I was driving to work the other day, and I saw this chick longboarding. It was eight in the morning, and she had a backpack on and a cup of coffee in one hand.
“What a badass,” I thought. I want to longboard to work; I’d get up early, make some juice, beat traffic, just soaring around listening music, hoping I didn’t hit a patch of gravel.
Then I catch sight of my kid in the back, whispering “choo-choo” and pointing at a semi truck next to us.
Oh yeah, I can’t do that. I’ve got a kid that I bring to work with me -- every day.
When I had Pancake, I was working mainly in an entomology lab and freelancing from home. I had just moved and was trying desperately to land a full-time biology gig, but the job market for research had tanked a few years ago, and was continuing to decline.
Before I had a kid, I always thought I’d stay career-oriented if I had children: pop the kid in daycare and continue doing research biology. I loved the job. I went to work while camping backcountry in Alaska, and even though every project I worked on was different, I was always working alongside top biologists in the field. I finally understood how a person could LOVE their job -- I truly loved what I was doing.
Then around 2010, some changes in federal funding saw most research entities tighten their belts. My degree, and six-plus years of experience doing fieldwork translated to spotty part-time jobs with no benefits, or a paper-pushing jobs slightly related to science, where I could hope to make maybe $5 an hour, after paying for childcare.
I would write and do graphic design during the day, and then leave Pancake with his dad to go work in the lab at night so we wouldn’t have to pay for child care, and I could feel like I was pursuing something I was passionate about. I lasted about two months. I was just too exhausted to continue, and turned in my notice to the curator. And it was just in time, as my father-in-law had to let the manager of his mini-storage go, and generously offered me the job.
At first, I loathed the idea of working for family. I hate feeling like people are doing me favours, but a couple of weeks on the job and it was clear that my father-in-law actually really needed someone --without active substance abuse issues -- to keep the business running smoothly. So I swallowed my pride, and started taking my kid to work with me.
One thing almost all parents can agree on is that childcare is expensive. I price-checked the few places in my area that take kids under three and was quoted $1,200-2,200 a month for full-time care, with only two of the five facilities I called having openings. Though higher than the national averages ($972/month is average, but includes ‘home-care’ situations), it’s still arguable whether or not it’s worth it.
Another possible option is smaller, unlicensed home-based daycare, which I would love if someone I knew was running one. Craigslist ads for those were sketchy at best; one woman I spoke with said she only smoked in the kitchen and that she had six other children under her care. I’m sure there are lots of unregistered home daycares that are fantastic, but many are not, and it can be difficult to take legal action if something were to go wrong.
At first, when he was just a few months old, having him at the office worked out beautifully; he slept most of the day, I got to hang out with him, and I saved upwards of $1,200 a month not having to pay for childcare for an infant. But things have changed, as they do. Pancake is a rambunctious toddler now, and I worry the office environment isn’t all that stimulating for him.
Pancake plays with trucks, colours and builds with blocks, while I make collection calls, rent units or arrange advertising. When I have downtime, we’ll read books or play games, and some days he has to self-entertain more than others. He’s very mild-mannered and has a little play/nap room set up in the back room. He gets spoiled with cartoons by his grandpa regularly. Many of our customers are poor, who also struggle with the rising cost of childcare. Customers are patient if they come in and I’m in the middle of snack prep, or putting Pancake down for a nap. Most exclaim, “You get to bring your kid to work?! That’s AMAZING," and it seems to be good for business overall -- and for both of us, too.
Even on days when he’s an over-tired little tyrant or will not stop grabbing the trackball out of the mouse, I feel extremely lucky that I get to have a job and see my kid. But as he gets older, I worry if it’s the best for him. Is he learning enough? Should he be more socialized?
I recently was at an acquaintance's’ house for a baby shower; she’s a stay-at-home mom who also does pre-school with her two toddlers. Their house is a veritable cornucopia of learning: hand-drawn season calendars, colour wheels, beautiful wooden toys for stacking, and piles of hand-made games.
I know I’m not the first parent to compare myself to others, but their playroom looked like the inner lair of Rudolph Steiner himself: faceless cotton dolls, silk scarves and crayons that looked like twigs beckoned from their orderly wooden shelves. Her son responded obediently to her flawless German when she asked him to share his toys, but my son was clearly out of his element and kept digging through their trash can.
I left worried that I was being selfish by taking my kid to work instead of shelling out for the best childcare or preschool that I could afford. At the same time, I started questioning my expectations for child care, and even childhood in general. Even though he’s a bit young for preschool, I had intended to have him with me at work until he was school-age. Was there a such thing as a superior childhood? Is my son going to be behind in school because I wasn’t constantly leading him structured play? Is he going to be an asshole when he grows up because I don’t buy vegetable-dyed wooden toys?
When I was just a bit older than him, my sister and I essentially had free run of the house, and spent most of our time either colouring or playing outside in the dirt. My mother stayed at home with us, but she certainly never, ever played with us. (Except one time, she said she would play hide and seek; we searched the house for her, and when we started to get frantic, thinking she’d finally deserted us, we found her napping in her bedroom, obscured by a pile of laundry to be folded.)
My mother was a busy lady who didn’t really have time to play with us, or the cash to shell out for wooden toys handmade by house gnomes in Germany, and we didn’t turn into Nelson Muntz, but is that always the case?
Increasingly, specialists are making a case for unstructured play, citing its importance in early childhood development. Free play helps kids to problem-solve, and encourages creativity. But there is also a wealth of evidence to suggest that short, structured activities in small groups helps kids to stay on-task when they’re older. I don’t always have time to direct activities with Pancake, but I imagine it will get easier as he gets older and his attention span lengthens.
While I don’t have the resources to Montessori my son, I’ll take the money we save and improve our overall quality of life, like enabling us to start our path to home ownership. We have a routine, and while it might not seem as magical as some other kids’, I feel like it’s the best for us right now, even if I have my doubts. Maybe raising him at work will help introduce him to the inevitability of working for a living?
What are your thoughts on kid-friendly workplaces? Childcare availability? Wooden toys vs cardboard boxes? Do you think the trend of sacrificing everything for your children is having a positive effect on child development?