Avoiding the impossible choice

Update on my stepfather: the surgery went as well as could be expected and the surgeon is positive at this stage that the cancer was caught early and before it could spread. My stepfather was lucky in a way that the tumor grew in a place where it caused him to be in incredible pain when it was still very small, so he sought medical attention much earlier than otherwise would have been the case. We are still waiting on the reports from the pathology lab but for now everyone is quietly optimistic.

This week E. and I were looking at alternative childcare options.

Q. really, really did not get why I was putting myself through this, given we hadn’t yet heard back from our top choice (the co-op nursery school less than a kilometre from our house).

“We’re number one on the waiting list,”, he kept saying to me (number one because I got up super early to stand outside at 7 a.m. the first Monday in October to make damn well sure we were the first on the list). “If there’s any space at all, we’ll get it.”

True, but I just wasn’t comfortable sitting around and waiting. They would only offer us a space if there was room after all the returning and alumni families had been given what they needed. And there had to be space in E’s specific age group. At the open house they really stressed that your position on the waiting list didn’t really determine your odds of being offered a place, “because if the first six people on the list have toddlers and we only have space for preschoolers, we’ll just jump over them and start with number seven”.

And, as I had already decided, they had to be able to offer us at minimum two full days plus one morning- ideally three full days- per week. Mornings only, especially only three mornings per week, just weren’t going to cut it. Not if I was going to get this PhD finished. Not if Q. was going to stay sane.

If we were going to be offered a place we were supposed to be contacted starting in late February, and they would have told everyone the results by late March.

I’m flying to the UK in mid-April.

I was NOT ok with learning in late March that we didn’t have an appropriate place for E. and starting the search for alternative childcare with three weeks remaining before I decamped overseas for four months.

Anyway, after a lot of searching online I had found two other possible options that seemed to be good fits.

The first was another co-op preschool in our neighbourhood. Close enough that we could walk to it. (And by this I mean that E. could walk to it on his own two feet, albeit slowly, and not have to ride in the stroller.) One group of preschoolers, maximum of sixteen children. Two ECEs and one parent on a duty day. Mornings only, but the morning session was three hours versus our top choice where the morning session was only two and a half. That half an hour per day would make a big difference if that was the only time I was going to get to work on my dissertation.

It turns out that they have a deadline for registration in mid-March to guarantee a place in September, so it was a good thing I had looked into things when I did. On Monday E. and I went down to have a look.

I have to admit that my heart sank when I asked at the school office for directions and she told me that it was in the basement.

I don’t want E. to spend three hours a day in a basement.

But off we went, down the stairs, into a rather unpromising looking basement.

The room itself was a pleasant surprise. Bigger than I was expecting (although only one room), and with much larger windows than you would think a basement could provide. The children played outside in their own playground for a minimum of thirty minutes each day, barring extreme weather events. They had a snack and circle time. Otherwise it was free play. When we arrived two of the boys were playing with trains, three children were sitting at a craft table cutting up pictures from magazines with scissors, another group were heavily involved in an elaborate dress up game, and several little girls were trying to console a very upset little girl who, it turns out, spoke very little English and was there for her very first day.

They were all much older than E., which surprised me, but the lead ECE said that the preschool tends to turn over every two years and that almost all of these students were off to JK in the fall, so the new intake would include more children closer in age to E.

It was a truly loving and warm environment. That poor little girl whose first day it was was so distraught the whole time we were there, and the ECEs cuddled and hugged her, held her, and frequently stopped talking to me to attend to the needs of the other children.

E. had a blast. He just pottered around the room checking out everything and protested mightily when I said we had to go home (I only got him out the door with the promise of tuna sandwiches for lunch).

I found myself wishing so much that it hadn’t been in the basement. There was another daycare in the school that I passed on our way out- a Montessori Casa- that had a big main floor room and it was just a beautiful environment. I rang them up when I got home and while there would certainly have been a place for E. there in September, they only did full-time care, and the cost was more than we were comfortable paying.

I felt in my gut that the preschool would be a good fit for E. The problem was I didn’t think five mornings would really cut it for my own work, but I couldn’t ask Q. to take more time from his position, especially if E. stopped napping part-way through the next academic year.

So on Tuesday I bundled E. into the stroller and went off to investigate the other option, a very inexpensive home daycare that was recommended to me by someone I know in the neighbourhood. This was really the only home daycare I’d looked at, as I just couldn’t cope with the idea of using unlicensed care that I’d found on craigslist. But knowing that my friend adored this caregiver, who was both an ECE and a qualified teacher, made me feel more comfortable.

As I walked (and walked and walked) to her address, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

This really is too far away.

But then I started rationalizing. She was only ten minutes from the public transit station we used when going to the university. So it didn’t add all that much time to our overall daily commute.

Even so, E. was going to be in the stroller for a touch over thirty minutes, twice a day.

I didn’t like that. I so much preferred the two co-ops, even though doing the drop-off at either of them would probably add just as much to the commute, if not a bit more, as they were in the opposite direction from the university. But E. could walk to them himself. And at two and a half, which he’ll almost be when he starts in September, I felt that was important. I’m very conscious that E. will probably end up riding in our stroller for longer than he would have done otherwise if we lived somewhere else and owned a car. I’m not anticipating that he’ll be ready or able to walk everywhere we need to go starting next fall. We regularly walk over two kilometres in one direction to go to a particular branch of the library or to a particular grocery store. But I’m equally conscious of falling into the trap of keeping him in the stroller for longer than is good for him because it’s easier and faster to just do things that way. These days if we run an errand that takes us about 650-700 metres from home I’ll ask E. if he wants to walk when we start back home again. Often he’ll walk the entire way home. It takes a long time, but I build that time into my expectations, because it’s important to me that he gets the chance to walk, to exercise his independence.

So while the long walk to this dayhome would have kept Q. and I in great shape, I wasn’t thrilled about what it would do for E.

The dayhome was clean and tidy and welcoming. There was a superb child-caregiver ratio: two ECEs to five children. E. would have been with one other little girl exactly his age (the daughter of my friend) plus a couple who were seven or eight months younger and a couple who were just under a year older. They are fed breakfast, lunch and two snacks- all organic food. She was flexible with drop off and pick up, so E. wouldn’t have had to go there for the full eleven and a half hours she was open each day. She was warm and loving. There was a lovely gentle cat. They went on expeditions to the local park and the library. She had rented another apartment next to her own for the space, so the entire apartment was set up for the children. She was happy for us to leave our stroller there during the day.

And yet, my inner voice kept popping up with concerns. She said she made sure they all had exposure to French in case we were thinking of immersion (which we are), but when she sang their song about the days of the week in French I cringed inwardly at her accent. There is a clear accent that anglophone Canadians have when we’ve learned French at school, but not well enough to be fluent. It’s one of the things I am most grateful for- even though my French is now terribly rusty, I still have an excellent French-Canadian accent, one that my French-Canadian flatmate in graduate school said meant I “didn’t sound like an English person speaking French”. I’m sure European French speakers are horrified by my pronunciation, but I like the fact that it reflects a real dialect rather than too many years in school being taught by a non-native speaker.

And this: even though the children went to the library and the park, the bulk of their play was indoors. The play area was relatively large (the living/dining room of the apartment) and there were options for imaginative play (toy kitchen, play house, circus tent, etc.), but there was no way around the fact that E. simply wouldn’t get the chance to run around the same way he would at either of the two co-ops. When taken into consideration along with the stroller/walking issue, it added up to a lot less time where E. was in control of his own body and outdoors.

But the biggest issue was this: She was really pushing learning. “How is he with recognizing shapes?” she asked. I had no idea. E. can do shape sorters and has been doing so for months, but we don’t read a lot of books where I point out circles and squares. “Does he know his numbers? His letters? He’s getting close to two- he should recognize his alphabet by now. Is he combining words into sentences?” Well, no. Just this week E’s gone on a big number kick, and I’d say today that he can recognize and try to name two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine, and zero, but on Tuesday the only one I was confident he knew was zero. I’m not sure he knows any letters consistently. He certainly isn’t combining words into sentences.

“We do a lot of learning here. Days of the week. Months of the year.” There were flashcards. “I don’t like to read the words in a book. Instead I ask the children to describe to me what is happening.”

The more she talked the more uncomfortable with the environment I became. It was actually quite interesting to realize that I have so wholly embraced the idea of play-based learning and following E’s lead. He is absorbing information in leaps and bounds, every single day, but I honestly don’t worry about drilling him or pushing him to learn things like shapes and letters. I know all of that information will come when he is ready. And at not yet two, I honestly didn’t think any of it mattered.

But there was no getting around the fact that she was inexpensive and flexible with her hours. And it would have been a safe and warm environment, even if not exactly the sort of environment we fostered at home. And E. thought it was great- he just pottered around exploring and actually interacted with some of the other kids. Both care providers commented on how independent and self-confident he was.

Tuesday at lunch I outlined both options to Q. and got more and more depressed as I did so. I was absolutely certain that the mornings-only preschool was the better environment for E., but that the dayhome was the better option for Q. and I from a managing our workloads perspective, even if the trek to get there would have been seriously annoying and downright miserable during the winter.

I didn’t know what we were going to do. I was girding myself to looking into still more options.

And then, while I was putting E. down for his nap, Q. checked his e-mail and called up to me that we had a message from our top choice. They were contacting us, just as they’d hoped they would, at the end of February.

They had a place for E. in September. They could offer us three full days per week (or more if we had wanted them) on exactly the days we wanted.

I cried when Q. read me the e-mail. I was just so overwhelmingly relieved to have the situation sorted, to avoid the impossible choice between the welfare and happiness of my child and the needs of our careers.

I cannot think of a better place for E. He’ll go three days a week, 9:00-3:30. He will get thirty minutes of outdoor play each morning and afternoon session in a playground built for the nursery school and designed for his age group. He’ll have circle time and crafts, sensory tables, healthy snacks and hot lunches, water play, loving, warm responsive ECE teachers, small group sizes, and play-based learning.

I also cannot think of a better option for Q. and I. Q. will get four and a half full days per week for his career during semester (he is going to do the 2.5 hour duty day session each week during semester) and five outside of term. I will have three full days (albeit days that end at 3:30 since I’ll do pick up and Q. will do drop off) for my dissertation and teaching commitments, AND two full days at home with my son. In July and August he’ll be home with me full-time.

He has a guaranteed place for the 2014-5 year, for however much space we need. If we don’t have a 2.0 he’ll probably go full-time. If we do I think we’ll try to keep him in for three mornings per week so he gets the socialization and I get a bit of time home alone with his younger sibling. If we do get a 2.0 s/he will have a guaranteed place when s/he is old enough.

It sorts out everything until E. and any 2.0 are old enough to go to kindergarten.

There are still so many unknowns facing us in September. But a big one, maybe the biggest one, is sorted out.

I still feel torn about this. I am 100 % convinced that it has been wonderful for E. to have been home with us for his first two years, even though I know it has put a strain on our marriage and put Q. under enormous pressure with his work and slowed down (or weakened the quality) of the work I’ve done on my dissertation. But I also truly believe that E. will be ready for something more in September. I think he will blossom having a new environment and new people to interact with. Exploring the options this week has really brought home to me that going to the drop-ins these past six months has helped him to adjust to new environments and to be less overwhelmed by new places or new people. The ECEs at the co-op and at the dayhome all commented on how happy he was to explore and how he wasn’t clinging to me or overwhelmed in any way. He was just genuinely excited to play with the toys and see what the other children were doing. That reaction would have been unimaginable last fall.

I’m not designed to be a full-time stay at home mother. There are days when I wish I was. I am so confused about what I want from my career now, that in a lot of ways it would be much easier if I could just embrace being home for the next few years.

But I know myself. I know I need something more.

At the same time, I am just not emotionally ready to put E. into full-time daycare, especially not the ten hours or more per day routine that seems to be so normal in this city filled with families with two working parents and long commuting times.

It would break my heart to spend that little time with him. And I just don’t believe it would be the right choice for him either.

So this co-op, with its three short days per week for only ten months of the year, I really do believe suits us all perfectly.

I know I will miss him in the fall. Q. voiced this too. “I’m going to miss him,” he said the other day at lunch. “I’ll be just like those regular Dads who only get quality time with their children at the weekend.”

But I’m also hopeful that next year will be easier than this one has been. That we might actually get to do some things as a family on the weekends, because Q. won’t be having to work all the time. That Q. and I might get some more time together in the evenings. That we’ll achieve a better balance.

For the first time since I can remember, I’m actually looking forward to the fall.



Filed under (Pre)School Days, Blink and you'll miss it, Butter scraped over too much bread (a.k.a. modern motherhood), Emotions, PhD, Second Thoughts

4 responses to “Avoiding the impossible choice

  1. Criminy, flash card lady sounds stifling! And I say that as someone whose kid is very taken with letters and all that; it’s still not the right work for most kids of his age to be spending lots of time on (unless, like mine, they happen to just like it a lot), and certainly it isn’t weird for them to be focused on other things at, gasp, ALMOST TWO.

    Glad the good place had a spot for you.

  2. Em

    So glad you got into the school you wanted. I have never heard of a teacher not liking to read the words in books. Bizarre.

  3. Sarah

    What a relief that E will be in the school that you wanted! And I’m with you on the play-based learning. Totally wouldn’t be on board with flash cards, etc. Isaac wouldn’t go for that either – he loves to learn, but not in that way. How strange that she won’t read the words in the books. Isaac loves hearing the stories read to him and learns so much new vocabulary from his books – he just soaks it all in! I can’t imagine how much he’d miss out on if we just pointed to pictures. Hmmph.

  4. Nity

    Looking at childcare places is so stressful. I was reliving my own experience with yours. I’m so glad that you got into your top place, and that it seems like it’ll be a good fit overall too. I remember when we switched from friend/nanny situations to a full day program (only 2 times/wk) it was really hard. But they adjust and thrive. I’m so glad you feel comfortable and got your top choice. Awesome news.

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