Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Daddy Day Care

My daughter started going to day care last week. That is, my wife and I started dropping her off at what amounts to a perfect stranger's house for 9 hours at a time – and we are paying for it…a lot. We did, of course, interview the provider, going through a four page long checklist which included:

Do you allow free play?
What and when do the children eat?
Do you support breastfeeding?
Do the children play with knives, syringes, and matches? If not, why not?

We also talked to references, checked her license, talked to other providers who knew her and my wife brought our daughter to the provider while children were there. The kids were happy, adorable, and seemed to love the provider – despite her tyrannical ban on playing with knives. We trust of provider. Even so, nothing changes the fact that there are entire days that my wife and I will completely relinquish control of raising our daughter. If we lived in a perfect world, we would have won the lottery on my wife’s last day of maternity leave, or I would be able to work from home selling stuff on e-bay, or Jo Frost from the Supernanny would have decided that her life was to hectic and decide to quit the TV business to become our pro-bono au pair. But none of those things have happened and, like many families, day care is essential. In the morning, we pack up bottles and a diaper bag, put her in her car seat, and drop her off.

I have talked to several parents about day care, both before and since we have started. They all warned me about separation anxiety, which is a real problem in the parent community. I mean, there are even online help groups for people struggling with it. But it isn’t separation that is tough. I don’t feel guilty. I don’t think that she will grow up a horrible person because I put her in day care for 17% of the week. I just don’t know how to do this yet -- literally. Last week I dropped my daughter off and forgot to say goodbye. I just kind of handed over the car seat, told the provider when she last ate, made some quick small talk and went off to work. I didn’t realize until I got to my car that I never gave my daughter a kiss or a “bye honey.” (If you haven’t figured it out by now, what with the dropping on the head and such, I’m not all that adept at this fathering thing yet) UPS drivers show more concern about packages they are delivering than I did for my daughter.

It is a strange thing, dropping your child off to day care. Joking aside, a lot of people do struggle with it. It is like dropping your new girlfriend off for a date with another guy. Sure, she may say it is just a friend from high school and that he is liker brother and that she won’t drink too much and that they just kissed and it was on a dare and you know you can completely trust the both of them. But nothing changes the fact that your girlfriend is now alone with someone you don’t know and they could be doing anything. ANYTHING!

I think part of the problem is not being able to talk to her when I pick her back up. I can’t ask her how her day went or what she did or ask her if she is making friends. Sure, at the end of the day I find out when she napped, when she ate, how grumpy she was, how much fun she had with the other kids. Yes, I can usually tell if she is behaving strangely, or seems tired, but she behaves strangely and acts tired a lot, no matter who takes care of her. She is three months old, she is still getting used to holding her head up; it is a stressful life. Unfortunately, she can’t get in the car and say:

“Dad, that woman is lying through her teeth, I slept for 15 minutes, ate nothing but pixie sticks, cried half the day, and the only toy I was given was a box of tissues and a calculator.”

A four-year-old can tell you they had a bad day or that Johnny stole her during “free play”, or that their lunch was awesome, or that they were read the best book today. A three-month-old can’t do that.

It does help that our provider seems to be doing a good job and that other kids have been under her care for almost five years. It also helps that today I remembered to give her a kiss, and tell her I love her. I smiled at her. She smiled back. I left feeling better about myself as a dad and calculating how many hours it was going to be before I got to pick her up. But I am still her dad. I don’t think I am getting used to it, nor do I think I should. I don’t think that dropping her off and saying goodbye for the day is getting easier, nor do I think it will. But I am learning to get through it. I’m just learning how to say see you later.

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