When we moved, I stayed at home for a while. For a year. I lasted only a couple of months without any care whatsoever. I put Geeky Boy into a Mother's Morning Out program that was quite similar to the home day care he had been in before. It was quite often that I'd drop him off and there'd be a couple of mothers breastfeeding their babies just once more before they left. I liked it there.
Then I went back to school. The plan was to go part time, but they offered me a full ride assistantship, so I jumped at the chance and then had about a week to find day care. Geeky boy was two. We went through a couple of really bad daycares. The biggest barrier for us was money. Mr. Geeky was on an instructor's salary and I would be making about $800/mo. on my assistantship. Our housing costs were pretty high and we had student loans, credit card debt, the usual just-out-of-grad-school financial crises. Finding day care that we could afford was difficult. I don't remember which bad option came first, but one was one of those chains of daycares and it was awful. It was like taking your kid to the mall and dropping him off and hoping for the best. I would go pick him up and I literally felt like I was navigating the food court or the school cafeteria. I would navigate through room after room filled with tables and tiny plastic chairs with metal legs that scraped the floor. One day, there was actually a fire there. That place only lasted a month.
The next horrible place was less institutional and closer to the school. Also, the teacher for Geeky Boy's class had been around for 20 years. You don't see that much in day care settings. Things seemed fine and dandy for a few months. Then, the teacher quit and they went through a string of teachers. It seemed like every day, we'd walk in seeing the director instead of the teacher and she'd have to tell us that she'd lost another one. Then there was the lice infestation that caused us to have to shave Geeky Boy's head. The last straw was the director of the center hitting Geeky Boy. You see, Geeky Boy had a bit of a temper at that age. He got frustrated and then, he kind of got in your face. It didn't happen often, but it was quite infuriating when it did. So, apparently this happened at school while the director was tending to his class and she hauled off and slapped him in the face. To her credit, she reported herself and she filed a report with the state and everything she was supposed to do, but still. That happened two weeks before the end of the semester. We left him there until semester's end and then I stayed home with Geeky Boy during the summer and looked for day care again.
We finally found great care at a small center that was non-profit. The parents were required to pitch in and once a month, we all gathered at the center to do chores. Geeky Boy was there for two years. It was a wonderful place and best of all, affordable, at around $350/mo.
Moving again, we had to find day care again. This time, I knew not to go with cheap. You really do get what you pay for. However, the costs had skyrocketed. Now, for a similar day care to the one we'd had previously (this time for Geeky Girl), we had to pay $900/mo. And we did like it. Geeky Girl stayed there for 4 years. I credit them with her early reading ability and her good social skills. They treated summer like camp, taking them to plays, for swimming lessons and trips to places like the zoo and the fire station.
Depending on where you live, good day care can be out of reach. I always tell people what I pay in day care because I do think, as Katherine said in the comments to Laura's post, people think you're only paying $300 or $400/mo. at the high end. While there might be some places where that *will* get you good care, at many others, it won't.
I know quite a few moms who stay at home because they can't find good, affordable care. And it's not that they don't want to stay at home, but they would certainly weigh their options differently if it only took $350/mo. to get them excellent care.
The thing is, good day care is hard to find. Just knowing where to look can be difficult. Most of the time, it's word of mouth.
I'm at a point now where I don't feel guilty at all for putting my kids in day care. There may have been a few rough spots along the way, but we all learned something from them, and I never felt like my kids' safety was at stake. That said, I have had people directly criticize me for it at a time when I felt uncertain about the choices I'd made (which really weren't choices since at the beginning, I was the one with the salary while Mr. Geeky was writing a dissertation). I've come to a place where I really think it's an individual family's decision about what kind of care they feel is best. The media's constant spinning of this issue as having a right or wrong answer leads parents to buy into that in the early years. How can you possibly know when your kid's six weeks old all the various permutations that have worked out just fine? You're just beginning to add your own.
It very much feels like to me that all us parents out here in the blogosphere are very respectful of each other's decisions. Of course, that's not a good headline, is it?