Amie is going to preschool soon. She has been home with us for several months, ever since we moved, so it will be a big change for her (and me). I can’t say she is particularly enthusiastic, but neither is she apprehensive about it, I think. Part of the problem is that she has no clear concept of time: “in six days” means very little to the little girl who will whine “I haven’t seen Nemo all this year!”

So I decided to make a countdown calender.

Amie’s countdown calendar, September 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I made it out of a scrap cardboard frame, glued it to a sheet of card stock, then drew in the squares: a visit to the landfill (I know!), riding the bike, reading Library Lion (the new favorite book), and her favorite characters Nemo and Caillou, and of course her Oma and Opa’s arrival at the airport on the third, and her first day of school on the eighth, with friends and learning after that.

The initial idea was to let her open one door every evening and the picture would show the next day’s activity or event. It would teach time as well as bring a surprise every evening. But the moment I revealed it to her she wanted to open all the windows and got upset when I wouldn’t let her. So now I let her open any door she wants, and every evening we discuss the picture of the next day.

Amie’s countdown calendar, August/Sept 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We also discuss the day that has passed, and on the back of the door I write whatever has happened that isn’t in the picture. This way, if we can keep these calendars going, we will have a record of our days.

Maria Montessori

(Maria Montessori)

After all the hassle of getting Amie into a preschool in Brookline and putting down our deposit… we’re moving. Luckily the hassle was less in the town we’re moving to, but the downside of that was that the choice was overwhelming!

But our favorite was always the Montessori school around the corner, and though it was a bit pricey, in the end we went with that. Amie’s Baba is a Montessori preschool alumnus and he never really considered the other options. I read up on Montessori when we were trying to get Amie into the Jamaica Plain Montessori school, and I really like the philosophy.

“No one can be free unless he is independent.”

So true.

I think it will be good for our little girl. It will help her discipline her great mind. It’s only 2,5 hours a day, and I look forward to having lots of time with her at the new house. We can garden and craft and play together the rest of the day. She will have, I hope, the best of both worlds.

DH is the one who drops Amie off at daycare in the mornings on his way to work. Every morning I rush him/them. Amie by now knows the mantra: “I need to go to office, Baba needs to go to office, Mama also needs to go to office, in the study!”

(This concept, by the way, of all three of us having to do a good job at our respective “offices” really helped her change her attitude about daycare.)

That’s how it is, folks. The moment they’re out of here I rush to the study and start writing on my novel – and occasionally, when inspiration is low or I need a break, on this here blog-thingie. The moment I started realizing the novel might actually bring in some money, I really started considering it as “a job”.

(Note the difference between job and work. The writing was always “work” and therefore worth it, vauable, praiseworthy, proud… But in this society, once work becomes lucrative, the worker gets to have more say -  whether I like it or not).

So this morning it was 8:30 (the time daycare opens) and DH was still in his PJs, checking his email on his laptop (“It’s urgent: it’s work!”). I rushed him – in these cases I don’t mind the nagging – and he laughed and said: “You do this thing in the morning: kicking us out!”

And I said: “You bet I’m kicking you out! My working day just started and you’re still here on my time!”

Don’t worry, it’s all said in a cheerful tone, but this morning I realized that I was also very serious.  And so did DH, I think…

Amie in the meantime was drawing Boo again:

Boo by Amie 20 December 2007 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Peets coffeeshop at Coolidge Corner, Brookline (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This morning I told Amie L would come and play with her while Mama also went to office. L iz her favorite assistant at daycare and the only one to have babysat her, once before.

She cried for a minute and asked me to stay. I said I could stay a little bit. She asked could I stay a more bit, a much bit? I promised half an hour, which she considered and then approved, though she wasn’t convinced. It didn’t matter. L came in at 9 and Amie was so excited to see her he jumped and chattered nonstop, showing L all her toys. She even asked me to leave, already, for office!

It was almost guilt free.

I left after the promised half hour and risked life and limb on the slippery sidewalks. Potential ambulance ride and trip to the ER: $1000.

I did spend some time (15 minutes) browsing at our local independent bookstore, the Booksmith. Babysitter while I “relaxed”: $4.

I made it to Peets unharmed, where I purchased a scone and a latte to justify my presence there: $4.64. (If the babysitting doesn’t bankrupt us, Peets will.)

4 hours of babysitting at $15: worth it, because of the other side of the ledger.

  • 4 hours of solid work on the novel – which, you know, will be the next bestseller, and let’s not forget the movie rights!
  • 4 hours of unadulterated fun for Amie.

When I returned home with lunch for everyone, L had even done the dishes. She did this the first time she came, and I had reminded myself to absolutely forbid her to do it again – for of course we had dishes! But I forgot in the whirl of leave taking and kisses and searching for cell phone and gloves.

So, yes: not wholly guiltess, but so worth it!

Sinterklaas, you ask? It didn’t happen. Amie’s cold was much worse yesterday – one kid’s runny nose, you know, is Amie’s bronchitis. She was also disappointed. Sinterklaas comes to New England only one day a year. She will have to make do with Santa Claus, who – in all honesty and with my apologies to the Americans – is a sorry excuse for Sinterklaas! (You can read more about  that here.) Next year…

It took Amie over four months to find happiness at daycare. Even then it took an experiment to make her feel more at ease.

  • The babysitter

Two weekends ago, Amie’s Baba and I went to a concert. We had gone out only once since Amie was born, at a time long ago before she tumbled into a long and difficult phase of separation anxiety. For a long time we couldn’t think of anyone she would be comfortable with – this was before (we caught on to) the miraculous transformation in her social attitude. That Sunday, however, we felt confident that she would love the babysitter. It was the wonderful assistant at the daycare center she attends three days a week and to whom she is very attached.

We left in the middle of the concert – we were new at this babysitting thing! – not wanting to be away from our daughter any longer, not knowing how her evening was going, and not keen on adding another $13 to the exceptional cost of that evening. When we got home, we could see that Amie had had a wonderful time. The assistant, eager to set my mind at ease about the evening, told us:

“She was so happy! I’ve never seen her so happy at the daycare. I’ve never seen her laugh so much!”

  • Stressed out at daycare 

She said it with the best of intentions, but my reaction of relief was shortlived. Soon I was mulling it over, worrying it to death, fairly plunging into grief and doubt. Amie had just been who she is when she is here, at home. She was obviously very unhappy, “stressed out,” the assistant said, at daycare.

I am all for daycare, and later on preschool and school, if the child is happy there and thrives. And if the setting or institution can provide the education, stimulation and friendship the child needs. And if the home situation complements the “formal education” with whatever is needed for an all-rounded person. But those are other matters.

Daycare makes it possible for me work on my dissertation, novel and writing and reading: all projects that I add up to the kind of role-model I want to be for my daughter. That is, a woman who can balance motherthood, creative work and homemaking. A mother who loves to give all of herself, but who also is herself. I don’t mean to say that one can’t be creative while childrearing, but personally I can’t concentrate on long, complex philosphical arguments while singing Patty Cake.

  • Experiment

Having that particular person babysit was an experiment and a risk. At daycare, she was Amie’s total mommy-surrogate: immediately after I left after drop-off, Amie clung to her (like she clung to me at home); the moment I came in for pick-up, Amie ran to me and ignored her. The hours in between, Amie monopolized her, demanding to be picked up and cuddled by her (I was assured this behavior sprung from her personal emotional need, not from a manipulative or bullyish nature). It was hard on the staff and the other kids. What if our experiment had made he attachment more intense?

It didn’t. The Tuesday following that babysitting Sunday, Amie went into daycare and was happy! She was on Wednesday and Thursday as well. And she no longer laid exclusive claim on the assistant. After more than four months of struggling to adjust, she had turned the corner. The one moment she had cried – woken up from her nap by coughing – the assistant had calmed her down and made her laugh by reminiscing about what they had done that Sunday.

No doubt this change is connected to Amie’s newfound sense of independence and freedom. But I believe the experiment helped substantially. Amie realized that she could be relaxed and feel safe and happy with the assistant, and she carried that attitude over into the daycare situation.

  • Be committed 

When it comes to the crunch (an unhappy child who doesn’t seem to adjust), it pays off to experiment, but you have to be committed to the result.  Amie had been at daycare four  months and was still unhappy: it was an unbearable situation. If the experiment had failed and made things worse, I think I would have taken her out of daycare altogether.

Of course the experiment isn’t over! Last week may have been a fluke. She could revert back to unhappiness any time. She’ll have to adjust all over again to pre-K, to Kindergarten.

I guess that’s what we signed up for when we became parents!