Gemma Bowker Wright pays tribute to the Wellington childcare centre that welcomed her son, and calls on the country to better support the people who care for our children.
It’s often the things in life you can’t have you end up wanting most. These were, for me, at five, a unicorn; at 14, to be goal shoot on the school netball team; at 20, a flat with no mould on the ceiling and a heat pump; and, at 30, a baby.
Due to a medical condition, I’d always known having a baby would be a challenge. Through my 20s I tried to ignore this. My partner and I discussed a childfree life involving overseas travel and being the fun auntie and uncle to our nieces and nephews who would come to like us more than their actual parents. Life would be great without kids, we decided, better. But then the feeling hit. Suddenly and a little unexpectedly, I really, really wanted a baby. We started fertility treatment and were soon told we needed IVF.
“Your chances are okay,” the specialist told us. “But it’s still a lottery.”
We won. It happened quickly, but also traumatically. I over-responded to the medication and spent two weeks in hospital recovering. A few months later we were pregnant with our first son. Naively I thought that was the hard part done. After a premature birth, the first weeks and months were a blur – another long hospital stay; late nights expressing milk in a cramped room with other bleary-eyed, shell-shocked new mums; the anxiety of bringing home a tiny, fragile slip of a human.
We named him Finlay (‘little warrior’) and together he and I spent his first year cocooned in the safe world of home. I loved the quiet rhythms of motherhood with one child. There were long walks and a lot of time breastfeeding on the couch. I imagined staying home forever, forgoing the career which no longer seemed important and the need to earn money which I’d conveniently forgotten about, to instead spend all my time raising this little person who had become our whole world. He’d be better off with me at home, I thought.
Fin grew quickly into a normal-sized baby. Soon he was crawling and then, earlier than I would have liked, walking and climbing. Running followed soon after. Biking not long after that.
Fin was one year old when I began to realise he was completely unlike me. He became desperate for company (“our house needs more people,” was one of his first sentences when he could put words together). He wanted action and noise. Our days became a race to leave the house. We’d go anywhere there were people – the zoo, the pool, indoor play areas (which I loathed). He liked getting places in the buggy or by bus so he could meet people along the way.
“Hi, I’m Fin,” he’d say to supermarket checkout operator, the butcher, a random person on the street. On one memorable rush hour bus trip he introduced himself to everyone on the bus while I tried to hide at the back.
Parenting became more challenging. Gone were my ideas from that first year – no screen time, no sugar, no overstimulation. Instead Blippi on repeat became a regular babysitter, chocolate buttons a valid currency, and we became the kind of parents who went to Bunnings on rainy Saturdays to buy random stuff we didn’t need just to get Fin out of the house.
My biggest overhaul, however, was about childcare centres. I didn’t know anything about childcare centres but was sure I would never put my son in one. I’d gone back to work a couple of days a week while a friend looked after Fin but when he was almost two she moved away from Wellington. He was too young for kindergarten and we couldn’t afford to have me stay at home full time again (and, by that stage, I didn’t want to). We needed another option.
A friend recommended a childcare centre in Newtown. It was hard to get into, she told me. I phoned that day and, luckily, they had a space. I was nervous taking Fin for our first visit. The place was tucked away on a quiet street and down a long pathway. The building itself, an old villa with a big tree outside, was ancient-looking, but in a familiar, secure way. I felt like I was back home in Hawke’s Bay in the late 80s at my childhood kindergarten. Inside it was a flurry of action – children, paint, building blocks, guinea pigs, scones baking. A teacher smiled at us and introduced herself, firstly to Fin, then to me. Her attention was on him from the start.
“Do you want to meet the chooks?” she asked.
Fin nodded. “Yes,” he said, “Yes, I do.”
Settling Fin into the centre turned out to be easier on him than me. The first time I left him cried all the way down the street. I went for a short walk then raced back. When I walked in he was eating his packed lunch at a table with other children while a teacher read Dr Seuss. He glanced at me and kept eating.
“I don’t want to go home yet, Mum,” he said, quite calmly.
Fin flourished at the centre. His language increased exponentially, his social skills, his confidence. He toilet trained easily by watching the older kids. He did things I didn’t want to do at home – messy play involving glue and painted egg shells, constructive play involving towers of teetering blocks, hours in the sandpit digging and filling in holes with water to jump into. He made friends and lost friends, learnt about boundaries, about how to be with older kids. He found creative and productive outlets for his energy. He made solid, trusting relationships with his teachers.
Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were difficult days. Days he didn’t want to go, or didn’t want to leave. Tantrums. All the normal stuff that goes with learning how to adjust to a new environment while growing up.
All this was carefully managed by his teachers. Their skill at facilitating, encouraging and intervening has always been spot on. Not only have they taught Fin but they’ve given me the confidence to parent more wisely. There’s that quote everyone says about how it takes a village to raise a kid. The centre became our village.
It takes dedication, skill and training to become an early childhood teacher. From what I’ve seen the job is nonstop, intense and takes a lot of energy. Not only that but it’s crucial. These teachers shape kids at an age when everything is being developed – personality, boundaries, physicality. They’re at the frontline.
Fin is now three years old and is a big brother. He’s assertive and extroverted. He’s also got a few anti-establishment vibes. His teachers value these qualities and foster the positive aspects of them, showing him how he can play a constructive role in the world. The world he will face one day is going to be full of challenges – climate change, resource stress, work force changes to name just a few – and he will need to be resilient enough to meet them as will the rest of his cohort and generation.
Recently the government announced plans to overhaul the early childhood sector, including better pay. Currently even some qualified teachers are earning the minimum wage. There’s also major a shortage of qualified teachers – and with the current low salaries it’s no wonder attracting people into the sector might be difficult in the future. Early childhood teachers are critical for our kids. We need to pay them better and support people to train and become qualified in this sector. My family are extremely lucky with our options – that I could take time off work initially, that we have access to an excellent childcare centre with qualified teachers who are paid fairly. Many families in New Zealand are not this lucky. All kids deserve a good start.
Early education is crucial. These teachers and their skills and roles in our community cannot be undervalued. We need to support them to achieve fair pay, and, through this, attract more people to train in this sector. Let’s get behind them.
Show your support for early childcare staff at nzei.org.nz/pay-equity