When I was pregnant, I frequently met other pregnant women who could rattle off their philosophies on sleep training and secure attachment, and deliver TED Talk-worthy presentations on the merits of this versus that crib or stroller. I wondered, how did all these women seemingly already know how to raise children? I felt as if my recurring nightmare had come true, the one where I show up for a final exam only to realize I've missed an entire semester's worth of classes. Personally, I had no strong convictions about baby sleeping arrangements, no grand vision for our nursery—no idea, I thought, about how to be a mother. When I was asked about my future parenting plans, my nonchalant shrug belied the panic I felt in the pit of my stomach.
But, when talk inevitably turned to childcare, I was surprised to hear myself express a clear, confident opinion: "My daughter will go to daycare, definitely."
Of course she would. I knew I would keep working—I'd spent over a decade building my career, and I cared about my job, not to mention that it wasn't a financial option for me not to return to work. Daycare was a financial necessity too—it costs a fortune, yes, but a nanny costs two fortunes. Still, finances aside, I loved the idea of my kid spending her days hanging out with other kids, being cared for by a team of childcare professionals, in a setting designed for little ones to play and explore.
I was sold on our daycare the moment my husband and I walked through the doors. In the bright, cozy playroom, a couple of babies were tucked into the lap of a teacher reading to them, a trio of toddlers was building a block tower, and the owner was playing the ukulele and singing "She'll be coming around the mountain" to a cluster of kids dancing and rolling around the rug. The space smelled like cinnamon oatmeal, which the group had eaten for breakfast. By the time we made it to the grassy backyard filled with playground equipment and a small garden, I was ready to hang up my coat on my own designated hook and enroll myself at the daycare. I was thrilled for my daughter—still nestled in my belly at the time—to learn and grow in this sweet environment.
My maternity leave spanned a gorgeous summer. When autumn arrived and it was time to go back to work, I felt anxious about a dozen things: the commute, the breast-pumping, the challenging assignments I'd need to complete on very little sleep. But among my anxieties was not the fact of sending my daughter to daycare. I'd enjoyed several beautiful months as a full-time mother, but I didn't wish to keep at it permanently, and I didn't feel guilty about it.
When people inquired about my childcare plans, some told me they could never leave their kids like that—with strangers in a strange place. Others lamented the high cost of living, assuming that I'd be staying at home if I could. And many who'd sent their own kids to daycare responded with sympathy: A friend told me her child's first day there was the worst day of her life; she assured me it would get easier. A coworker related that he felt so distraught after dropping off his daughter, he ended up picking her up ten minutes later, never to return.
Most of these people meant well, and I respected their opinions and experiences. But I simply didn't share their fears, their worries, their regrets. I believed to my core that it would be good for my daughter to have lots of caring, competent adults in her life. It takes a village, right? As far as I was concerned, the more love and attention she received, the better. When I expressed these feelings to my therapist, she kept prompting me to dig deeper, to get in touch with the sadness or ambivalence I might feel about handing off my baby to other caretakers. I probed and probed my heart and mind, but I felt fine about it—really, truly.
When it came time to drop off my four-month-old for day one of daycare, it was strange to watch her handling a rattle that wasn't ours and to see her being held by a woman whose name I'd just learned. I felt a twinge acknowledging the transition—the start of this new chapter, the end of the last one. But as I waved goodbye, I felt confident my daughter was in fantastic hands—hands that had spent way more time than my own changing diapers and feeding bottles and singing lullabies to countless little ones. When I returned that evening, my daughter greeted me with a wide smile, and I felt a surge of happiness—this would become her place, her community.
One year later, my daughter has grown to love her teachers as much as they love her, and she has a slew of friends she eats and plays and naps with every day. When I drop her off and the aromas of bacon and eggs waft through the kitchen, she runs to grab her chair, says hello to her buddies, and gleefully waves me goodbye. She comes home each evening saying new words and demonstrating new skills (and sometimes wearing new clothes).
Most of motherhood still feels like trial and error to me. And I still find myself in conversations with parents who seem to have it all figured out, as they hold forth on screen time or discipline or school districts. But more and more I've realized that different things are important to different parents, and what's right for them isn't necessarily right for us, and vice versa. I feel strongly about this one big thing, that daycare is fantastic for our family. The rest we're figuring out as we go along.
Of course, there are days I would prefer to stay home and be with my daughter all day. And sometimes the weekday math strikes me as ridiculous: the two or three hours I have with my daughter versus the eight hours I spend in front of a computer screen in my office. But one consolation is that I've gotten to know other daycare parents who share my confidence in our childcare choice. At pick-up the other day, a fellow mom turned to me and said, "Isn't this place amazing? Our kids are so happy here." She said it conspiratorially like we'd discovered some buried treasure. And really, I believe we have.