You Are What Your Childcare Is

Childcare is a critical, thankless piece of infrastructure in any parent’s life. Childcare is a spectrum. Daycare, Grandparent help, a real deal nanny, generous neighbors, family friends, Daddy daycare, in-home daycare, drop-in daycare, pseudo-co-parent, Mother’s Day out programs, pre-K, babysitters- there are a lot of creative ways to build out your village.

I am a daughter of a stay-at-home-mother, which means I had no realistic blueprint of what a working mom’s childcare should look like. Pregnant with my first child, I believed the overpromising grandparents who pledged over-the-top babysitting, upon request. I did not make plans for formal childcare, despite being in a doctoral program in another city, and working part-time. I cringed at the idea of daycare because, after all, I had not gone to daycare when I was a child.

Naïve; I was very, very naïve.

Thus, the rollercoaster of our childcare journey began.

At first, having family pitch in worked out well enough. Everyone was obsessed with the first grandchild and was happy to hold a precious angel from heaven. And then I came home from class to find my six-month-old baby, limp from an allergic reaction. After a trip to the ER and an intimidating diagnosis of FPIES, I decided to take a break from working since my baby would require a very strict diet, free from wheat, oat, rice, and bananas.

But I still had that dissertation to write. I worked tirelessly during naps, family visits, holidays, daddy daycare dates, and after bedtime. Throughout that year, I added neighborhood kid babysitters. A few college student babysitters were added to the mix. I was officially cured of a lifelong struggle with procrastination, every minute spent was proactive and efficient.

But it still was not enough. I needed to graduate, and I was still semesters away from my dissertation proposal (a halfway mark in the dissertation process.)

After I pleaded for help, broke my ankle on a boat dock, and had an epic meltdown, I raised the white flag. I hobbled into the closest daycare from our house and asked for information. The daycare was a relatively new addition to the community, so they had a spot available the following week. Feeling defeated, I said, “We’ll take it.” The SAHM inside of me wailed with horror. I tried telling myself I would only bring my daughter for a few hours here and there, whatever the least amount of time that was required in order to graduate. I grieved the loss of always having my baby around. But I had to acknowledge the reality. My mother did not have a job when she was raising her four kids. Any support she had from my Granny or Mother’s Day Out went toward a break for her. The help I was getting was not enough to sustain the enormous undertaking of a dissertation. Also, I now needed to resume seeing clients in order to pay for daycare.

Life got better. My daughter made friends, she loved the activities, and daycare helped implement more structure and assistance with meeting developmental milestones. My husband worked offshore. It was what it was: the help was NEEDED. I began to make measurable progress with my degree. I FINALLY proposed.

The next week, I found out we were having our first surprise baby.

It was time to collect data for my research study, which involved traveling to universities and administering the assessments in person (pre-Covid, obviously.) Daycare, plus family and neighbor help, made that possible. We enrolled our second daughter in daycare without hesitation. I let go of my mom guilt. We needed the help, and there was no need to torture myself with unrealistic expectations anymore.

The dream of graduation began to look more realistic. And then I found out we were having our second surprise baby. It was critical for me to graduate before our third daughter was born. The catch? I planned to defend during the Spring of 2020. Yes, that 2020.

I will never forget the day my husband left to take our kids to daycare, only to return ten minutes later.

“Our kids aren’t going to daycare.” Whatever conversation he had on the phone in those minutes pushed him over the edge of Covid anxiety. So, with that, I was without childcare. In the beginning stages of a pandemic, there was not much hope that there would be any childcare for foreseeable future.

Like every other working mother, I dug deep. Again, I HAD to graduate before I was a solo working parent with three kids. Everyone has their limits. I did not want to test mine to that level.

So I set up my toddler’s matching desk next to mine. I laid my infant in her dock-a-tot on my bed. And I put my headphones and returned next-day edits, no matter what. I took breaks to throw up and adjust my pregnancy support pillow. I never intend to overwork to that level again.

I gave birth to my third daughter four days after my doctoral degree was conferred.

Several months later, I piled all three babies up in the car to start daycare.

Not even a week later, the Spring of perpetual sickness began. Here is the thing with having three and under three in daycare. They are sick ALL of the time. We were paying for childcare, but never actually had reliable childcare. Not to mention (what seemed like) the constant Camp Quarantines. They contracted every virus (with the exception of Covid-19) a couple of times. It was too much. I found myself feeling that desperate, last straw feeling I had felt years before when I enrolled our oldest in daycare. I called the fancy nanny agency. We were done. Except that we weren’t done because my girls got Hand-Foot-Mouth and RSV during the last week of daycare. After I dropped my girls off, four minutes passed before my phone rang with the dreaded call. Once again, I needed to pick up my daughter due to her low-grade fever. It was a brutal end to an otherwise positive experience with daycare.

The nanny agency was kind and delivered.

Our nanny was magical. A perfect resume and background with Mary Poppins level kindness and skill to jump in there and make life easier. She showed up every time. She washed the kids’ laundry. We stopped going to the pediatrician twice a week. Our daughters’ personalities began to emerge, free from the perpetual running nose. It was expensive, but having reliable childcare meant I could confidently schedule more work. In my experience, family and friends may volunteer to watch one cute baby, but less are interested in wrangling three adorable, but needy handfuls. With a nanny, life got better.

And then our wonderfully reliable nanny quit via a 3:00 AM text message.

That’s the catch with having a nanny. An enormous amount of trust is placed in one person, versus on a business where there are more people to absorb the responsibility. It was a worst-case scenario. I had to resign from an adjunct professor position I had long desired. Teaching at a university rarely falls within daycare hours, so a nanny-type situation would be required if I was going to be working until 9:00 PM. Plus, I was humbled. Did I really want to take that chance of working in another city if my childcare could at any point disappear and leave me wrecked with that level of stress?

After another Covid quarantine, it became obvious we still needed childcare. Unless I wanted to retire and only eat ham sandwiches.

I was devastated by that 3:00 AM text, but we ultimately decided to pursue the nanny route once again. I will do a lot to avoid having sick babies. And we met our new nanny, who is also amazing and reliable. My confidence in our childcare builds each week, and it is a massive relief to once again know we are likely to be able to work because we have reliable childcare.

So that mom you see with the beautiful makeup? She either wakes up at 5:00 AM and knocks it out before the kids get up, or her husband watches the kids so she can get ready. The mom that is able to bring her squirmy toddler to the doctor without the siblings? Granny is watching the other kids so the appointment can be done in (some) peace. The mom who gets her nails done during her lunch break?

That is made possible by daycare.

I am very grateful for all of the kinds of childcare we have had along the way. Without you, my husband and I would not have been able to accomplish what we have. To the moms who are struggling with your decision on childcare, I can relate. But take comfort in knowing you are making the best decision you can based on what you know, and if you need to change your mind and game plan, that’s always an option.

Melissa Fleming lives in Prairieville, Louisiana with her husband, Blake, and their three beautiful daughters: Evelyn (4), Clara (2), and Chloe (1). She graduated from LA Tech with a B.A. in journalism and then earned her M.Ed. and Ph.D. in counselor education from UNO. She is the owner of MWF Counseling, LLC. In between seeing clients, chasing toddlers, and holding babies, she enjoys watching Real Housewives and drinking as much caffeinated tea as possible.

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