Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ruminations about full time work, under twos and long day childcare.

I've never been a fan of childcare for under twos. None of my children have ever been in childcare, really. Bryn went into creche once a week for three hours when he was 2yrs and 3 months because a friend had started working in this creche and took her daughter with her, so he already had two "almost family" as company. I completely trusted this friend to be emotionally responsive to him and to report back to me honestly how his session had gone. Bryn thrived, partly because he felt safe, and partly because he was, even at 2, very socially confident.

So, for the past two weeks I've been doing workplacement in a babies' room of a long day care facility. The children are FANTASTIC and most of them seem really well adjusted and comfortable in the centre. The staff have been for the most part emotionally responsive, cheerful and engaging with the children.

And yet...

And yet, I've seen things that have made my blood run cold (or alternately boil!), and that I couldn't bear being done to one of my own children.

Uneccessary chiding. Forceful handing of children. Children being left to cry themself to sleep, or being told to "Stop that!" when upset over one thing or another.

These aren't things I haven't done to my children from time to time, it's just that my children have an ongoing loving connection with me that builds their resilience to our off days. In a childcare facility, even long day care (which all the babies were in, some for 4-5 days each week), is never going to be the same as the relationship a child has with their parent (nor should it be, imo).

Something else I saw, that unsettled me was the ability of the carers to "put on a show" when parents or strangers were around, that would immediately stop the second they were not feeling watched.

I sensed that my presence was viewed as an intrusion by a couple of staff, which might reflected their knowing that not all their interactions with the children were to the high standards parents would expect.

And then there was this one child. I will call him Peter, but that isn't his name. He's around 1 year of age, and is usually in long day care from 7am until 5-6pm four days a week. I'm not sure how long he's been in care, but would guess it's been several months. This poor baby is sensitive and doesn't cope too well with all the noise and bustle of half a dozen or more under two in one room. He also resists sleep and is regularly left to cry until he is quite upset - which surprises me because I rocked him to sleep several times and it never took more than 10 minutes for him to drop off.

This child showed me something about childcare that has been playing on my mind all fortnight.

There is much talk about the problem with childcare in Australia being the ratios. Currently, for a babies room (and toddlers I think) the ratio is 5:1. This is changing, and in the next couple of years it'll become 4:1. Many believe it should be 3:1. The argument is that by increasing the ratio of qualified staff to babies, the children will experience greater likelihood of their needs being met more quickly.

I believe this is mostly true, EXCEPT in the case of children like Peter. Peter doesn't enjoy childcare, and even though he is a lovely baby - despite all the grizzling - who just needs a lot of physical contact (and when he recieves it he grizzles a LOT less and even ventures to play independantly for extended periods of time), the staff don't like him.

Because they don't connect with him, they don't respond to him as quickly as they do to the other babies. They don't interact with him positively nearly as often as they do with the other babies. I heard him being told he was horrible. I heard him being told, "Go away, I don't want you!". I heard his name being distorted so it became an insult. Occassionally they did seem sympathetic of him. If he was obviously sick, they softened their approach him, but all the same when his family picked him us early they joked about how much better their day had just gotten. The one day of the week he wasn't in care was anticipated greatly and called the "No Peter" day...

Having a great number of carers (that is with me being in the room and interacting with him most of the time a) to lighten their load and b) to shield him from a lot of their rejection), didn't make them more responsive to him (or if it did, I would HATE to see what they were like with him before I came along on workplacement).

Another child was very much a favourite. Always recieved smiles and compliments. Was carried even when that child didn't express a need for being held or carried. So, for some babies childcare can be a very positive experience.

But no, I don't think improving ratios will necessarily improve the experience of some children in care.

As well as this, I've been keenly aware of being away from my own baby. He's showing some mild signs of stress which I'm monitoring very closely - and he spends his days with his dad and Bryn! Being away from him is heartwrenching and if it was ABSOLUTELY necessary, I just couldn't keep doing it. From that perspective, I can see that some parents have no choice about putting their children in care. It's not just a matter of saying, "Well, if they can't afford to be home with them, they shouldn't have children," because circumstances change. Beofre we had Ari, Dave had a job and our rent was $350 a month less than it is now. Then things change and right now we have $11.40 to last us until Thursday (if the bond money, which isn't actually ours, doesn't come through before then), and next to no food in the house :(. This past week we've lived of packet soup and baked beans and 2minute noodles. And then we received a $700 phone/internet bill (due to moving and being charge too much for apparently cancelling our contract and reconnecting the net in a new house).

Luckily for us this temporary. Soon we'll be back on track, and while things will still be tight, they won't be dire. But for us it's imperative that I am able to get even 1-2 days work a week, if Dave can't get work, that is... So, I HAVE to complete this course, and that means being away from my baby.

Anyway, I'm really struggling being away from him, and wonder how other people can do it every day with their child in care. And then, now having seen what can happen to some children in even good centres, my heart aches for the russian roulette the children in childcare centres are thrust into involuntarily. Ratios aren't the only thing that needs to change. Carers REALLY need to understand that every child has something wonderful about them and it's the DUTY of the childcare worker to find that something wonderful and focus on it so every child can feel safe and cared for and appreciated.

This workplacement is exhausting me, I have to say, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Next week I start work in the toddler room. I won't see Peter anymore, except maybe early in the morning or late in the evening when all the children in the centre are grouped together for arriving and dispatching. I dread finding out how might be the Peter in this the new room. I really hope there isn't one...


katef said...

It's a hard hard line to walk... trying to sort out how to make any kind of child care work in the child's favour, especially the under twos.

There are many many many things (ratios included) that would improve child care (IMO) but none of them can really provide for what a baby needs... someone who loves them. Which doesn't make child care evil, or the people who choose to use it evil... it just makes me wonder how on earth we can create the connections all kids need within the current system.

Sif Dal said...

I just don't think we can with the current system. The thing is, the kids don't know any different. This becomes their life. They seem happy enough, some of them never even asked about mum or dad while at care. Others cried for mum and dad from time to time, some more often than others.

This won't sit well with some readers but IMO, with the limited exposure I've had, long day care for under twos is basically institutionalisation. It may be a mild form of this, and it may be a necessary evil for some families, but that's basically what it amounts to, institutionalisation...

For some baby's in the room I was in, that room, with three exposures to outside (once only on a small balcony), amounting to about 2 hours in total (over 2 weeks), was how they spent 50 hours of their week. If they then spent 10 hours a night sleep, that totals 120 hours a week out of a total 168 per week, so they spent less waking time with their families than with those carers...

Rachael said...

Honestly Sif, I find it heartwrenching. I'm so relieved my babes haven't had to be in childcare :(:(

Jayne said...

So sorry you'd experienced so much that is heartbreaking and less than optimal :( I've also blogged about my experiences, which have been somewhat more positive. I think it's awful that there are so many bad carers out there. I also have to say though NOT all centres are like this. The one I'm at is nothing like it. Anyway, I think the CC industry NEEDS people like both of us Sif! I hope your week in the toddler room is more positive! :)

the tomorrow girl said...

Im lost for words, reading about "Peter" made me cry.
The poor little thing...

A child care centre in our suburb had an open day last week and I have to say when I walked into the babies room, I was totally brought to tears.
In one room, it was all lined with cots and bassinettes. I just cant believe babies that young (6 weeks some of them were) were left in care with "strangers".

I was honestly lost for words..

Sif Dal said...

Jayne,I know you don't mean to suggest my entire centre is like this, but you keep saying your centre isn't like mine, which does suggest my entire centre is like this, which afaik, it isn't.

Anyway, now I'm pretty much being accused of lying by one of the parents in the centre who is also a friend. I shouldn't have brought this up at all, but my head was nearly busting with all the thoughts that have come from the things I've seen that feed my deepest concerns about childcare.

Parents want to feel that they've made the best decision and that the staff at the centre they've chosen to use are all compassionate to every child.

My guess is that many are. It's hard work, and some children are very hard work, and many of the workers in this area have very little training in regards to child development.

I guess, people think, hey I've been a parent, and I loved my kids and they've thrived... But caring for other people's children is a different matter altogether and sooner or later every carer is liable to come across a child they just can't connect with easily. A child who doesn't smile alot or is very sensitive, or agressive. That's when the child development knowledge and understanding is so important to help the carer understand that even THAT child is vulnerable and needs positive interaction and not just a clean bum and full tum and a regular nap...

Anyway, I think I need to keep my thoughts on this topic to myself, at least with regard to this child's situation because I'm beginning to have serious concerns that it might come back to bite me...

Jayne said...

I'm sorry, I was just responding to what you had said. I truly didn't mean to offend you. I've been really upset at some of the comments on this FWIW. I really shouldn't say anything either it seems. Sorry.

Good Job!