My Love/Hate Relationship with Day Care

day care

I have a love/hate relationship with day care.

Claire was born in January. I was lucky enough to have about ten weeks of family leave. (Although I’m privileged compared to most in the country, I shouldn’t have to feel lucky—this should be normal, as it is in most other developed countries.)  Then, because the pandemic was still in full swing, I was allowed to work from home the second half of the semester. Thus, Claire didn’t start day care until she was about seven months old.

I was well prepared for it. I knew that it would be heart-wrenching to leave her in the morning. I knew that I’d think about her and worry about her all day. I predicted that on the drive to pick her up, I wouldn’t be able to wait to see her again. All that was true. But what took me by surprise was the relief I simultaneously felt.

Going to my own office where I was physically removed from Claire felt freeing. I could make progress—oh, the progress!  It wasn’t like home where everything was one step forward and two steps back. Or where I’d forget what I was doing because I’d be distracted every thirty seconds. I could complete a task, beginning to end. I could complete another task, and another, and another. I could accomplish things. I had some of my old identity back.

Of course this made me feel guilty. I hated that sometimes I’d look forward to dropping her off at day care. I’d feel bad that I was leaving her there with virtual strangers, and then feel bad again that I would internally rejoice at the “me” time I was getting (even though it was all work time).

Normally, I teach classes or have some part-time work over the summer. This year I chose to take Claire out of day care and keep her with me all summer. I went from a fast-paced and work-intensive school year to being on one-year-old time. My husband’s schedule caused him to be away for eight days at a time, so I was with Claire ALL the time. Although there were days when I got overwhelmed and felt like I needed a bit of a break from the baby, I did love it. We read so many books, spent lots of time outside, learned words, and just generally enjoyed hanging out with each other.

I went back on contract the second week in August, but because we pay for day care by the month, I took Claire back starting on the 1st. I joyously made a to-do list of all the things I wanted to do in that week prior to work starting—nothing overly ambitious, but little things I hadn’t really been able to do while watching Claire. Clean my office. Read my sister’s book. Work on a manuscript I’d had on the back burner since literally before Claire was born.

Sometimes, when I pick her up, I realize that she’s been in day care for close to nine hours. The adults there see her more of her waking time than I do. They witness new words, new concepts, new social skills, often before I do. They know her likes and dislikes. And I wonder if I’m not doing something wrong. And then I settle on the idea that perhaps our society is doing something wrong.

Part of me wishes I could keep her with me all day—that I didn’t have to go to work, but could instead stay home and just read her books and take her hiking. But the other part of me is looking forward to teaching my classes, making contributions in meetings, and overall just feeling professionally successful. And I know how good day care is for Claire socially and emotionally, which helps ease some of the guilt.

For a while, Claire would cry when I dropped her off. As I walked down the hallway to my car to go to work, my heart would break. Recently, though, she has been looking forward to what we call “play school.”  She is happier on drop off, and sometimes she’s even reluctant to leave in the afternoons. The other day, I was walking out with her teacher, and Claire, running ahead of us, fell. She began crying and I scooped her up, but after just a moment in my embrace, she reached her arms out for her teacher. I half-joked about trying not to feel too hurt by the rebuff, and the teacher said, “Oh, she just needed a big hug!  Are you ready to go back to Mama now?” And Claire, still sobbing, decisively said, “No.”

I was sad when Claire didn’t like day care, and now I’m sad that she likes it too much.

I wish this post had a lesson I learned that solved everything, wrapped up nicely in a bow. It doesn’t. I never feel like I’m doing the right thing. I always feel like I’m compromising. I wish we could all work half or three-quarters time. That might be the solution. More time with our sons and daughters, but still time for our careers. Both are important. But in the US, in 2022, I feel like we’re forced to choose one or the other. If we choose our career and take our children to day care, we often feel guilty. If we choose time home with them, we lose our professional identity. How can we win?