Tommy and Henry at ECE

My sons’ childcare centre is our other home

Spinoff Parents columnist Angela Cuming writes about what her children’s early childhood education centre means to her and her whānau.

From the outside, there’s not much to give it away. An old two-storey villa, black asphalt driveway, a faded wooden fence just tall enough to peep over. But push open the heavy front door and there it is. A room where two rainbow flags hang over the doorway next to a string of Matariki fairy lights. A shelf of wooden blocks, smooth and shiny from years of small hands stacking them. A jumbled box of shoes and socks and jerseys, a basket of toy cars, a row of dress up costumes, a pet fish that no one ever forgets to feed. Messy, noisy, just like my own home. In a way, it is home. It’s my sons’ child care.

Today will begin like so many other days. I will wake up with at least one of my three children in my bed, I will feed them and dress them and pack their little backpacks they’ve never once carried themselves and I will put them in the car and drive them to their centre in Hamilton.

In our house we call it ‘’fun school” because that’s the name Charlie gave it when he started going at age three. “I had fun at school today Mama, it’s just like a fun school.”

So, it will be off to Fun School and there will be police cars and fire trucks to spot on the quick drive there and a last-minute scramble to find gumboots kicked off in the car. The twins, almost three, will streak across the carpark and Charlie, almost five, will tell me that no, he doesn’t need to wear his jacket today. Usually there’s a beeline made straight for the sandpit or their favourite trike and some days there may be a few tears or I may get a little wave from the back gate as I reverse back up the driveway, a carefully curated collection of enthusiastic paintings from last week’s arts and crafts session sitting on the passenger seat.

The tears always stop by the time I reach the end of the drive and I will look in the rear-view mirror as my boys start playing happily again.

Tommy painting

Some days there will be tears from me, exhausted from another night of no sleep because one twin has woken for a bottle of milk and then just as he’s drifted back to sleep the other will wake and then Charlie will have a bad dream and want to stroke my arm for comfort and then I’ve lain awake from 3am, worrying about if and when the twins will finally start to talk and which of the four Hollywood Chrises is definitively the hottest.*

On those days there’s been a teacher there to hug me and pass me a tissue without the boys seeing me cry and there’s been a slice of cake slipped to me from the kitchen on the way out and extra photos just of my boys uploaded onto the centre’s Facebook page because they know how much that will lift my spirits.

It’s the place that patiently waited through six months of Charlie not talking – happy though he was there – before a beautiful teacher one day helped him find his voice by singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with him, each word she “forgot” and that Charlie sang for her a small but immeasurable step towards speech for my precious boy.

And with Charlie now chattering away, the teachers have joined us on our journey to speech for identical twins Tommy and Henry, who converse only with each other in “twin talk”, a secret language only they understand.

Early Childhood Education was a recommendation from the speech pathologist who assessed them at the Waikato DHB’s Child Development Centre. Children need to be around other children in a safe, fun environment, she said. Now my beautiful twins are counting to 10 and can recite the alphabet and name shapes and colours, thanks largely to the wonderful teachers of their day care.

One teacher spent hours teaching Tommy how to blow a kiss because she knew how much it would mean to me. That enormously kind act meant more to me than she will ever know. On a day trip to the beach a child wandered a bit too close to a busy road and a teacher ran so fast after them you would have sworn it was his own child. That’s all you every really want in an ECE teacher, someone who protects your child like they are their own.

Angela with her sons on an ECE beach trip

I don’t know much about the circumstances of the other families who have children enrolled there. I do know they are all happy and loved, full of curiosity and bubbling laughter, just like my three. I imagine some children come from households where both parents work, most likely to pay for rent or mortgages and bills and groceries. Some parents may be like me and struggled so much to cope with three children aged under three with a partner who worked two jobs and little family support that they almost buckled under the physical and emotional strain of it all. Parents like me who who made the decision to give their children something more than long and isolating days spent at home, watching their mother cry tears of frustration; who sent them to a safe, happy home away from home that is filled with warmth and love and very good, very clean toys.

I know this place has been a source of great joy for my children. It has been a safe harbour to weather the storm of us having to move rental homes over and over again, an unending source of support and help when one of the twins fell off the back deck and fractured his elbow, a place where treasured family photos have been taken, a village for my family who is not able to rely on extended family to look after the boys when illness strikes or work must be done.

And yet, here we are, still reading toxic, mum-shaming diatribes.

And while such pieces are as deeply unpleasant as finding that missing bottle of now-curdled milk behind the sofa the morning after the night before, it’s not simply a case of ignoring them and moving on.

My sons’ teachers encourage them to find their voices, and that the words they choose to speak matter, that above all they must be kind. We know how damaging bullying can be in the playground, yet we let it play out across our national newspapers because, why? Clicks?

My twins’ babbling makes more sense, to be honest.

I worry for all those mums out there doing the best with what they have, having to read headlines trumpeting yet another opinion piece about what a bad job someone who has never met them thinks they are doing. It’s cruel and hurtful and unkind and everything we try and raise our kids not to be.

So tomorrow, I will once again wake with at least one of my babies in my bed, I will get them ready for Fun School, and I will once again walk them through that front door. But this time with a little bit of a heavy heart.

And then I will look down at those three little boys clutching at my legs and I will tell them that mama must go to work to write stories and that I will be back soon.

And so I do. But, I know this: While I am working my boys are in the place that they love. It is not a dumping ground, it is their home away from home.

*Pine. Don’t @ me.

Angela Cuming is a print and radio journalist, a columnist for The Spinoff Parents, and a mum to three boys under three. 

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