When I was off with my first baby, I had to make a major decision (as so many of us do) between going back to work and staying at home with my daughter). Despite the seeming ease of this question, for me it was an identity crisis.
I wanted so badly to be the kind of parent who LOVED being at home with her kid(s). Seriously. I looked at my some of my SAHM friends and saw what amazing moms they were – they somehow always had it together, even with way more kids than me. They were always out and about; the kids were stylishly dressed and in all sorts of beautifully-photographed activities. They seem (and perhaps it’s not the case, but I can only report it from the outside!) very content with her kids. On social media, they post funny mom-memes and beautiful photos of their sleeping kids with captions about how even when it’s hard, they are so blessed to be at home with their kids and see them growing.
But the part of me that is far more honest with myself than I sometimes would like, I knew I was not one of those moms. I love my daughter intensely, but I found my mat leave to be one of the hardest years of my life. I struggled with bad post-partum depression and anxiety for several months after her birth, and sadly did not find motherhood to be something that came naturally to me. I don’t know – maybe none of us do, but it certainly felt at the time like I was the only person who struggled with it. I missed adult companionship. I missed the intellectual engagement I found in my job. Additionally, I found myself in an internal war between how much I freaking loved this little human and how very deeply frustrating I found being at home with her. I realized during my mat leave that I was not the kind of person who fell easily into chatter with small children, and I felt a deep sense of personal shame and failure over the fact that I had to work so hard to be patient and engaged with my own child, who I knew was one of the EASIER ones out there.
This struggle was compounded by the fact that the majority of my social interactions were work-based, so being away from work not only deprived me of my sense of personal fulfillment (I have long considered my profession to be more a calling than a job), I also felt that I had lost my entire social circle as some of my best friends, and certainly the ones I spent the most time with, were my coworkers. When I started talking about going back to work, I had to confront the challenges I would be facing: not only regarding trying to balance my work life (which typically involves a lot of work on evenings and weekends in addition to the regular work hours), but also in regards to finding a place for G.
I would first of all have to actually deal with and be okay with the sense of failure I felt in the fact that I knew I couldn’t stay at home with my daughter without ending up resenting her. This has nothing to do with external pressures – although let’s be real, you can’t win either way (pick work and you’re a bad mom, pick staying at home and you’re wasting your potential) – and everything to do with my frighteningly consistent desire to put my child in a box on the side of the road with a “Free To a
Good Home” sign on it. I HAD to go back to work (for both our sakes). But what to do with her while I was there?
We were a bit gunshy about daycare, so G spent several months with her nonna before we made the move to daycare in the early spring. I was so nervous about it. Neither my husband nor I had been in daycare as kids: his mom had stayed at home until the kids were all in school, and my parents worked alternating shifts and had me at my oma and opa’s house whenever they couldn’t be there. Our in-laws had made similar decisions, with our sister-in-law staying home with her kids. We didn’t have any friends with kids, really, and most of the friends that we knew had their kids with a grandparent or were staying at home. Many of the daycares I looked at before finding the one we went with were too depressing for me to consider. Like they were just orange jumpsuits and homemade shivs away from being tiny kid-prisons. One place we went had a “yard” for their “outdoor hour” that was black tarmac with a chain link fence around it. The kids were separated by age into little quadrants of the black chain-link fenced yard. Tarps were slung across the tops of the fence to provide the pretense of shade. To access the yards, the kids had to line up in between two secure doors to be counted. They literally had inmate numbers, you guys. And this place was EXPENSIVE! I want champagne daycare at a beer budget and I won’t settle!
But once she started, everything changed. While dropoff was awful (so. sad.) because she has some serious attachment stuff goin on, I quickly saw the benefits. G has her mom’s social skills: when she wants to make a friend, she runs over and stands an awkward distance from them and just… stares at them. If they look at her, or acknowledge her, she runs back and hides behind my legs. But at daycare? She made FRIENDS. She learned to play with other kids, and to (sort of) share (she has a little boy who pulls her around in the wagon, and I think that counts as friends). She gets to go outside everyday. They garden. They swim. They go on field trips. They colour their faces with super-indelible-never-come-off-till-youre-dead-and-maybe-even-later colouring markers. Wanna guess how many of those things I did with her over my mat leave? Ok, we did one of those things. I’m not telling you which, but let’s just don’t ever get my kid wet (if you get this joke, you both read good books and also should be my friend).
So when L was born and we had to make a decision about whether to keep her in or pull her out of daycare, we decided to keep her in. When I don’t feel like explaining my parenting deficiencies to people, I say that we kept her in so that we didn’t lose her spot for when I go back to work next year (this is actually true – the waitlist is huge and there are no promises), but the real reason is that I am not a good mom to her when I’m with her 24/7. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past two years: mostly how much stronger and weaker I am than I had thought.
Daycare not only gives her more than I can, they also let me give her more than I could. With them, she gets a close, safe group of friends. She has formed bonds with other people and it has helped her be more independent. She has tended a garden, released butterflies. She gets swimming and singing lessons. She gets EXPERIENCES. At home, I’m too overwhelmed with L to give her those things, and even when I’m not, I find planning and executing activities like that to be too big a task for just me (kudos times a million to all of the SAHMs out there hustling to give their kids experiences and activities on the regular). Additionally, because I feel like I have had a chance to nourish my SELF, rest and bond with my new baby, I feel like I give her the better parts of myself when she’s home: evenings are full of playdough, tickles and songs (and tantrums, potty training and dinner and bath battles… I mean seriously. You keep your cool after your kid poops in your hand or throws dinner on the floor and I will name you a Saint), weekends I feel like I had enough energy for adventures (also, I have access to the help of my parents and husband on the weekends, which makes adventures much easier to plan and execute).
Despite my wishes to be a super mom, I’m not. I’m Mediocre (I once said that I was a bad mom and I was harangued for it because I was “not on crack,” so I realized that the bar is perhaps a little lower than I’d previously thought). I get tired, frustrated, over-touched, and bored. I lack the energy or ambition to organize the kinds of entertainment that a busy 2 year old requires occasionally as a break from smashing pans together and reading the same book four million times. This isn’t about comparing myself to other moms, this is about what is best for my kid, and for me. And for us, it’s daycare.
Ps: still my favourite log entry from daycare