“Mommy whatcha talken bout?” Parker inquired about the phone call I had just ended. The closer we approach the age of three, the questions have tripled. No matter how complete and thorough an answer might be it will always be followed with another ‘why’. My latest tactic has been to return the questions to her and insist she tell me what she thinks. Sometimes this is effective and sometimes it prompts her to change the subject.
“That was Mommy’s new boss, I’m going to start a new job.” I began to explain expecting to have to expand a lot more on what this means. It’s been almost three years since I have been employed at a full-time job, and I have appreciated getting to be home with Parker as much as possible. It was a deeply personal choice for me to be there in the early years, to feel responsible for her development and to know she was protected before she could talk. The idea of returning to work carries a lot of excitement for independence, professional building, and real regular adult conversation. Of course with it comes the anxiety of change, of missing important moments, and of not getting to be present to have fun with her all day.
After a short pause, out came her reply without any question. “Don’t leave me mom,” She said with the raw honest emotion we both share. I wanted to cave, say I agree, and retract my acceptance immediately. My convincing her it would be fun to go to school, to meet new friends and it’d be okay to be away from Mommy helped to mask my nerves.
We found Parker a nationally accredited child care center in a location close to my parent’s house for the days my mom might need to pick her up. During our tour of the facility Parker got to join in on watching a puppet show and demonstrated no concern about being with strangers or the classroom. Still apprehensive about the life adjustments Parker and I were about the embrace, my husband and I felt confident in the choice to start her there the following week.
Prepared with a new Hello Kitty backpack, curly Qs in pony tails and excited about her first day of school we cracked the door to the Bumble Bee classroom. An overwhelming aroma of left over processed food breakfast hit my nose just after the screaming from the child hanging off the assistant teacher’s leg stung my ears. Kids were all over the room digging in papers, pulling things from cubbies, and dumping out toy bins. If anything would have been hung from the ceiling I am sure there would have been kids climbing it. Disturbed by the vision so starkly contrasted from our tour just days ago and not wanting to feed into my fears, we slipped in and followed the teacher to where Parker’s cubby would be to hang her things. I knew Parker’s shock must have subsided quickly since she was off to the other side of the room to play before she even said goodbye.
I did, as most parents do when they drop their child off at a center for the first time, left the room and cried.
My husband and I both called to check in on her the first day. He called the following three days as well. Each time we were told everything is fine, she was getting along well, and each day seemed better than the previous. My first day getting to pick up Parker I fully expected a running happy hug, instead the whole first week every time I walked in she stopped what she was doing and began to melt down. It was as if the stress of the day had built up and she was crying from relief I was back for her. Parker continued the sour emotional state through the evening too, she was not napping in her new environment so by the end of the day the screaming fits and mood swings were taking a toll on me. This is temporary, she will adjust, I will adjust and it will be fine, other people do this all the time I kept being told.
After the first week there seemed to be improvements. Parker did successfully sleep for 45 minutes one day. She verbalized happiness to Daddy about returning to the center when he was dropping her off one morning. And the meltdown greetings stopped, I was finally seeing a smiling, excited child at the end of the day. For me, there never came a feeling of being adjusted or knowing it would be okay. Because while some things were getting better, her first month in this new arrangement she grew increasingly defiant, wild and aggressive at home. In addition, my newly potty trained child started having accidents twice a day. At first I reasoned maybe some of this extra defiance was related to her age and we would just have to increase our structure and consistency at home. Then when she turned to biting and pulling hair for not getting her way, I knew there had to be more going on.
One afternoon when I went to pick up Parker she happened to be on the playground with half of her class and one part-time teenage staff member who was minimally supervising the three-year olds. Once she
finally noticed me standing there, she stood up from her hidden spot and greeted me. I told her about Parker’s recent aggression at home and asked the employee about aggression taking place in her classroom. It’s what I dreaded most about putting my daughter in a setting where I am not present, angered at the thought of anyone putting a hand on my daughter even if it is a peer. The inexperienced employee gave me an honest and dissatisfactory answer, explaining if a child aggresses and leaves a mark on another child both parents will be notified. The key phrase which said it all was when it leaves a mark, knowing staff at the facility will avoid an incident report if there is no physical evidence. Just behind our conversation I had to point out the child crying who had just been hit on the head by another child, before taking my daughter’s hand to walk out.
It was incredibly difficult to return the next day with no back up option. I didn’t know for sure if my daughter had been aggressed on by a peer at the child care center, I knew at minimum she was witnessing it and bringing it home. My husband and others tried to reassure me by saying it happens everywhere and she will have to get used to it. This was no reassurance to me, in my mind it is unacceptable to happen anywhere and if aggression does happen it needs to be addressed in a way which will deter the behavior from continuing. For a child who has never witnessed violence, hadn’t been pushed or hit, the bullying Parker saw was impacting her a lot. The obvious lack of structure and discipline in the room was also providing for negative learning opportunities.
Through word of mouth I began hearing the new agency I started with also operates a Montessori school offering half price tuition for employees. With some concern about whether making a transition would be harmful for Parker and not wanting to base the decision entirely on cost, we decided to tour the Montessori School. In Montessori Schools the learning is at your own pace so children engage in activities at their level and ages in classrooms are all integrated to provide for peer role models. This school offers extracurricular activities like ballet, soccer and spanish. The environment of the rooms are quiet and calm, the kids wear slippers and practice family style dining of passing the food and trying everything. There is life skills learning, books being read and flowers in vases as centerpieces on their tiny tables. My husband and I left the tour separately as he had to rush off to an appointment. When he called later to say he wanted Parker to go there I had a secret celebratory dance.
We gave a thirty-day notice at the child care center, she only attended another week. On her last day she didn’t come home with the Hello Kitty backpack or pillow, and calls to locate them were unsuccessful. Parker got a one week break from school and childcare getting to play with Nana and even coming to work a few days with Mommy. Her behavior began improving immediately and my cooperative, sweet child was returning.
Parker and I went to pick out a new backpack and hyped up her new school experience. The morning of her first day she wavered between not wanting to go and being excited. She told me she didn’t want to go because she can’t sleep, which is reasonable considering the chaos happening in her previous classroom. We talked about the fun she will have making new friends and all of the things to learn and grow smarter. By school time Parker marched in and joined her class without fear, and when I got to peak in the window later that morning she was smiling peacefully in a circle with her peers.
On her first day she even got to participate in the ballet class. After school, I asked her what she learned in dance class. Parker quickly reported “Had a good day Mommy.” I tried to reiterate I was asking for what she did and she again responded “Had a good day.” Stopping to give her my full attention and look at her directly I asked again. “Had a good day.” It sounded like she said… Then I realized her frustration at my not understanding. My little ballerina was telling me she learned a padebure.
Parker greets me with a smile everyday, she is taking naps, she is engaged with learning and she has not had an accident or tried to bite or pull hair since starting. It will continue to be an adjustment for both of us after spending the last three years together, now we are finally on the right track.