It's impressive how quickly the mama-bear instinct develops; somewhere around the beginning of my third trimester, I had the sudden realization that if I wanted to go back to work after my maternity leave, I'd have to find a place to bring my son. After carrying him in my womb for what felt like an eternity, I was soon going to have to leave my baby in the care of another. Certainly no one could love him and care for him like I would, so my deep fears of day care meant that it was never going to be an option.
Tragedies at day care centers are seemingly all too common. Every time I hear about some horrible accident, my heart breaks for the parents, and I sob at the realization that my son's life is just as fragile. While pregnant, these devastating events compounded in my head to the point that I grew so fearful of sending my son to day care that it actually cost me my job.
I recognize that the mere act of taking day care off the table is a significant amount of privilege. For a lot of people, day care is their only option and I don't want to speak ill of any other parent's decision. I have plenty of friends that have had wonderful experiences at their local day care centers, and I myself was in day care starting at about 2 months. Logically, I have nothing to fear since the horrific incidents that have been happening across the country are largely outliers.
However, that didn't prevent doctors, family, and friends from expressing concern at the thought of leaving our son at a day care. When we told one of my aunts who works in early childhood education that we weren't considering day care, she exclaimed, "Good! If you can avoid it, don't do it."
When my mother offered to do some part-time caretaking, it seemed like the answer to our prayers. Coupled with my husband's flexible schedule and my early dismissal as an educator, we would be covered. My mom would come over at 10 a.m. and would leave when I got home from work. It seemed great, and for a while it was, until my job began to suffer.
Had we just decided to put our son in a day care, life may have been easier. I would have dropped him off early in the morning and picked him up after school, and during that time I could have devoted my brain to my job. Of course, that's not what we decided to do.
Although my husband's schedule is accommodating, there were times when this set-up seemed to abuse its flexible nature. He'd start his day late and would try to make up time in the evening, so with my mom being physically and emotionally over taking care of an infant by 4 p.m., I felt internally pressured to get my tired butt home as quickly as possible every night.
However, after school was an important time to me as a high school English teacher. This was when meetings would get scheduled with other teachers, parents, or students. Before having a kid, I had used the hours before and after school to grade papers, plan, and prepare. Since I didn't want to burden my husband with having to care for the baby by himself for too long, I started leaving for work later and later, eventually coming in with about 20 minutes to spare. As my son got older and his needs got more varied, I started leaving work practically at the closing bell.
If you talk to any teacher, they'll tell you that this is an impossible schedule to maintain. My planning became lazy, as I was coasting on previous years' units that went unmodified. I graded as much as I could, but not as well as I should. I unfairly relied too heavily on my fellow teachers to help pick up my slack. In short, I had become a bad teacher. The guilt that I felt from that realization as well as the guilt over the potential for my husband's work to suffer both ate away at me.
However, we still decided that it wasn't worth the potential risk of sending our son to day care and instead agreed that I would take a couple years off until he was in preschool. Although this solution has been an amazing experience, it is still a sacrifice to my career. I've lost my tenure and my salary track. If I decide to go back into teaching, I'll have to explain that despite my years absent from the classroom, I am worth hiring. I know now what it feels like to not do a job to the best of your abilities, and I never want to do that again, but how do I explain that to a future employer?
Of course, had my son gone to day care, it's likely that a lot of other stressful issues would have arisen: increased likelihood of sickness, scheduling conflicts, and the constant fear that something might go wrong. Truthfully, there is no perfect solution — one thing or another always seems to suffer. Yet I decided that it was better to sacrifice my career than to live in fear of what could be.