Thursday, July 9, 2009

Further thoughts on childcare

I can see this discussion on childcare is going to be an ongoing one but it is such an integral part of my thinking and my future, and ultimately, and more importantly, of Phoebe's thinking and future, that there is no ignoring it. Surely, after the decision to have a baby in the first place, it is the single most important decision I will make during the early years of her life. And, given how important we now know those early years to be to the emotional and intellectual growth and development of a child, it may well be the most important decision I make on her behalf ever, one that could have long-reaching effects if I make the wrong, or conversely the right, decision.

I have just started reading a book called "Motherhood: How should we care for our children?" by Anne Manne. It is a post-feminist look at the incongruities between the feminist promise that women can have it all and the reality of choice between a career and motherhood. Manne asks why do women have to choose between "staying at home and suffering reduced career opportunities" or returning to work and relying on an "inadequate childcare system"? Does our society really respect the needs of our children? At least I think that's what it's about. I've only read the prologue.

Apart from the retrospective slant and Manne's voice of experience, I felt like I could have written the prologue. Well, perhaps the fact that it is retrospective and written from experience by definition means that I couldn't have written it. Let's just say this book spoke to me. Well, the prologue did.

Take, for example, the following paragraph:
"Before I became pregnant with my first child I thought about childcare as a kind of abstraction. I had not the slightest understanding of how it would affect a child, but I did have a strong sense of what it might mean for women in realising their legitimate aspirations in the wider world."
My thoughts exactly, only voiced somewhat more eloquently than I might have put it. I probably would have said something like:
"Before Phoebe was born I just thought, 'oh yeah, I'll sort out some childcare. It'd be nice if the grandparents could help us out with that but they can't so we'll just put the baby into a daycare centre. It'll be nice and social. It'll be good for it [I didn't know the sex, remember?]. Plenty of other families do it and they're all fine. Then I'll go back to work. Easy.' But since having her, getting to know her, being around her, reading about babies and how they develop, forming my own ideas on how to raise her and introduce her to the world, I am beginning to wonder if daycare is actually the right choice for us. I want her to have undivided attention until she's a bit older. I am now more convinced than ever that the way to raise a happy, secure, independent and social child is to give them as much love and attention as they need in their first months and years of life."
Or, as Manne puts it:
"What had seemed a reasonable course of action before birth ... now seemed unthinkable in relation to this tiny vulnerable human being that both of us as parents spent so long, and with such intensity, trying to "read", to understand the language of gesture, to find what things or actions soothed her or made her happy."

So, although I will still look at some other daycare centres that have been recommended to me, I have now started to consider other options, such as family daycare. However, Manne then goes to on to talk of her own "bodily anguish" in being separated from her daughter for half a day a week whilst working, even though her daughter was in the care of her father during this time. She talks of her search for decent childcare for her baby, from daycare centres who confined children to cots and playpens or left them to cry, to family daycare where young children gleefully yelled "mummy, mummy" whenever the doorbell rang, and then suffered the inevitable disappointment that came with the realisation that it wasn't their mother. She maintains that the older the child, the better they coped with being separated from their parents for such long stretches of time.

Manne talks about separation anxiety, which generally affects children from the age of six or seven months when they first become aware of how important their mother (or father) is to their wellbeing, to around 18-24 months when they become more independent. She says to be separated from their parents for long periods of time causes grief in a baby. The intensity of love that a child feels for its parents can't be underestimated and a baby of less than two years old can't be expected to understand that their mother will collect them in eight hours. Eight hours is an inordinate length of time to a baby. It may seem like forever. Imagine how you would feel if you were separated from your lover for an indefinite period of time. You don't know that person has gone and for all you know you may never see them again. Sure, you have friends who can help you take your mind off things, entertain you for a while, but will they replace the person you have lost? Is this what daycare is like for a baby? Perhaps not, but what if it is?

A child's journey towards independence is a natural progression and can't be rushed and in fact Manne believes that those children who aren't pushed go on to become more independent later, probably because they feel secure. I know that I felt quite safe moving to Australia six years ago because I had a safe and loving family to return to in England. If my parents had sent me here against my will it would have been a very different story.

She also talks about the practicalities of someone else spending such a large proportion of time with your child and this was one of the things that struck me when I visited what I shall now refer to as The Hellhole on Monday. I want Phoebe to see the world through my eyes, and through Toby's eyes, in particular Toby's eyes actually as he has a childlike enthusiastic view of the world (unless we're talking about global politics or economics). I want her to spend days in the park, at the beach, in the garden. I want her to look through Toby's vegetable patch for the latest snowpea (something her three year old cousin loves to do when she visits), to pet and play with the cats, to talk and read with her mammy. (Another quote that reached out to me was "books are not essential in everyone's life, but they are in mine".)

I don't want her watching hours and hours of television. I don't want her to stop asking for what she wants or needs because she isn't listened to. I want her to fall asleep on my lap when she's feeling particularly needy, to have quiet time in her bedroom away from other people. As Manne points out childcare, unless it's the very elite form of a nanny who comes to you, does not afford you the luxury of privacy. I had never even thought of that. I know it's like school and then work. I know that life is about learning to get along with people you might not normally choose to spend time with but when you're one year old, or younger? These are precious years for our babies, ones that they will never have back. Do we really want them to grow up so quickly?

I know I was lucky to have a mother who stayed at home with us. In the '70s and '80s it was much more common but even then some of my schoolmates had mothers who worked. But now I am beginning to really appreciate just how lucky I was and I want the same for my own children. It's such a short amount of time really. I don't intend to be a stay at home mum forever. I can imagine being a lot happier putting Phoebe into childcare when she's nearer two years old but will I still have a job? Two years is nothing to me but it's everything to Phoebe and it could make such a difference to her development. Are two years of child-rearing worth losing my job over? Is my job worth missing out on Phoebe's formative years and giving her the best start that I can? What will really matter in ten or twenty years time? What will be my most significant contribution to the world? I think we all know the answers to these questions.

Perhaps I should become a professional blogger. I could get friends to babysit Phoebe for half a day at a time in return for looking after their kids. I am quite sure that if I took my time over it, rather than just bashing out a blog post in twenty minutes whilst Phoebe is sleeping, I could be quite a good writer. I just need to figure out how to make money from it.

Manne says "the experience of becoming a parent is a revelation of what is deepest in us, of our humanness and our mortality." I couldn't agree more.

Post script: I visited another childcare centre today and feel much better about things. The room where the babies sleep was bigger and nicer. When you first walk in there's a huge space with carpet rugs, mats, cushions and toys. The carer was sitting on the floor with two of the babies. Another baby was sitting on her own with a book, seemingly quite happily. The kitchen area was separate from the change area and all seemed very clean and nice. The director showed me round and was a lovely lady. She gave me some paperwork to take away. None of this "just keep calling and when there's a vacancy we'll give you some stuff to look at." It probably helped that we arrived at the end of the day after some of the babies had already left, whereas with the other place we obviously arrived at feeding time (which makes it sound like a zoo). I spoke to the director about routine and she was quite happy for Phoebe not to be in one until she's a bit older (18-24 months). Although I'm still not convinced daycare is the right thing to do, especially for five days of the week, I do feel a lot better about things. Have another couple to look at next week or when we get back.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

There is hope

After my somewhat unnerving experience at the local childcare centre I set my Facebook status to:
"Lindsey doesn't want to send her baby to a scummy daycare centre."
A friend emailed me a fantastic message that made me feel so much better. She told me how she'd had similar experiences looking for daycare in Ireland for her wee lad. She described the place that she eventually got him into and when I read it I thought, "yes, that's exactly what I was expecting and hoping and want". Hopefully they exist in Australia too. This is what she said:
I really felt happy and safe the minute I walked into the baby room ... The staff all really engage with the babies, they seem to spend most of their time on the floor playing with them or carrying them around if they are cranky. They sing to them, let them play with pots and pans, read stories, listen to nursery rhymes and all the usual things you would be doing at home to keep them entertained and stimulated. They've got lots of bright rugs and cushions on the floor for them to explore and mirrors at crawling baby eye level for them to admire themselves. It feels like a really nurturing, warm environment.

I have managed to get another couple of names of centres to check out which I must do soon. Hopefully waiting until we get back from the UK (as we leave in about 10 days) won't be too late. There is no way I'm putting her in a scummy place even if it's temporary.

So there may be hope yet for childcare. However, I am not sure about the safety of my child with her father. Tonight, after bathing her, he said to me:

"I think we should get some bits of rubber to put around the edge of the bath so she doesn't hurt her head if she falls over."

"Well, she shouldn't fall over because you should be supervising her very closely and should be able to stop her if she topples," I replied (calmly, might I add).

"But I think she needs to learn that falling into water is a bad thing," he said.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Day Care, Nightmare

I have just started my investigation of childcare facilities and I have to say, it's more than disappointing. I have a very short list of places to look at based upon recommendations from people I know. I started with a local facility heartily recommended to me by two friends (three if you consider a husband and wife as separate recommendations).

I took a friend with me who used to be a Montessori teacher. Phoebe was asleep in her stroller when we got there so I left her outside and my friend stayed with the prams.

At first I thought, "oh this doesn't look too bad. A bit like a barn perhaps..." due to all of the gates to keep the kiddies in their relevant sections. The lady seemed nice enough, although slightly odd. She took me into the baby area and showed me around. It didn't really take long as it wasn't very big. She showed me the change station and explained how they used these particular (cheap) wipes but if my baby has sensitive skin I can take my own wipes in. Then she showed me the charts they fill in to say how many nappy changes each baby has had and whether they pooed, when they slept and for how long and a book that logs what each child has done that day.

She showed me the outdoor area where they play and the sunscreen they use. They're not allowed to go outside without sunscreen. She showed me the room where they sleep, a tiny room crammed with about eight cots, one of which was occupied by a baby playing with a bottle. The rest of the babies were sitting in high chairs. They were quiet, not unhappy but not particularly happy either. One might say institutionalised but that's perhaps a bit harsh.

I think the time of day I visited mightn't have been the best as I was hoping to see games being played, babies being sung to, that kind of thing. It seemed so quiet and unengaging. I asked what sort of activities they do and was given the example of collages and paintings.

The lady who was looking after them appeared to be on her own but there were probably about six babies in there. Sarah said she understood that it was four babies per carer so perhaps the other lady was on her break. The carer seemed nice enough but I didn't really see her engaging the children. She changed a child whilst I was there and I didn't notice her talking to him at all; she just shoved him on the change table and whipped off his nappy without a please or thank you.

It was all just so bland and not at all what I was expecting after the rave reviews. Maybe it's nicer for older children but I just got an icky feeling and didn't really know what to think. I'd had no idea what to expect, nothing to compare it to. I'd been so convinced that this would be the place and all I could think was "this is where Phoebe's going to spend her days? Oh my god!" Talk about mother guilt. The place was tiny, much smaller than the house and far more babies in it and it suddenly occurred to me that she'd be there all day. We never spend all day in the house and if we do we both go a bit nuts and end up going for walk at the end of the day.

Phoebe will be almost eleven months old when I return to work but I've been thinking about putting her into childcare for one day a week from about October when she'll be eight or nine months old. This will free me up to do some projects but will also allow me to get used to not being with Phoebe 24/7. I just couldn't see her being in a place like this at such a young age. It is so depressing to think of her just sitting in a high chair, not being sung to or played with or talked to. I couldn't see where the babies might sit and play and I don't particularly want her wearing sunscreen at least until she's one. Maybe I'm being a bit over the top with that and I'm sure if I insisted they'd be happy for me to take some zinc-based sunscreen in for her. But I suppose that's a minor detail.

When I got outside I felt an overwhelming sense of protection towards Phoebe and just wanted to pick her up and cuddle her and tell her how much I love her. I tried to see the positive side to it. It was a recommendation, it must be good. Then again, if I don't like it maybe a daycare centre just isn't for us. Maybe I should start looking for family daycare instead. I thought Sarah should take a look with her Montessori teacher hat on. She did. The verdict?

"You can't make her go to that place. Tell me you won't put her there. It was HORRIBLE!"

Strangely, I felt relieved.

And yet at the same time I wondered, if that's the place that has come recommended, what on earth are the others like?

Sarah told me that she noticed the babies' bottles in the fridge had no tops on them. She also told me how the carer changed a baby's nappy whilst she was there and whacked his head on a piece of wood above the change table. The baby was screaming and the carer, who was obviously embarrassed said, "oh, I've never noticed that bit of wood there before. We should do something about that." Oh! My!! God!!! She told me how it was worse than the scummy place in Fulham when she worked as a Montessori teacher. Gosh, I really hope this isn't the standard of childcare in Australia but I'm beginning to wonder.

So now we're on a mish to find some decent childcare. Sarah suggested we frequent some playgroups and see if there are any nannies or child minders there. I found a nanny and babysitting service online this afternoon and they charge $165 a day. Holy Mackeral Mother of the Devil! That's almost as much as I take home after tax. I think I'd have about $30 left over for the mortgage and everything else. Hardly worth it really. We're going to check out the number 1 recommendation of daycare facilities next week and just keep asking around for more. And I am considering finding something like family daycare for the first few months. There has to be a better option. And if there isn't I'm quitting my job and selling the house.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Phoebe is now 4 ½ months old and I'm still exclusively breastfeeding her. That means she gets absolutely no other food or drink (apart from some homeopathic teething tablets), not even water. Some mums I know think it's great that she's still fully breastfed as their babies are now supplemented with, or fully on, formula. Others have started feeding their babies solids. But most of my mum friends are also still breastfeeding.

Long before I was pregnant I wasn't really sure whether I would breast or bottle feed. I didn't know much about either and I'd mainly been exposed to bottlefeeding and had fed a few babies myself this way. I always thought it was lovely that bottlefeeding could involve members of the family other than the mother. I remember bottlefeeding my cousin when she was just nine days old and it is a memory I cherish. I really felt like we bonded during that experience and that our future relationship benefited from it.

By the time I was considering pregnancy I thought I probably would at least try to breastfeed as it seemed the natural thing to do and I was aware that it was the best for the baby, although I still didn't know much about either. I wasn't sure how long I would breastfeed for but I was sure that I wouldn't stress myself out too much if I felt it wasn't for me and I thought I probably would stop by the time the baby had teeth, or maybe even at three months. I certainly didn't want to feed a baby who was old enough to either ask for it or remember the experience.

Once pregnant and the reading frenzy began, I became determined that I would breastfeed for at least the first three months. I also became anxious about the potential difficulties I might experience. I kept hearing awful stories about cracked and bleeding nipples and women screaming in pain, and a friend had a terrible time with blocked ducts and mastitis. Everything I read told me how good breast milk was for a baby and the more I thought about it the more I realised it was the right choice for me as it requires far less preparation than formula and I am an intrinsically lazy person, as anyone who has seen the paint job on the doors in our house will agree. This was particularly appealing when contemplating those middle of the night feeds. However, I didn't want to be the only person able to feed the baby, and I particularly wanted Toby to get involved so I decided that I would express milk.

When Phoebe was born we were relatively lucky with the feeding. Sure, my nipples got a bit cracked but thankfully they're not that sensitive and any pain I might have been feeling was nothing compared to what was going on down below. Phoebe and I learnt how to feed together fairly quickly and our breastfeeding relationship got off to a great start. I think a lot of this was to do with all of the preparation I had done during my pregnancy. As well as the ante-natal class on feeding I joined the Australian Breastfeeding Assocation and received their book Breastfeeding ...naturally. I read forums and talked to other mothers. One of the most useful pieces of information was a discussion forum titled "What do you think new mums need to know about breastfeeding?".

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the fact that I would actually enjoy breastfeeding. I just didn't see myself as that kind of person but after spending my pregnancy worrying more about the feeding than the labour or birth, it has ended up being one of the loveliest experiences I have ever had. It is so intimate and Phoebe and I have had some gorgeous moments together that I am not sure we'd have had if she was bottlefed. Breastfeeding is my chance to have a bit of time out of a busy day, to put my feet up, read a book and cuddle my beautiful baby. I love the cuddles so much I often sit with her on my knee, playing with her and talking to her long after she's finished her feed.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a lovely and easy breastfeeding experience. At times I find it draining. I am constantly amazed at how much I need to eat and sleep and don't even get me started on growth spurts, or using me as a dummy during teething. (Incidentally I do find the phrase "using [the breast] as a dummy" a rather contradictory one. Surely a dummy is just that, a dummy breast, so don't babies use dummies as breasts rather than the other way around?) Oh! And then there's the biting. Yes, teething babies bite down on boobies for relief and it really ain't that nice an experience. I do hope she doesn't try it when she's got teeth or I may be giving up sooner than planned. But all in all it has been a very positive experience.

I was surprised at how protective I quickly became over our breastfeeding relationship. I didn't actually want anyone else to feed her and when she was about a month old and the time came to try her with expressed milk from a bottle it was extremely difficult for me to watch Toby trying to feed her. I actually almost cried. Hormones are powerful things indeed. Although I had managed to get her to drink from a bottle, Toby didn't enjoy the experience all that much and didn't persist with it. Because I had found it so uncomfortable I didn't encourage him to keep trying. After three months the hormones wore off and I didn't really mind who fed her so long as it didn't affect my milk supply and I still did most of the feeding. By then Phoebe wouldn't take a bottle and she still just chews on it rather than drinking from it.

Feeding in the night is certainly fuss-free. Phoebe sleeps in a cot in our room. When she wakes for a feed I get up and bring her back to the bed and either prop myself up whilst she's feeding, or lie back down with her next to me. Sometimes we doze like that for hours. When she's finished I put her back in her cot and she falls asleep again. There is no formula to mix or get to the right temperature and no bottles to worry about afterwards. Even during the day when I'm tired we lie down in bed together and I'll shut my eyes and rest whilst she's feeding. The morning feeds are lovely. She looks into my eyes and sometimes stops and smiles or talks before going back to her breakfast.

The other afternoon we lazed on the bed for quite a while after a feed and she was in a very relaxed mood. I love it when she's like that because she's usually so active. We just looked at each other and smiled and I made silly noises and faces, and kissed her chubby little cheeks whilst she laughed at me. She reached out and touched my face. That's her latest thing, reaching her arm as far as she can and touching or grabbing whatever is there. She often reaches towards my face whilst she's feeding. She touched my mouth and I said "mouth", then touched hers. She touched my nose so I said "nose" and touched her nose. She touched my mouth again. This went on for ages. I thought she'd get bored and I'd have to get up and do something more active but she was happy like that for about 20 minutes after her feed. It was a nice break for me and a lovely little interaction I'll remember forever.

It is a wonderful gift to be able to feed your baby and know that you can single-handedly sustain her. I now plan to exclusively breastfeed her until she is six months old (although I am quite happy for her to try foods between now and then if that's what she wants) and continue to breastfeed her until I either go back to work, she's a year old or perhaps even beyond that. Maybe for as long as she wants, perhaps even until she leaves home. I am joking... the jury is still out on how I feel about breastfeeding older babies and toddlers but I feel less strongly against it and will play that one by ear. To be honest part of it is that I'm not entirely sure how to stop feeding her. Even when she misses one feed, for example sleeps through a feed she usually wakes up for, my boobs hurt and I have to express milk. Gradually weaning her when she's ready seems the easiest way to do it. After all, that's nature's way so it should just happen and shouldn't require too much thought or research, right? Then again, I may get fed up of the whole thing long before she does. Either way, until then I'm just going to enjoy our little moments together and make the most of her being my baby.