A friend once told me that the hardest thing about sending her young daughter to daycare was realizing that she, the child, was having a wide range of independent experiences—eating, playing, sleeping, crying, laughing—that she, the mother, would never know about, never see, and never share. The child was her own person now, forging relationships with classmates and teachers, making mistakes and learning the consequences of her actions, and developing preferences, routines, and habits.
For most new parents, cutting the umbilical cord is just the first of many acts of severing ties with a child whose destiny is to become his or her own individuated self. It’s an intensely symbolic act, whether undertaken in an adrenaline and sweat-drenched haze, with shaky hands, or by a nurse-proxy. Even those who refuse to cut the cord, who opt for something called a “lotus birth,” which is premised on the principle of “umbilical nonseverance,” eventually have to acknowledge the child’s autonomy. The cord dries up and falls off. The child moves on.
We’ve been sending our daughter, Mrinalini, to daycare for about four months now, which is another form, another stage, of umbilical-cord cutting. We drop Mrinalini off between 9 and 9:30 and pick her up between 4 and 5, depending on the day. This is the minimal amount of time that we—two working parents—require in order to feel like we’re doing justice to our research, teaching, and selves as full-time graduate student (me) and junior faculty (my husband).
For a number of reasons—the flexibility of our respective jobs being one—Mrinalini didn’t start going to daycare until she was nearly eighteen months old. Until then, we did a complicated juggling act with part-time nannies and alternating morning and afternoon shifts. Other friends with kids, all in daycares or nanny-shares, thought we were crazy to keep her home, to try to take care of her ourselves while also attempting to forge academic careers.
I admit: I felt a little righteous about not exposing my child to the cesspool of germs that is daycare. I admit, too, that I felt a little competitive with my mother, who worked part-time throughout my childhood, which meant she was always there when we came home from school, always ready with a home-cooked meal, always with us when we woke up. We never went to daycare. I think it was unthinkable.
In fact, my brother and I never even had baby-sitters. (I remember only one, a popsicle-thieving teenager from the neighborhood, who seemed always to be raiding our freezer.) In retrospect, I wonder what my parents were thinking. How did my mother, who had just years before been a Ph.D. student in English, spend all that time with us without going absolutely raving mad?
Little children are amazing, but they’re also exhausting, and few people of my generation are about to sacrifice their adult lives to stay at home, tethered to their children by the guilt-ridden equivalent of an unsevered umbilical cord. Not to mention the simple fact that the “traditional” division of labor in which one parent (doesn’t matter which one) makes home while the other wins bread is not really a feasible option for families in this economy.
So outside childcare it is, for many of us. We’ve got Mrinalini in one of those expensive, yuppie daycares with organic, locally-sourced (when possible; this is Chicago, after all) catering for little people who’d be just as happy on a diet of cheerios and Kraft mac ’n’ cheese. The kids snack on zucchini bread; they finger-paint and have dance parties.
Mrinalini comes home to teach us yoga poses (dolphin is a favorite) that she has mastered at school. She is learning a lot: numbers, colors, letters, Spanish, sign language. She loves her friends; last month, she made Valentines for all the kids in her class and distributed them with genuine glee and affection.
There’s no believer like a convert. If ever I was ambivalent about allowing my child to be taken care of by someone else, I’m not anymore. Daycare is great. Plus, to two people who’ve been in academic settings for basically our entire lives, our particular daycare looks and feels a lot like a school. School, we’re comfortable with. School, we can wrap our heads around. School, we love.
The best part, of course (actually, the only thing that matters), is that Mrinalini thinks so, too. This morning, a Saturday, she woke up with big, wet eyes, saying, “I wanna school-day!” The thought of an entire weekend at home with her parents literally brought the girl to tears.
Of course, it can be hard, too. In little and big ways. Hard when she falls down, and I have to sign an “accident report” when I go to pick her up, and her cheek is still smarting red from the accident, and somebody else has wiped her tears. Hard—in a good way—when I’m driving her home, and she starts singing a song to which only she and her friends know the words.
In the second volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on his daughter, Vanja’s, independence at barely three years of age. “But most of all she loved to play with other children,” he observes, noting how Vanja delights in bringing friends, like Benjamin, home to play. One day, Benjamin’s parents tell Karl Ove how much their little son likes his little daughter. It’s the sort of thing I tell the parents of Mrinalini’s classmates all the time. “Mrinalini is always talking about Caroline,” I say. “Mrinalini just adores Raffi.”
“[Benjamin] said you were the nicest girl in the nursery,” Karl Ove tells Vanja.
Then: “I had never seen her filled with such light. She was glowing with happiness. I knew that neither [her mother] nor I would be able to say anything to make her react like that, and I understood with the immediate clarity of an insight that she was not ours. Her life was utterly her own.”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.