This is part of a series of blog posts under the title Fatherhood Diaries.
Now that almost two years have passed since the birth of Johnny, I am clearly a parenting expert, particularly in childcare arrangements. The paradox of childcare is as follows: taking care of a baby on a 24/7 basis in our non-communal societies is akin to an open prison, but delegating your baby’s care to a complete stranger is devastating and triggers feelings of guilt and abandonment. If you don’t have an alternative and if you research the pros and cons of private childcare these feelings can be managed. And after a couple of months of nursery/kindergarten attendance, you will start noticing the developmental benefits on your child, hopefully making up for the fact that he or she became a magnet for all sorts of viruses.
Finding a nursery is quite challenging. The main reason is that — contrary to kindergartens — the carers in nurseries cannot be looking after more than six babies at a time, which itself is too much (the number varies from country to country). The implication is that the cost of childcare for pre-kindergarten children is quite high and the profit margins low, which makes it an unattractive market with limited suppliers. It only makes financial sense to run a nursery if it is attached to a kindergarten, to source clients for the latter.
In any case, let us leave the economics of nurseries aside and discuss your quest to find a decent nursery. Decent being one that balances quality and price, whilst fitting your lifestyle.
To start, create a list of four to five nurseries in proximity to where you live or work. Since the baby is going to be getting sick a lot and you will be called to pick him up fairly often, you might as well not commute far. The list can be compiled after discussions with fellow parents whose children are not much older than your own and whom you trust. Both qualifications are important. It should be people you trust, since everyone has a different view on what is important and what is not. Also it should be people who went through a similar experience recently, as time distorts perceptions and changes norms, particularly in regards to children.
Once the list is compiled, set up meetings with the different nurseries. I dreaded these meetings but they were quite useful. They are less awkward than the meetings with potential paediatricians, as there is less of a knowledge gap between the two (or, rather, the professional caregivers are less likely to appeal to their expertise). Alas, trying to evaluate the work of a professional is still awkward. There are, however, a few questions that can go a long-way. But initially, visit the premises and see how clean and safe they are. Also, chit-chat with those working there; it is them who will be taking care of your baby later on and not the director who will be trying hard to sell you the place (how hard she tries is also important; the more she does, the more suspicious I would be).
Then, have the interviews. Ask them whether they will be willing to administer medication should it be needed by your child, which is an opportunity to indirectly inquire about their policy for sick children. If they don’t volunteer the details, ask them — what is your policy for when kids are ill? The answer should be that they are separating them from the rest of the children until their guardians pick them up and that they accept them back only following the doctor’s instructions and after they are 24 hours without fever. Also ask about their policy on vaccinations; do they ensure that all kids are properly vaccinated and if so, how? Of course, don’t bombard them with medical questions, even if they are the most important. Maybe ask them to describe a typical day for the children. Don’t forget to also ask whether there is on-screen time as ideally there should be none. If it’s important to you as it was for me, you can inquire as to whether they “celebrate” any religious and/or national holidays. Some will very proudly describe shocking brainwashing activities. Another question to ask is what kind of food they serve, whether they are certified to cook on the premises, who cooks the food, whether they use any salt and whether they would be willing to cater for a vegetarian diet (if you are into that sort of thing). Also, depending on your country, it is important to know the legal limit for how many children each caregiver can have under his or her care and confirm that they are working within the limits of the law. Whatever the case, for kindergarten, make sure to confirm that there is an extra, dedicated person dealing with nappies and toilet-related functions, otherwise the main caregiver will mostly be busy with that rather than interacting with your child.
Once you have the meetings and identify a place that suits your needs and preferences, which for me was a combination of feeling, evaluation of the premises, convenience, and having received the right answers to my questions, the next step is to sort out the logistics. Who is going to be dropping your child off to school and, most challengingly for those in Cyprus where kindergartens and schools finish around 1pm, who is going to be picking the baby up and taking care of him or her until you come home from work? In this regard there is a compromise to be made by those who do not have parents around to help them: the main activities at fancy kindergartens finish around 1pm, if the child stays longer the tuition fee increases often making it unaffordable by middle class families; therefore, those who finish work at or after 5pm and have nobody to take care of their kids, have to select more modestly priced schools.
Supposing that you find an affordable school of your liking, the hard part is still ahead of you: seizing to be the sole caregiver of the child and entrusting his or her care to the hands of an absolute stranger whom you cannot control and who has every incentive to be extra-nice to you and overgenerous in describing the merits of your child. In other words, you trust your baby to a stranger, with limited access to accurate information for those hours. There is nothing natural about this, though going back to the office after the first few weeks, you realize that full-time care of a child is really hard work.
In our case, we both dreaded the day the baby would go to nursery. He was five months old and tiny; in our eyes, a little human dependent on us, whom we were abandoning. Most upsetting of all was the knowledge — soon to be confirmed — that we were exposing a vulnerable human being to the viruses that lurk around nurseries. Looking back, the viruses remain the main shortcoming of nurseries and kindergartens. On everything else, our concerns proved unfounded as the baby became simultaneously more social and more independent. The nursery proved beneficial. Exactly the opposite from the predictions of everyone whom we talked to who was not a young parent. You see, in Cyprus the view that children are better off with their grandparents is prevailing. This erroneous view, contested by academic research, is putting undue pressure on both parents and grandparents. The grandparents are forced to sacrifice their well-earned freedom of retirement and parents have to concede authority over their children as the former are essentially raising them on their behalf.
Overall the experience with the nursery was positive though we had to change once as it was simply inconvenient. Although only a few kilometres from our place, driving the baby to and from added almost an hour to our morning commute. In both cases though, the experience was positive and the baby seemed happy, which is the best test for your choice — more on this later.
Before I move on, let me talk about a terrible mistake that we nearly made, which is a testament to how important it is to consult other parents before selecting either a nursery or kindergarten. In searching for a nursery we visited one around the area that we live. This one has new fancy equipment and, overall, the place is well kept and looks nice. The meeting with the director went well and soon thereafter we were paying the deposit. I didn’t know anyone whose children attended the place but I started asking around for references, as one typically does in small places such as Cyprus. Not too long afterwards I found out about two different alleged cases of child abuse by people who had first-hand knowledge of the incidents and who did not know each other. Apparently, the nursery in question, which I will not name and please don’t message me about it, is currently under investigation by the authorities (or so I heard). Needless to say, we did not ask for the deposit back.
Not long after we decided on a nursery the search for the kindergarten ensued. With kindergartens there are many more options but higher stakes as children attend them for many years, sometimes up to five. In our case the options were fairly limited as we wanted it an English-speaking kindergarten that uses the Montessori method. The baby will enrol this September, so the jury is still out.
The decision for the kindergarten was more complicated as it includes all the considerations that apply for nurseries and some more. Upon our visits to a few of them, we soon realized that first we needed to decide what type of kindergarten we preferred. From my utterly uneducated observations, I noticed that some had rigid daily structures, others were more driven by activities, others focused on stimulating the children’s creativity. For example, one was focusing on art and songs as a way to assist children to think imaginatively and express themselves, whereas others functioned more like pre-primary schools aiming at helping children read and do basic mathematical calculations.
Once a kindergarten met the conditions that apply to nurseries, the additional criteria were the following. First, whether the children seemed happy — whereas you can cheat the parents you cannot do so with the kids. Secondly, whether there was sufficient outdoors play-time — children should play in a safe environment ideally in close contact with nature. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, whether the place was peaceful — not silent or with children that look as if they are drugged but rather a place with sufficient space and facilities for children to pass their time constructively either in groups or alone. In fact, one of the rather popular places that we visited was so chaotic, loud and crowded that I couldn’t focus long enough to understand what the director was saying; I don’t reckon that this environment is a healthy place for anyone to pass half their day in.
What really made me decide to enrol Johnny to the one that we did was the fact that it was peaceful and with as little structure as possible, promoting learning through play, as well as the fact that it is highly recommended by three different people I trust. I realise that the Montessori system is very alien to our culture but it does seem more in line with our parenting style. In any case, only time will tell as to whether any reservations I have will be rested or reinforced. I commit to writing a follow-up entry in about a year’s time when I will have a better idea of the new school and teaching method.