I started my son in full-time daycare a few months ago, when he was almost two. Before that, my partner and I traded off childcare responsibilities and got a ton of help from a nanny that came a few days a week to allow us to both work simultaneously. It felt good to be able to keep our son at home for so long, but on top of the fact that we really couldn’t afford our nanny, with two parents working full-time, no matter how flexible our schedules were, part-time childcare just wasn’t enough.
Enter Melissa: a sweet mother of a 3-year-old who runs a small, at-home daycare right in our neighborhood. She’s one of those born-to-be-a-mom people. While I sometimes struggle to deal with just my spirited two-year-old, she somehow makes juggling the needs of five kids look easy.
And the kids love her, including my son. I hung out for a while on his first couple of days. I stayed with him until he got into some toy or activity and then calmly kissed him good-bye. “Mama’s going to work!” I said, cheerfully. Still, he cried. Without missing a beat, Melissa picked him up and he quieted, lowering his head to her chest.
Watching another woman cuddle and comfort my son didn’t feel bad; it felt great. I knew he would be fine and that Melissa would take good care of him. After those first few days, he didn’t cry when I left anymore. Now, in the morning, when I pull on his pants and say, “Where are you going to go today?” he loudly replies, “Melissa’s!” He talks about dancing and play-doh and stickers. He comes home in the evenings with crafts he’s made, his clothes covered in paint and spaghetti sauce.
The thing is, he loves daycare. He’s always enjoyed being around other kids. And because there are older kids there as well, Melissa’s doing things with him I would never do with my two-year-old who, frankly, has the attention span of a two-year-old! He’s learning a lot, too. Not just about speech and shapes and colors, but about sharing and taking turns.
He’s learning that it’s okay to be away from Mom and Dad for a while. And that we’ll always come back for him.
I’m learning a lot, too. The big revelation for me came the first time he woke up on a Saturday morning and, as we were lazily playing in our pajamas, said, “I want to go to Melissa’s!” Movies and mom blogs had prepared me for this moment to be heartbreaking, but it wasn’t. It was totally fine.
After all, isn’t this movement away from us and toward independence the central goal of parenting? Isn’t this what sets parenting apart from gardening and cat ownership? That we want our children to leave us? That we don’t want to be number one in their lives forever?
I don’t feel guilty about sending my kid to daycare because he’s happy and his happiness is more important than my ego. I know that this separation is just one small step in his long journey away from reliance on his parents. But it is a step toward something great.
That first day when he wanted to go to Melissa’s, I replied by saying, “No, baby, it’s Saturday! You’re hanging out with Mama today.” And you know what? He was pretty darn happy about that, too.