Showing the other side: My children went to creche and I am so grateful for their time there
Watching that RTE documentary on those creches this week was heart-breaking.
I can't imagine anyone watching that and not feeling so utterly disturbed and upset. For the children themselves – and for their parents, who had put their trust in these people, and who were so completely and devastatingly let down.
As parents, our children's health, happiness and welfare is what matters most in the world.
From the moment we get them in our arms, all that matters is to keep them safe and out of harms way. Being apart from them, especially when they are that young, is hard. And leaving them in the care of someone who is not family always tugs a little at our heart-strings at first. Because essentially we trust these people with the most precious thing we have. Trust them to care for our children and care about them and be there for them for all the hours in the day when we are not there to do that ourselves.
But while there is no excuse for how this creche in the documentary was run, and how this lady acted, who I firmly feel should be punished and never allowed to work with children again, we cannot forget that this is not the reality for most children in childcare. And that this is not the behaviour of the vast, vast majority whose job it is to look after children.
Being someone who as a child myself went to creche (kindergarden) and had both my children in creches, both here in Ireland and also in Norway, I feel it is so deeply important to also show the other side. The one I have seen and experienced. And the one so, so many other parents thankfully see too.
Living in Norway, where pretty much 100 percent of mothers return to work once their 12 month long maternity leave is up (+ 14 weeks paternity leave), it never even occured to me to not be a working mum.
Meaning, when my little girl was coming up to 15 months, I went back to work, and so she started 'barnehagen' – or kindergarten, in my native Oslo. Much the same as pretty much every other one year old in Norway. Very, very few parents in Scandinavia use childminders. Even fewer have au pairs. There really is no need. Childcare is affordable, child-centric and state run. Creches are in purpose-built buildings, like schools, but smaller, most often with big outdoor areas to play and explore.
But all this aside, I'm not going to lie – heading in there for her first day, it wasn't easy. Knowing that this little girl, who I had never been away for any more than a couple of hours, was going to be cared for by someone who wasn't me or her dad or her grandparents or auntie from 8 am to 4 pm, Monday to Friday, it tugged on my mama heart. A lot.
But – I was also armed with some very special inside knowledge of just how lovely and warm and amazing creches can be. How fun and sociable and rewarding. And I knew I wanted that for my own little girl.
Back in my early 20s, still a few years before I was a mum myself, when I had finished an under-grad degree in psychology, but decided I wanted to travel the world before continuing with studies, I got a job in childcare. To save money for my travels, I applied for a job working as an assistant in a creche.
(Note: It should be mentioned that I had a degree in childhood psychology, was police vetted and had years of experience working as a children's gymnastics instructor)
And yes, this new job was full on – way, way more intense than any office job, I'll tell you that. But on that first day, I fell in love. With the children and the job and the amazing staff that worked there and so genuinely loved both their career choice and the children they cared for. It was loud and fun and tiring, sure, but also so unbelivably rewarding. Until you have dressed eight toddlers in four layers of winter gear only to have to undress and repeat it with three after just minutes because nappies have to be changed, you won't fully understand how full on it can be. But let me also say that there are few things more adorable in this world than four toddlers sitting side-by-side on potties on the floor, chatting away.
My favourite part? Waking them up when nap time was over, and getting to enjoy some quiet snuggles for a bit while they woke up. Hold their warm-from-sleep little bodies and read a book or sing a song or just stroke their back until they were awake and ready to get back on the floor and play with their little friends.
At pickup time, as I chatted to mums and dads scrambling through the doors to pick up their little ones, eager to spend those precious few hours before bedtime with them, I felt like I had been trusted with this incredibly important job.
I had minded their child when they could't be there to mind him or her themselves. I had buttered toast and changed nappies and dug sandcastles and plastered scraped knees and made a tunnel out of pillows and blankets and read the same book over and over and over again. And I know, because they would tell me, that I had become a person their child loved and cared about and spoke about outside of creche.
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that those children in that creche were cared for. I know they got to play and learn and explore and have fun. I know they made friends, and developed bonds with the adults there. I know that if they were upset, they would be comforted. If they wouldn't sleep when nap time rolled around, they would instead get to sit on the sofa, where we would read books and just cuddle, quietly, so we wouldn't wake the other children up. If they were extra hungry one day, they would get extra food. If they just needed a little extra attention one day, they would get it. If something seemed to bother them, we would talk to the parents at pickup time and together try to figure out what it could be.
In other words, it was an environment that was warm, lovely and caring – and a place I knew that had I been a parent, I would have loved for my own child.
On the day I finished up, I cried. I had saved up enough money. My ticket to South East Asia was booked and after almost a year, I had to say goodbye to these toddlers that I had grown to love so much.
And so when, a few years later, I was a mum myself and it was time for me to bring my own daughter to creche, those memories came back to me, and it made this new phase of our lives feel that little bit less scary.
When we arrived on her first day, we were greeted at the door by the staff in her room – and shown into this lovely, big area, filled with little tables and floor cushions and toys and happy children her own age. I stayed for an hour with her on that first morning, and left only to go grab a coffee before picking her up again, worried she might be upset or crying or looking for me – only to find her in her contact teacher's lap, engrossed in a book, and not ready to come home yet at all.
And that day turned out to be every day. And I am so deeply grateful for that, and for the warm, safe and fun environment this creche was to her.
When I was in work, getting to do both what I love while also making money to support us, she spent her days playing, mostly outside, be it winter or summer, but also singing and painting and dancing and baking and building and learning all sorts of things. Things and experiences and challenges that I could have not given her at home, by myself.
When she was two, we moved to Ireland, and working as a freelance journalist, I knew I needed childcare, at least part-time, to be able to get my job done. And so off we went looking for a local creche. We soon found one that we liked, one that reminded us of the one she has attended in Oslo, one that just made me feel good when walking inside. Where children were laughing and spaghetti was on the menu and where joy seemed to just live in its very walls.
On her first day there, my little girl fell in love with one of the girls who worked there, and who was to become, in many ways, her second mama for the next three years. Someone who I know loved my child and cared about her happiness and wellbeing. Who would always have time for an extra cuddle. Who would text in the evenings on days where she for any reason have been sad or upset, be it a tiff with another child or a bump on the head, just to make sure she was OK. Who wiped tears and cleaned up vomit and held her tight until I could manage to race over to get her if she got sick. Who tied a million shoe-laces and taught her about friendship and played fashion shows four thousand times and who seemed to always have room on her lap for one more.
We got lucky. So, so lucky. And so many other families get lucky too.
I think when so many stories that make the media about childcare are of the negative kind, it is so important to show the reality that we – and most families – see every day. Of people who work tirelessly to make our children's' day the best that it can be. Of people who create safe and fun and happy environments. Of hugs and art projects and learning and laughter. Of cared for kids. And of peace of mind for mums and dads.
To have shared parts of my children's childhood with these people? It was an honor.
Note: I am aware that my children never went to creche as babies – as in they were both close to 18 months before starting, and therefore felt less like babies and more like toddlers, thanks to a far more generous maternity leave than Irish women currently have.