wrote back to say she could speak to me at drop-off the next morning.

We got to school at a few minutes past 9. I took off Zadie's jacket and hung it on the teeny hooks at kid height, then walked upstairs to the classroom, holding her on my hip. It looked like all would all go smoothly, but I also know how quickly things can turn. We got to the door and I pointed to her star with her name on it stuck there with all the other kid's stars - "Look, yours is yellow!" I said with my happy voice that means please don't start crying. And I opened it up to see twelve little toddlers jumping up in the air in sync.

"Hi Zadie! You're just in time for Circle Time!" one of the teachers said. I put down my baby, and she hopped over to join them. And, I realized they were ribbitting. Like froggies.

She didn't cry. I don't think she even looked back at me that morning.

I turned around with a stupid smile on my face though. As I was heading to the door, the daycare director came in. We chatted about my note. She explained everything, as best she could. I nodded a lot. I really needed to get to work. None of it mattered much anyway. Not after seeing the frogs jumping. I really have to tell the other moms about that.