Before I started working at a preschool, I had a very romanticized idea about what working with kids would be like.
Before I worked at a preschool, day care, to me, was neither a good nor bad thing. It was a solution. For working moms, for stay-at-home moms with overflowing schedules and for kids who thrived in a social group.
Above all, it was as good a place to work as any. Better even, because it would be a guilt-free endeavor. I would know where my child was and what she was up to. No shady business, no separation anxiety. Just Raffi and art projects all day long.
You probably see where this is going. I was in for an education.
My first lesson was that a good parent does not a good teacher make. Call me naive, but I expected to be a hit in my classroom. My own kid loved me, and I was an ace at coloring, so why wouldn’t the kids in my group? In reality, of course, there was a spectrum. I was a stranger to these kids, and I found myself dealing with issues I’d never encountered on my own. To make matters worse, I could do no right in the eyes of a few parents, who made it clear I was an inferior caretaker for their children, especially one mother, who coddled her son within an inch of his life and talked to me like a servant.
My second was that you can’t run from guilt. The more I worked, the more exhausted I became. I was seeing how sausage was made, and I didn’t like it. Were my daughter’s teachers overtired and snappish, too? Did they feel the frustration I felt? Was my daughter paying for that? I saw her next to never — anytime I passed her in the hall I felt that I had to treat her as I would any other child: no special attention, no extra hugs. Sometimes I couldn’t even acknowledge her because I was so busy and I started to feel an immense amount of guilt.
My third lesson was that this is a job you do for love and not money. The entire year was a wash. I made almost no money, with an hourly rate of $9, half of which went to my daughter’s tuition. Add in gas, doctor’s bills from what seemed like near-weekly sicknesses and convenience items like fast food and we were practically hemorrhaging money.
Some of my co-workers were single moms with kids in the preschool. How on earth were they making this work?
Finally, I learned a lesson about compassion. I wanted to quit about six months in, but I stuck it out. First, it was out of determination. Then, I couldn’t picture leaving the kids I cared for. It surprised me to learn that I loved them, even when I hated my job. That one awful mom? I learned that she’d lost six pregnancies before having her son, and she lost her uterus in the process. Other parents struggled with stressful jobs and guilt and sky-high child care costs. My daughter’s teachers were in the same boat as me: doing their best, but only human.
When friends tell me they’re putting kids in day care, it would be easy for me to roll my eyes and tell them what a nightmare it was, but the truth is, it’s more complicated than that. Day care costs too much, and teachers are paid too little. The stakes are high — kids in their most formative years, parents at their most fragile. But at the end of the day, I think that I would do it again, even knowing that.
Day care is still neither a good nor bad thing to me. It’s both, at different times, in varying degrees, to different people. Now, when I see a preschool teacher I remember what it was like to be idealistic and passionate, coming back day after day even though it was easy to feel like a glorified babysitter. When I see working parents, I wonder what they’re going through, if they miss their children, what kind of judgments they face.
When I see a preschool-aged child, nap mat and lunchbox in hand, I remember why it’s all worth it in the first place.