The Impossible Choice Of Sending A 3-Year-Old To Daycare Now

Was I sending her back because it was the right thing for me or the right thing for her?

In late February, I started a long-planned book leave, one I was so thrilled to be undertaking. My plan was simple: Over the course of three months, I was going to visit every coffee shop in my neighborhood, spend six hours a day writing (and not tweeting), and in the evenings I would meet up with my wife Emily to pick up our 3-year-old daughter Amna up from preschool. It was going to be an extraordinary spring full of promise.

In the hazy early days of the pandemic’s arrival, I thought the news that public spaces and schools would have to shut down was overblown. I continued to hold on to my idyllic book leave. Universities began to close, and I didn’t dim my hopes. High schools were shuttered, and my wife began to work from home, but the dream didn’t go anywhere. Movie theaters announced they were closing, and then...I began to worry.

We received the email that Amna’s daycare would be closing for two weeks while the government got its bearings. Alright, maintaining this hope is going to take work. For comfort, I turned to the celebrities who, after three days of being told to stay at home, were already collaborating on a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Amna’s first reaction to being told she was not going to preschool was: “Do I need medicine?” She thought she was sick because the only context she had for both of her parents staying home with her was when she was sick. We explained that she was not sick, but everybody had to stay home in order to keep from getting sick.

Naturally, this morphed into an escalating series of questions: “If I’m not sick, how can I get sick if I go to preschool?” (Well, there are germs that are spreading, and the best way to slow their spread is to stay home right now), “If I’m not sick, can we go to the theater to see Elsa and Anna and Olaf?” (It’s closed), “Can we go to the park?” (It’s closed), “Can we go see grandma and grandpa?” (We can’t, we don’t want to get them sick), “If I’m not sick, how can I get grandma and grandpa sick?” (Well, there are germs that are spreading…)

Halfway through the initial two weeks in March, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be just two weeks but some kind of indefinite arrangement. Anxious about an approaching book deadline (hi, Jared, I know I owe you one more essay), adjusting to a new life of primary parenting all the time while Emily was in virtual meetings, and overwhelmed at seeing my city at a complete standstill and the familiar hum of morning traffic completely disappeared, I began to unravel. Slowly at first, then all at once. The night Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the closure of the US–Canada border, two weeks after my 32nd birthday, I had the first panic attack of my life.

Some people report that their panic attacks feel like something heavy crushing their chest. Mine was the opposite: I felt my chest open up, the center no longer holding in the face of all the questions. It’s a panic of spinning in all directions at once, like an astronaut who just came untethered, floating in the blackness of space for eternity. At that moment, I want something heavy to crush my chest and keep me in place. The next day, Emily bought me a weighted blanket. It’s extraordinarily heavy. It is heaven. I wept the first time I crawled under it.

And I had to figure out a new way to be a full-time parent to a toddler who’d been going to the same daycare every day since she was 11 months old. For Amna, this meant unbroken attention; she was used to stimulating group games and unstructured group playtime and puzzles, and all I had to offer was 40 minutes of building a fort out of cushions and a bit of Netflix.

The early days of the pandemic taught us that among my daughter’s numerous skills was her proficiency with the word “no.”

The first few weeks were tense. We approached the situation with heaping amounts of empathy for a toddler whose routines were suddenly thrown out the window. But even with that, the early days of the pandemic taught us that among my daughter’s numerous skills was her proficiency with the word “no.”

The order of the day was to stay inside. But one thing the government suggested — nay, insisted — that Canadians do is: walk. You’ve got to take walks, they told us. Take walks outside while keeping distance from others. These walks to nowhere in particular became Amna’s favorite parts of the day. We couldn’t go to the proper neighborhood park, because we knew Amna would ask to go to the playground, and that was off-limits. So most days, we just crossed the street to a patch of grass and three benches. Amna began to call that a park, mostly because we did. Emily made her a chart with the days of the week, a chart with the weather conditions (“what it’s doing outside”), and a chart with a list of activities she could choose from (e.g., drawing, coloring, TV time). I came up with games we could play in between activities. Mostly, they involved using my body as a climbing gym. We regained the fragile peace that comes with a toddler who thrives on structure.

We watched the COVID-19 cases rise. I had a second, smaller panic attack. We kept a close eye on communications about schools. First, they said, it’ll be a month. Then: School’s moving online for two months. Okay, school’s not coming back until September. I may have had a third or a fourth panic attack somewhere in there, tremors of panic attacks past. (That’s a new skill that’s hard to brag about.)

We first began to hear whispers of the provincial government allowing daycares to open again in early May, about two weeks before my book leave was due to expire. I extended the leave until the end of June, thinking, Well, if daycare resumes again, at least I can get some writing done after Amna is back in June. After weeks of “will they or won’t they,” it became clear that even if daycare were to open again, we’d be looking at the start of July at the earliest.

So that’s what we started planning for.

The first thing you should know about putting your kid back in daycare is: You can’t have zero risk. This may sound obvious — it is a pandemic — but it took us weeks to accept this. For us, sending Amna back to daycare meant that we’ll have to live with an increased risk in our lives — for her and for us. We spent tearful late nights processing this risk through ellipsed thoughts like, “If she gets sick, how are we…” and “What happens if she…” We never finished the thoughts because their weight beared down mightily on our chests.

The hardest feeling to work through is: Am I sending my child back because it’s the right thing for her or the right thing for me? We love our daughter, and we had never anticipated we’d have a chance to be around her 24/7 after she started daycare. But on the other hand, hoo boy, we love our daughter — but we had never anticipated we’d have to be around her 24/7 for after she started daycare. It’s a dilemma that most parents I know are facing: Is it selfish to desperately miss the comfort and freedom that is afforded by having my child in care?

In the end, the decision was made easier by her consistent requests to see her friends at preschool.

We’d spent weeks preparing my daughter Amna for her return to daycare — but on the day of her return, she didn’t want to go in. We didn’t, for example, anticipate that she’d find it odd and unsettling to see her loving teachers wearing masks and face shields. Nor did we (OK, I) visualize how the drop-off schedule would mean we’d have to wait in the center’s driveway while parents ahead of us answered screening questions. The biggest thing we didn’t plan for: temperature checks. Amna, we soon discovered, was not a fan of the thermometer pointed at her forehead.

Worried about the strange device she’d never seen before, Amna began to cry. Emily knelt down and held Amna’s hands. “Mama, I’m nervous,” she said tearfully. Instinctively, Emily responded, “It’s okay to be nervous. But you can be nervous and brave at the same time.”

“It’s okay to be nervous. But you can be nervous and brave at the same time.”

We’ve also had to figure out a way to trust the people in the daycare bubble because our well-being depended on them. We trusted the daycare’s newly implemented rules. But our daughter was going to be in a room with seven other toddlers, and that inherently means those parents are now a part of our bubble, too. The parents at our daycare are lovely, but we are not intimately familiar with their pandemic strategies. We made the decision to trust that they’ll be as vigilant as we are, that they’ll keep their kids home if they notice any sign of illness, even a mild one. You don’t get to have assurances for this part. Just a leap of faith.

This leap of faith is a microcosm of the larger leap of faith we’re all asking of one another during the pandemic: that everyone will do their part not to be reckless.

But once you’ve accepted the leap of faith and processed that a zero-risk scenario is off the table (two simple asks, I know), you get to reap the reward: a colorful, high-definition display of your kiddo’s boundless resilience. It took Amna about a week to get used to forehead temperature checks and seeing her teachers in masks and face shields. She understood, mostly without issue, that she could no longer bring her daycare toys home. She now patiently waits in line while other kids’ parents answer the screening questions.

The new daycare rules mean parents are not allowed in the facility, which changes the nature of pickup and drop-off. It makes the occasions feel more transactional, with fewer words exchanged. Before the pandemic, we could stroll inside the center, catch up with the teachers, and share a laugh with other parents while waiting for our toddlers to retrieve their belongings. Now, parents commiserate in the driveway about how well their children are adjusting to the new realities.

But Amna bursts through the gates to greet us at pickup time all the same, beaming from ear to ear. She breathlessly shares the details of her meals (“Today I ate chicken and carrot and water and carrot and chicken”), her creative play (“There’s a hole in my pants because I pretended to be a worm, Baba!”), and her negotiations of toy sharing (“Leland wasn’t ready to share the robot today, and it made me upset”).

Our little wonder is a bright, social creature. She comes alive in a packed room, something she hasn’t experienced at home since the pandemic began. But at preschool, she can water that need. Two months after Amna and the initial group of children returned to daycare, the center has been allowed to steadily increase the number of children per room. Every day, she excitedly shares details on getting to know the newcomers (“I met a new friend today!”).

Two months into her return to daycare, I’m stunned by the number of risks we are living with. There is the risk of exposure, never too far from the mind as cases steadily rise where I live. There’s the risk of being plunged into uncertainty if the daycare has to close for a brief period of time. There is, of course, the always possible scenario that all daycares might once again close for an indeterminate stretch.

I am stunned, too, by how these risks are mere background noise to the clear sound of her laughter. It occurs to me that whether she’s at home or in daycare, our biggest success as parents in the pandemic has been guarding her joy, beating back the invading forces of uncertainty and fear. We are nervous for what’s to come. But we’ve learned that you can be nervous and brave at the same time. ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Parenting Week series, about how parenting has changed during the pandemic.

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