Daycare Is The Present Day Hunger Games
Nobody told me the search for a good daycare should’ve started when I was pregnant. It might sound ridiculous, but I’m living proof of learning the hard way. Finding a good daycare is something like The Hunger Games, especially if you live in a heavily populated area like New York City.
When it comes to finding a safe haven to leave your child when you return to work or want to begin exposing him or her to their peers, you are literally competing with other parents for spots. Like the professional world, it also boils down to who you know — and how much money you have because daycare is expensive, and the better they are the more money you’ll have to fork over. If you don’t know the right people, you’ll be stuck in waiting list purgatory and there’s no telling when you’ll get out.
The first daycare I ever looked into was amazing. I was about 6-months pregnant and stumbled upon the organization’s table while at the New York Baby Show. It was a Montessori-based program that offered music, art, dance classes, and they had a STEM program. A STEM program for babies? ERMAGAAAAHD! How could any ambitious parent who wanted their child to grow up to be great not want their kid in such a daycare?
I happily browsed the brochure only to discover that this particular place would cost roughly $3,000 a month, and if we could pay the first month in full then we’d be rewarded with a 10% discount off the rest of the tuition. Yay 10%! In reality, I laughed the offer off and figured I could find another daycare that was just as good but more affordable at some point. I also thought I had time. My husband and I’s plan was for me to keep the baby at home with me for at least a year since I was a freelancer. That worked out at first, but I should have stayed on top of my search and avoided the stress I eventually endured not realizing how quickly time passes by.
Being a working stay-at-home mom wasn’t hard at first. When my daughter was a tiny newborn blob of cuteness who did nothing but eat, sleep, cuddle, and poop all day, I’d tuck her into my Nuroo Pocket for some skin-to-skin contact and get busy on my laptop as she slept or nursed. When she got a little older, I tucked her in her wrap carrier and repeated all of the above. But when she graduated to walking at 10 months old, my attempts to work got a lot more futile as she cruised around her gated play area and attempted to get my attention every 10 seconds. I couldn’t resist giving her the attention she needed, so my work schedule shifted to doing most of my work at night (since she was sleeping through the night by then), but I sacrificed whatever little sleep I already got. My mom played (and still plays) a big role in childcare but she doesn’t live close enough to benefit from the convenience.
By the time my daughter turned one, I called my top choice daycare and they told me that if I put her on the waiting list at that moment she’d probably have a good chance of being placed by the time she turned two. I thought that was ridiculous and foolishly did not put her on the list, nor did I continue searching for daycare. I convinced myself that I needed to push through as a work-from-home mom because finding a daycare started to become like a second job. There was no Yelp for daycare. I was disappointed to discover that a lot of daycares didn’t really have a good online presence or up-to-date testimonials, so I was mostly going by word of mouth and whatever bits and pieces of info I could find online.
The next leg of the research phase would be actually visiting places and hopefully catching parents to talk to as they dropped off or picked up their children, but I didn’t want to do that latter part just yet. I figured we’d save money if my daughter just stayed home with me. Plus, I had trust issues (every parent does). You hear all these awful reports on the news about baby fight clubs and other crazy things that can happen to children in daycare, and I had the personal exposure to feed my worrisome mind. One friend’s toddler daughter broke her leg at daycare and the staff said nothing. My neighbor’s son got a black eye, but I’ll get to that in a second.
By the time my daughter turned two (this past August), her need for daycare grew beyond me just needing to work. Developmentally, it would have been beneficial for her to be around other children so the search began again. This time I searched while dealing with the height of a depressive episode and it was daunting. One of the things that triggers my depression the most is feeling inadequate in my career (that’s a long story for another day). This feeling was magnified by the daycare search because I began to feel like I failed my daughter by not getting her on any waiting lists sooner.
There was one day in particular where I got emails back from at least three places I reached out to and they all told me they had waiting lists with indefinite wait times. How could my child thrive if I, her slacker mom, couldn’t even get daycare right? That might sound like a ridiculous thought process but it was the headspace I was in. I contacted my top choice for my daughter again and was hit with the same waiting list spiel, as expected. What I got from that conversation was that I’d be lucky if she got in there by the time she turned three but then I found out that I really just had no pull. I spoke to other parents whose children bypassed the list because they “knew people” and even that made me question what the heck I didn’t do right with my life, once again. How was it that you had to know people even when it came to preschool? Sigh.
Eventually, I narrowed my search down to two places. Both were recommended by parents in my circle. There was one place that my neighbor recommended because she sent her toddler son there which happened to have one spot left. It was walking distance from my house, and at $800 a month, it was a lot less expensive than most of the places I saw, which ranged from $1,000 – $3,000 a month. The other place was highly recommended by two moms in my mommyverse, which also happened to have one spot left. It wasn’t as close to my house as I would have liked, and it was $1,300 a month, which was a figure we could budget in, but it would make things tight. However, we really liked the owner and the space. I almost went with option one for obvious reasons, despite the fact that I liked the second place better and my intuition nagged me about choosing option number two. When I ignored my gut feeling, the universe stepped up its warning game even more, and this is how we get to the baby with the black eye.
My neighbor texted me the day before we were supposed to visit the first place with intentions of enrolling my daughter, and informed me that her son had gotten a black eye there and no one had answers as to how it happened. She sent me a photo and it was bad– a black eye black eye that was quite disturbing to see. That was all I needed to to make my final decision. It turned out that daycare option one was understaffed, which was probably also a factor in the injury, so option two it was. I’m slightly calmer now that I feel comfortable with the daycare that I chose, especially because the owner has never had a child injured in her space and was generally very communicative.
I’m not writing this to freak any parents or would-be parents out, but to prepare you because if I knew better before the struggle then I would’ve done better. Look up average daycare costs in your area and create a budget. Some people’s jobs even allow them to dedicate pre-tax dollars to child care, which is helpful. Seek help from family members if you can. You should pay relatives too, but most likely they won’t be as expensive as a nanny or daycare. You can also do a nanny share with another family, which can bring costs down, but finding a qualified person that you like can be time-consuming. See if your state has universal daycare. In New York, this tax benefit kicks in when the child is four so, financially, you’re on your own before then unless you qualify for daycare assistance programs, but it still helps. Lastly, ask all the parents you know, especially those who have children around the same age as yours, where they placed their children and how they got through the process. Most parents will gladly share information with you because they’ve been through the struggle themselves. Frankly, we’re all we got.
Starrene Rhett Rocque is the author of Bloggers Can’t Be Trusted, and a Brooklyn-based digital content producer who has worked with Hello Beautiful, Teen Vogue, IMAN Cosmetics, Complex and more. She is two years deep into life as a mom.