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January 3, 2001

Day Care Dilemma

By Meredith Wadman

Carrie Cox


  dropped my baby at day care for the first time yesterday. Christopher will be 4 months old this week. Before he was even born, I knew that I would be back at my desk this month, because I both need -- and want -- to work.

I am a mother. But I'm also a person. A fairly driven, ambitious person with a deep desire to write and an eight-year journalism career to show for it. I won't give it all up. And somewhere deep, I know that the satisfaction it brings me -- not to mention the sense of myself as a separate being, a non-mother -- can only be good for my kids.

In spite of this, leaving a tiny baby at day care is always wrenching. I have been through it once already: Bobby, who's now nearly 2, attends the same day care as Chris. Like the pain of childbirth, the misery of that first week without Bobby had faded. Until yesterday, that is. Leaving my second tiny boy in someone else's house and arms, I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest.

Rosa runs the day care. She's a big, dark-haired, smiling mother and grandmother who came to the United States from Nicaragua decades ago. Together with her daughter-in-law, Ana, she looks after eight babies and toddlers, nine hours a day, five days a week, all but two weeks of the year.

Rosa and Ana don't have master's degrees in early childhood education. They don't supply all the latest, greatest infant-development toys. And their small basement with its gray indoor-outdoor carpeting isn't the brightest of places. But they have seemingly bottomless wells of love and the patience of saints. It's happened more than once that Bobby, seeing me arrive to pick him up, has run to Ana's arms, not wanting to be taken home.

Somewhere deep, I know that the satisfaction [work] brings me -- not to mention the sense of myself as a separate being, a non-mother -- can only be good for my kids.

I reminded myself of this as I drove the seven minutes to their house yesterday morning, singing "The Muffin Man" to Bobby for the 63rd time. But my stubborn mother's heart would not be moved. I fought a lump in my throat as I lifted Christopher -- all 13 pounds of him -- from his car seat. I left him sitting on Rosa's ample lap, his slate-gray eyes wide with wonder.

He seemed unconscionably young to be left in the arms, however loving, of two women he doesn't know. I was especially worried about the bottle; he'd fought it all summer in cries so heartbreaking that I had to leave the house to avoid tearing Chris out of my husband's arms and pressing him to my chest.

Yet when I got back to my home office, I found peace. For the first time in four months, eight uninterrupted hours stretched in front of me. As if to mark the change, the summer's incessant, steamy rain and persistent bugs had receded. The day was gloriously sunny and cool. I opened all the windows, made a cup of tea, and began plowing through hundreds of unopened emails. Some contained good news -- like writing assignments. My spirits lifted. I called the day care. Chris was doing all right, after crying with the first bottle. I allowed myself to feel a little relieved. I stood up for lunch and, for the first time since Chris's birth, was not desperate for a nap.

When I called the day care again in the early afternoon, Ana picked up. "Chris is just having his bottle," she informed me. She didn't have to say anything; I could hear him screaming in the background.

I hung up the phone and plunged into depression. My child was suffering. He was in acute Mommy-withdrawal. He would be scarred for life.

When I picked up the boys that afternoon, Chris was dozing in an automatic swing. Rosa gently picked him up and handed him to me. My first thought was that his chubby little legs, clad in shorts for the nice day, were ice cold. "Why didn't they put a blanket on him?" I thought. He was inert, a frozen blob in my arms -- not the boy who usually twisted his head this way and that, straining to see everything. How could I have left him for eight hours on his very first day away from me? What kind of unfeeling mother was I?

In bed that night I told my husband that when I picked Chris up, he looked like he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. "Chris barely moved," I said. "He didn't smile."

"Didn't you say that they woke him from a nap to hand him to you?" Tim asked me with his trademark calm. "Maybe he was just groggy."

"What about the freezing legs?" I pressed on.

"Babies cry," Tim pointed out, "if they are freezing cold. Was he crying?" I had to concede that he was not.

Not mollified, I lay there fantasizing about hiring a nanny -- never mind that we couldn't afford one. I could work in the basement to the sound of Bobby's little feet padding around upstairs. I could come up periodically to feed Chris. I could have lunch with both of them every day. I would have the time, because I wouldn't have to pack their things and schlepp back and forth to day care. Or maybe I could cut back to working three days a week and spend the other two with the boys. As I began doing the numbers in my head, I felt depressed all over again.

Two weeks passed. And then, when I phoned Ana one morning during the third week, she announced with obvious pleasure that Chris had just taken the bottle without a peep of protest. It was a first.

When I picked up the boys, my youngest son was sitting contentedly on Rosa's lap. The bigger kids were playing on the swing set. He was watching them with fascination.

Chris, it turns out, has turned a corner. He has made up his mind that the bottle's okay and has decided that day care's not too bad, either. I am relieved and I am sad. There is no crisis. I don't need to hire a nanny or work part-time. Chris is fine. And maybe, eventually, I will be too.

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