In praise of daycare staff

An exhausting, but also selfless job.
An exhausting, but also selfless job. 

The drawn-out goodbyes, the bloodshot eyes when you return, their refusal to eat or sleep, the unstoppable tears - I've had daycare on my mind recently.

Next month, I will start the process of leaving my toddler in the hands of people I don't yet know. By July, he will spend two mornings a week there. Without me.

Of course I'm nervous, of course it's a step we're taking after lots of soul-searching, and of course I am doing it because I think my little boy will benefit from it hugely. But what I've realised is that I've been so busy dwelling on all the potential heartache about starting daycare, that I've missed some of the really important positive aspects of it too.

Milin might not turn into a hysterical, inconsolable 17-month-old every time I leave him. He might love getting some time on his own to play with lots of new toys. He might actually eat something in the company of other children when he realises this is what children do. He will likely learn lots of words, come home singing new songs, and spend hours laughing and playing with other children.

Crucially, he might fall a little bit in love with the professionals who are there to care for him when I am not.

Even though we haven't started daycare yet, all around me are friends and acquaintances whose children love it. Yes, it might have taken some getting used to, but they all have tales to tell about the first time their child didn't cry when they got dropped off.

They all, at some point, talk with relief about the special bond their child has made with one of the staff members. They all have a soft spot for their child's favourite classmate - that other toddler who is a familiar face and partner-in-crime.

All of these parents have a story about the first time their child ate lunch with the other children, or slept on the floor mats like the rest of their class. They all speak proudly of all that their child has learnt since starting daycare. They all have handmade Mothers' Day cards or paintings on their fridge. They might be somewhat abstract splodges of primary colours, but their child's name is boldly written in the corner, above the date, in an adult's hand.

These parents and their self-assured, happy children have got me thinking recently about the amazing adults who work at daycare centres. They are professionals who start work early and finish work late. They spend every second on full alert.

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They are always watching every corner of the room. They always have one eye on the new boy, one arm ready to scoop up the little girl who is teething, and they know how to resolve every argument over toys that has ever existed.

They always remember to keep an extra piece of banana aside at snack time for the little boy who loves them. They crouch down on creaking knees to be at the same level as their little people a hundred times a day. They spend their lunch break comforting the girl who misses her mum more than anything.

When their day ends, they wave goodbye to children who run away from them, into the arms of other adults. They don't get to take home the babies and toddlers they have cared for all day. They don't get to cuddle them and put them to bed, they don't get their sloppy kisses and unquestioning adoration. (They do get a rest though, come evening-time, and probably an unbroken night's sleep.)

Still, theirs is a job that is not only exhausting, but also selfless.

Here in England a debate is underway into Government proposals to relax the rules over adult to child ratios in daycare centres. Currently, there must be one appropriately qualified adult supervising every three children aged one and under. When the children are two, the ratio increases to one adult per four children. From the age of three it's one to eight.

The argument is that with correctly qualified staff, this could lower childcare costs without compromising quality. Could it? I struggle, everyday, to look after my toddler. Our ratio is one-to-one. Granted, I'm not a trained early childcare professional, but I am his mother and spend each day giving my all to him. It is, even with our tiny ratio, already exhausting work.

The thought of looking after three one-year-olds fills me with dread, fear, and incomprehension. The work childcare workers already do is amazing, but giving each of them another little person to look after? In my eyes, it's not fair on the professional and it's not fair on the child. 

It's also not fair on parents who have already had to make some hard decisions about leaving their child in the care of someone else. The argument that standards and quality won't be compromised is, in my view, unbelievable. Children laugh and love and play, but they also run and fall and fight and cry and behave irrationally. They do exhaust us grown ups, but they also have every right to be cared for without compromise.

What have your experiences been in leaving your children at daycare? And how important do you think adult to child ratios are?

This article was first published on Essential Mums.

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