Another Child, Another Search

One mother's journey through more than a decade of day care

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Next fall, my youngest child will enter kindergarten. I've already got the champagne on ice.

Not that I won't miss her. It's just that for the first time in 12 years, the agony of finding affordable, high-quality child care will be over.

With kindergarten, there remains the choice of public or private. And I'll have to decide whether to pick an after-school program or adjust my work schedule so I can be home when my three children get off the bus.

But the day-care hell is done. Finito. Forever. Pop that cork!

Since my oldest son was born in 1993, I have navigated numerous home-care providers, sitters in my home and several preschool and day-care programs, including a couple of the all-day-every-day variety, a Montessori program and a religious-based preschool.

I quickly discovered that each child's personality had a big influence on whether a child-care provider would work. The day care where my son thrived from the age of 1 until he started kindergarten — the one he still talks about even though he's now in middle school — didn't work at all for my daughter. She cried from the moment I dropped her off until I picked her up eight hours later.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the cost. What we could afford with one child became insurmountable with three. Many full-time day-care programs in suburban Cleveland run about $9,000 a year, per child. Last time I checked, the maximum tax deduction for that was about $950. I can't tell you how many times my husband and I have manipulated the numbers to see if it was worth my working at all.

When sitters want $7 to $12 an hour, it's tough, unless you can depend on a good-hearted relative to take your kids for free. On the other hand, if your spouse is out of work or you're a single parent, you don't have a choice. Some parents have to settle for inadequate care. My heart breaks every time I hear a news story about a diaper-clad toddler wandering the streets alone or falling from a fire escape.

Luckily, I had choices. And with each new baby or change in my work schedule, I would begin a new search for the ideal day-care center.

What I saw often sent shivers down my spine. I'll never forget the doe-eyed baby reaching up to me. Her nose was goopy and green. She begged to be held — or at least needed someone to gently wipe her nose — but the only caretaker in the room already had bottles in both hands, shoved into the mouths of two wriggling infants propped up in car seats. There were at least six other babies in the room, lying unoccupied in cribs.

The worst was perhaps the "potty-training room" at a center located in a posh suburban office park. There were several purple plastic potties scattered throughout the room, amid the toys. I witnessed a toddler pulling down his pants, doing his business, then picking up a toy to play. Meanwhile, the teacher was watching TV.

Day care needs to be improved for families at all economic levels. It's already outrageously expensive, yet dedicated teachers (and I believe most are) certainly deserve to be paid well for their hard work. Despite licensing, quality is all over the place, even — as I witnessed — in wealthy suburbs.

To the parents out there going through day-care hell right now, I tell you this: Some day — and believe me, the time does fly — your youngest will be in kindergarten, too, and these torturous decisions will be behind you.

While there's no perfect place, my children attended centers (four different ones among the three of them) where the teachers nurtured a love for learning and a respect for their peers. Whenever I found the right place for each child, I knew it immediately.

And that might be the most important factor in choosing the right day care for your child: good old-fashioned mother's intuition.

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