Leaving a very young child in the care of another person for the first time is probably one of the hardest things a parent ever has to do, and when it’s time to drop the baby off daily so you can work to support the family, the challenge, and all the accompanying stress, gets multiplied times a million.
Most people’s first choice is likely to be a relative or close friend, but we don’t always have that option. When I went back to work after the birth of my son, my daughter was already in school and I was fortunate to have a mother who was willing to take care of the baby. But all good things come to an end, and sure enough, when my son was about a year old, and I was now a single mom, my mother no longer felt capable of caring for him.
And so it began. For the first time I was looking for daycare and my baby was going to end up in the hands of a stranger. The prospect was terrifying and the options were overwhelming. I did have some advance warning, which helped a lot. Finding a placement for him turned out to be almost like a second job: it consumed my attention and any spare time I had for about nine months, and by the time I finished I had visited over a dozen day care centers.
And not only did I find a place for my son, I became an expert on the process, and now I can share it with my comadres and anyone else who would find what I learned useful. But first I’ll tell you how it went.
My journey began, of course, with emails and texts asking for advice from all the other mothers I knew and trusted. I’m still grateful for their guidance, as their stories gave me an understanding of the patience I was going to need. No one found the process easy, and many had decided on a place after lots of trial and error. Over the following months their advice gave me hope and helped with decisions.
My first one was that I decided to look for something near my job in the Valley. I worked 30 miles from home, and if my son commuted with me, I could spend a little more time with him and I’d have quick access to him in the event of an emergency. Babies get sick and need to be picked up; that’s a parent duty to keep in mind.
Next I sent an email to my coworkers. Based on their recommendations, I checked out ratings on Yelp and searched on Angie’s List to build a list of possibilities. Then I took the list and drove around the Valley getting a feel for the locations and the way they looked in person.
One coworker gave me the name of a woman she liked who ran a licensed daycare out of her home, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of home-based care, so I decided to focus on more institutional settings. I visited public centers, private centers, and centers connected to churches. The ones I liked best all had waiting lists.
I also got a wakeup call about what private daycare was going to cost me. I discovered that even as a single parent, my full-time income disqualified me from receiving any subsidies. I started putting away one or two hundred dollars a month in anticipation of paying around $700-1,200 a month for care. If this seems high, it’s partly because my son wasn’t yet potty trained and I knew I’d have to pay a premium for that. This was the same amount I was paying for my daughter’s private school tuition!
I put my name on some waiting lists and kept looking, moving on to places that would be easier to get into, and that’s when the stress really kicked in. Some places I visited smelled like dirty diapers and rotten milk, others were crowded, or had dim, sad lighting. Some had combined age groups, or were serving unhealthy processed food,or had only beat up playground toys. And these were the private ones, all in the $1,000-a-month range!
I did manage to find two or three centers that seemed OK, but we didn’t make age cutoff: he had to be two years old and potty trained, and that meant six more months I did not have.
Many months into the search, my mom informed me she would be leaving as planned on a two-month vacation. Before giving way to complete panic, I sent out one more email to my coworkers, and I even approached professionals in that worked in other businesses nearby; I didn’t even know them. When their responses didn’t turn up anything new, I started wondering if I was too high maintenance. But how can you be too careful about your own child’s safety and well being?
One woman emailed me the information for a licensed home that her son had attended. I’d already decided not to pursue that option, but feeling desperate, I called and made an appointment.
I checked the license on the state website to confirm there was no negative reporting, and then I drove out to see it during lunch. The drive would have added at least another 15 miles each way to my commute, so I realized it wouldn’t work out, but I made the visit anyway and was pleasantly surprised by the caregiver and her home. My perceptions changed at the first home site I visited. If only I’d seen it eight months earlier!
The caregiver understood why I wouldn’t be signing up with her, and she referred me to another licensed home that was closer to my job that she thought might be a good fit. I called her immediately, and the caregiver, Sandra, agreed to give me a quick tour as the children were napping. She also invited me to come back again when they were awake. As I walked I felt good in that house: the smell of the sopita was just right. My spirit felt light, and I realized I had spent close to nine months looking for the wrong thing.
While I spoke to Sandra I learned that her daughter is a school principal, which gave me an extra level of comfort with her. As I left, Sandra said to me, “Your heart will tell you when you find the right place for your baby, there is no other way to put it.”
She was right and I had found it.
I enrolled my son, and for close to two years he was cared for in a small, safe, warm family environment, with home-cooked meals, a secure playground, and a stimulating environment.
About a month, after my son started, one of my coworkers asked if I had found a school for my son. I told her I ended up enrolling him into a licensed daycare nearby. She asked for the name, and I said her name is “Sandra.”
My friend’s bugged her eyes at me, and asked “Where is the day care at?”
When I told her, she screamed, “OMG, this is the lady I referred you to! You said you didn’t want a licensed home.” We both laughed in disbelief.
I can wish I’d met Sandra at the beginning, but I don’t know if i’d have been so open to her if I hadn’t seen so many alternatives that weren’t as good.
Hopefully you won’t have to work quite so hard if you listen to my story. The number one lesson I can give you is keep an open mind. Also, ask everyone you know for referrals, then do your own research: plan ahead, save some money, then ask tons of questions.
Be patient, educate yourself, and listen to your heart.
Here are some resources to help you get started.
- Identify what your child needs, what you need, and what you can afford.
- Plan ahead–three to nine months out is not to early to start.
- Ask friends, neighbors, coworkers, family, church members, and your social media contacts for referrals.
- California Child Care Resource and Network work referral: 800-543-7793.
- Schedule visits and take your child along for the ride.
- Observe teachers, and caregivers, and be sure to note the ratio of students to teachers.
Prepare to Ask questions—lots of questions:
- What are their hours?
- Is there scheduled vacation?
- How do sick days work?
- Is there a charge for nonattendance during vacation time?
- Are teacher and caregivers licensed in California?
Remember to ask any care facility about:
- Toilet training
- Daily Curriculum
- Curriculum on rainy days
- Certified CPR/first aid
And for licensed homes:
- Ask if other people live in the home
- Ask to see all the spaces used for child care
- Ask if the caregiver receives visits during the day
- Ask about the age mix and how groups are separated
- Check the yard for acceptable toys
- Ask about outdoor activities
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