Who is childcare for?

Last night was one of those nights that you can’t really even begin to describe to non-parent friends because they start to get a panicked rabbit look in their eyes. The little dude went to bed at around 7, and woke just after midnight. He just wouldn’t go back to sleep. We tried everything, bonjela, pamol, nappy change, extra layer of clothing, rocking, bouncing, breastfeeding, shushing, patting, walking round the house, putting him in our bed. He clearly wanted to be asleep but was too frantically uncomfortable from the teething pain to be able to relax. Obviously, we got him back to sleep eventually, but I don’t even want to tell you what time because it’s too depressing. 

So this morning, when we woke up, well, we were all pretty wretched. It was one of those mornings when I was inordinately glad that I’m no longer a stay at home parent. After that night, I had no emotional energy left. 

I dropped him off at creche (late), and they gave him some toast with marmite (good kiwi kid, it’s a favourite), and he seemed totally happy and waved me goodbye with a smile. When I picked him up, he hadn’t had good naps but seemed chipper enough. He had a good little play at home, and a very messy dinner which involved getting a lot of food in his hair. He didn’t enjoy his bath because of the necessity of removing food from hair. And then began the process of getting him to sleep. 

Same problem as the middle of the night. C’mon kid, I got nothing more to give, it’s been 45 minutes already, it’s been an hour now, it’s an hour and a half, it’s two hours kid c’mon when are you going to fall asleep and what more do you want from me? 

Childcare is usually discussed in the context of families where both parents work outside the home. For older preschoolers, aged three and above, there is a universal subsidy but it is justified purely on the grounds that it is educational for the kids. They’re there to get experiences that will enable them to do well in primary school! They will read sooner! There’s an ambivalence about the role of childcare for children who are pre-verbal – especially centres like the one my son attends where there is a room full of kids and several caregivers, rather than one-on-one care in the home. Like it’s a second best option and the ideal would be the mother or another caregiver providing all the care all the time. Or maybe it’s ok, but only if the mother is going to work and she has to go to work for the family income or her own sanity.

Some of the creches I looked at bore out this concern. One in particular seemed like a place to store the babies for the day. It wasn’t dire or anything, it was just not all that nice, and not all that welcoming. One was fine but extremely small, so the kids couldn’t really explore all that much. I was delighted when I visited the creche my son now attends, because it’s super lovely and it’s incredibly convenient and it’s not more expensive that the other creches we looked at and they had space to enrol him. The variance in quality is of course concerning, but that’s what you get from something that isn’t publicly provided. The ideal creche will have a small group of children and a high ratio of carers, age appropriate learning and discovery activities, nutritious meals and snacks, a welcoming cosy environment, a nice sleeping space, recognition of cultural and other diversity, and will feel like a “value add” beyond what the parents can provide at home. The settling in period was hard for the little dude, but now when I drop him off I can be entirely confident that his day will be as good if not better than it would be with me. That’s not to minimise the value of spending time with him – I love having my two afternoons with him, and weekends are precious precious precious. But on Monday morning, he’s eager to wriggle out of my arms and get down and play with all the cool toys we don’t have at home. 

His creche uses an online update system to send me “learning stories” during the day. Today I got a story about how the children were learning about shapes and colour, and there was a photo of my son and other children smearing their painted fingers across a big circular piece of cardboard. I probably wouldn’t do stuff like that at home all that often because it’s a lot of hassle.

The physical space is lovely too. They have a covered outside area and a sandpit and the inside area in the under-2 room is all set up to be toddler safe so they can wander about at their leisure and play with things low down on the walls, like this genius little panel with several different doorknobs for them to turn. One day when I arrived to pick him up the six children present were sitting down shaking maracas and bashing drums while one of the teachers played the ukulele and sang. 

All of this means that I feel entirely certain he’s getting something out of it already. Which is not to say that other care arrangements, including parent at home, are any worse. Parents I know still at home with kids the same age as the little dude do cool stuff like go to the park and Tinytown and Te Papa and story time at the library and swimming classes and it sounds great. I hear fantastic things about Playcentres. Some people swear by au pairs or nannies or in-home carers. Lots of options. 

Yet, good quality out of home care is one option that has particular scope to improve the early childhood experience of kiddies whose care arrangements at home leave something to be desired. 

This is why the price tag is not just a problem for parents in paid work. If anything, it’s least of all a problem for those parents. If you’re going out to work you have to put the child somewhere, and everything is expensive, so a good quality creche is a feasible option if you can find one. But if you’re not in paid employment, it’s completely out of reach for most people. 

This is a shame, for two reasons. First and possibly foremost, caring for a child fulltime really takes it out of you and it is amazingly awesome as a parent to be able to have a break. Second, and also really important, not every kid with a stay at home parent does cool activities all day with the added bonus of mum or dad being around. For whatever reason: no car and living far away from amenities accessible on public transport; parents who just aren’t that interested; parents who are unwell; parents who want to do their bests but don’t have a knack for thinking of and executing the sorts of activities kids enjoy. It sucks that those kids miss out at home, and also miss out on the opportunity to have that lack made up for in out of home care. And it sucks the most that the reason they don’t have the opportunity to attend a creche like the one my lucky boy goes to and play and paint and sing and have a good time is because of government funding priorities.