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Mother's Helpers

Nervously navigating today's patchwork of childcare.

Marcie Good 12 May 2006TheTyee.ca
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I'm sitting in the basement of a Vancouver special, watching a bare-assed three-year-old writhe across the brown 70s carpet. I suppose I should suggest he pull up his pants, or give the other kid on the sofa a bit of space when he plops down practically on top of him. But I'm wondering how I got into this situation, so I'm a little confused. Besides, I don't really consider these brats my responsibility.

These, of course, are other people's kids. My own is sitting in his car seat on the floor, clapping his feet together. It's one of his fascinating habits that makes it hard for me to concentrate on anything else. I work at home, and these days I'm getting less done. That's how I find myself in this rather dark basement, guardian-in-proxy of, a quick head count tells me, four children. I'm checking out home-based daycares in my area, and the woman usually in charge has just stepped out to answer the door. So here we all sit, and I'm wondering whether it's a place I want to leave my son.

I had half-listened to Stephen Harper's campaign promise last fall about providing $1,200 to families with pre-school-aged kids, and it sounded great. Such a nice round number, and mine to spend. My needs are flexible, I figured, and probably not best served by a government-mandated, funded and regulated facility.

The Conservatives are scrapping the deals the Liberals made with the provinces, which would have expanded childcare with a definite priority on centres. Under Harper, the feds will give most (80 percent) of the money directly to parents, and the rest to as-yet-undefined means of creating daycare spaces. "This government understands that no two Canadian families are exactly alike," the Prime Minister assured us in his Throne Speech. "Parents must be able to choose the childcare that is best for them." Which also sounds great. The problem, as I'm soon to find out, is that there is so little to choose from.

Funding centres, the line goes, isn't fair to parents who don't use them. This is where the debate quickly gets ugly, pitting the stay-at-homes against the leave-for-offices. As a country, we take responsibility for children attending universities and kindergartens. But our attitude towards the ones who drool is a bit more ambivalent. Kind of like mine, as I sit on this basement sofa.

'You shouldn't have to feel lucky'

Here's how my hunt went. The first thing I did was phone the Westcoast Family Information and Referral, which sent me lists of centres and licensed and unlicensed caregivers. There are exactly two daycare centres that take year-olds within 20 minutes of my southeast Vancouver home. One gives priority to Collingwood neighbourhood residents, of which I am not. The other has a waiting list of 26 pages, 20 names per page. Six children of lucky parents get in.

I stop by the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, just to admire the unattainable. Mothers of little girls in pink tutus on their way to dance class pause to chat, with the ideal lustre of a Rockwell painting. I stand outside the neat red fence looking at the wood-chip-floored playground, and the child I'm holding in his car seat scratches his fingernails on the polyester cover, over and over.

Lynell Anderson, a board member of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, had a similar experience when she looked for childcare 20 years ago. She's been working on the issue ever since. "You shouldn't have to feel lucky to get your child into a daycare program!" she says.

As it stands, childcare in Canada is a "patchwork," with various levels of government and community organizations contributing pieces. As most parents find out, there are holes. What we need, she says, is local planning that looks at the entire complex picture: building daycare centres, supporting home-based care, helping low-income families, boosting training and pay for staff. After our conversation, I see where Harper's hands-off policy comes from. A hundred bucks a month is such a nice uncomplicated number.

Scraps

Next in my search is the home-based listings. I call 17 homes within a reasonable commute. Of those who take one-year-olds and speak English, two will entertain the possibility that they may have spaces in the fall. I may have unconsciously eliminated one of those that misspell words in their titles, like "kat" or "kare." I am a parent, after all, and my prejudices are becoming more obvious.

When I visit the Vancouver special, I realize another of my biases. I don't like piles of unrelated debris. I notice the first one on the windowsill when I knock on the door. Empty plant pots, orange Fantastik, electrical tape. But I look past these and go in. The woman is nice. There are children's drawings on the walls and rules for crossing the street. There are books and plastic toys and the television is only on for the time I am there, not usually otherwise. She takes the children through the alphabet once a day.

There is a pot-bellied man in the room who quickly disappears, and I ask if he helps out. "Not as much as I'd like," she says. "He comes down if I have to leave, for maybe ten minutes. But he wouldn't read a book or play with them. Men don't enjoy kids, you know." I nod. A few minutes later the door opens and he walks through. "There's my husband," she says. "He doesn't even say 'hi.'"

Later she takes my name down on a scrap of paper from another pile of unrelated debris on the stove. ("We don't use this kitchen," she says.) Paper is good to have around. I can understand the yellow jewelry box and the zoo of plastic animals. But the self-tanning lotion? Why is it on the stove?

I don't believe that dark basements or even aloof husbands will have any long-term detriment on my son's development, and even the little dog ("Give the baby a kiss," she instructs it when it barks at the basement door) probably won't hurt him. But being a parent causes you to see things through a distorted lens. As I lie in bed at night, Aloof Husband becomes an ogre and Yappy Mutt sticks out a fat abscessed tongue. I resolve to find a place for my son out of something better than desperation.

Panic and preparation

Back on the phone, a busy but helpful woman named Sherrie, whose daycare is full, gives me some names. Each one seems to lead me closer. Eventually I find Melissa, who does not yet have a registration number and is thus not yet on the official list. I go to her toy-strewn apartment. We sit at her table and a two-year-old brings us plastic cups of pretend tea.

Melissa has known since she was ten, when her brother was born, that she wants to take care of kids. As a teenager she babysat half a dozen at once. As a 24-year-old single mom, she got her Early Childhood Education certificate even though it was more than she needed to run a home-based operation. She gives me a quick refresher on how to save a choking child, a remedy for infant constipation, and an explanation of the difference between time out and time away as methods of discipline. Her toys are "age-appropriate," which is more than I can say about the mangled magazine pages piled beside my desk. "He's a curious one," she muses, as he sticks his finger into the centre of a bead.

I'm realizing why this childcare debate stirs up such emotion, and it's about more than the anxiety of finding a space and being able to pay for it. Daycare means putting your kid into Somebody Else's hands, and it's a panic far worse than the first stuffed-up nose or the first launch off the couch. My office, with no one pulling on the lamp cord or threatening to wail as I talk on the phone, seems suddenly empty.

As I get ready to leave Melissa's, she says we can come back to visit a couple times over the summer to make his transition easier. The boy is a bit miffed that I've put him back in his car seat, as he'd rather work on those beads. It's not his transition I'm worried about. It's mine.

Marcie Good is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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