From the street, the place seems all right. Stucco exterior, grey roof, red cement steps leading up to the front door, overgrown bulbous cedar shrubs on either side. A sign on the front lawn reads, in primary-colour bubble letters, Three Bears Daycare. I put the car in park and take a moment to collect myself. Four daycares in four hours and none of them have seemed just right. I glance back at Lily. She's fallen asleep in her car seat with her neck at such an awkward angle that her cheek is touching the front of her coat. I wonder how she can be comfortable.
"C'mon, Sweetie. Let's go." I give her foot a gentle squeeze. I hate to wake her, she's always been such a poor napper, but we're already several minutes late.
Lily raises her head, blinking bleary eyes, and whimpers.
I recognize that sound only too well. "Okay, hang on. I'll get you out." I clamber out of the car and yank open the back door just as she lets out an ear-splitting squall.
"Okay, don't cry." I try to quickly unbuckle her, but Lily strains against her seatbelt, prolonging the process. I try to push her back into her seat, but all she does is scream louder and struggle harder. "For goodness' sake, Lily!" I say through clenched teeth. "Just let me get you out!" Finally, I wrench the straps from her arms and haul her from the car.
She immediately quiets down and, sniffling, rests her head on my shoulder.
I want to cry.
Instead, I sling my purse over my shoulder, grab blankie and the diaper bag from the back seat, lock the car with the third hand we mothers seem to develop within weeks of giving birth, and trudge up the walk to the house.
A sign on the screen door says, "Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mon. - Fri. please do not ring doorbell. Babies could be sleeping!" I rap three times-not too loudly, I hope-take a step back and wait. And wait. And wait. A breeze has picked up, blowing cool February air off the harbour, and I shiver. I wrap blankie tighter around Lily and hold her closer. She pushes away, fixated on the glowing light of the doorbell. "Bah?" she says, reaching for it.
I take her hand. "No, no, Honey. Don't touch."
She squeals and pulls away, reaching for the doorbell again.
"Lily, don't touch," I say, firmly, shifting her to my other arm. I knock again-louder.
This time I hear movement inside. Small, scampering paws gallop up to the other side of the door and a small dog starts barking. A moment later the door is opened by a short woman with wiry grey hair and a round, dried-apple face. "You must be Mrs. Williams," she says, her face crinkling into a smile. "I'm Anita. Come on in."
Inside, the dog, a black-and-white, curly-haired thing with a flat face and runny eyes, snuffles around my feet, nearly tripping me.
"Mitzi, go lay down." Anita points upstairs.
The dog sneezes, but obeys, trotting up the carpeted steps. At the top, she drops onto the floor, lays her head on her paws, and watches us with doleful eyes.
"Sorry about that," Anita says. "She's supposed to stay upstairs during the day, but she just can't resist getting underfoot when anyone comes or goes."
"We don't have any pets." I shift Lily higher on my hip, uncertain how I feel about a dog being in a daycare.
"Oh, Mitzi's very friendly," Anita says. "And completely kid-proof."
I stare at the dog. She licks her nose and inches forward, dying, I'm sure, to be petted.
"Well, anyhow." Anita straightens, clasps her hands together. "Do you want me to give you a little tour?"
I flush. "Yes, sure. Sorry."
"All right, then. Follow me." She turns and pads down the stairs.
I follow gingerly, wondering if the stairwell is always this dim, wondering if this interview is going to be a waste of time-just like the others.
At the bottom of the stairs, Anita leads us through a baby gate and down an equally dim hallway.
"There's a crib and a change table in this room." Anita opens a door and switches on the light. The room is small and spare; just the furniture and bare white walls. "Lily would have her naps in here. And we've got a baby monitor which we carry with us everywhere."
I nod. "Okay."
Anita closes the door and carries on down the hall. "This is the bathroom." She opens another door with a picture of a toilet symbol taped about waist high on it. "Though I suppose it will be a few months before Lily will start toilet training?"
"I thought I'd wait till she's two."
"You really can't start too early," Anita says. "Just make it fun. No pressure."
You don't know Lily, I think.
She opens the last door in the hallway and ushers us into a primary-coloured room that's brighter than the hallway, but not by much. Low shelves filled with toys and books line one wall. Three round tables occupy the centre of the room; a pair of preschool-aged children sits at one of them, eating bananas slices and Cheerios. A young woman with auburn-streaks in her blonde hair washes plastic dishes at a kitchenette. At the other end of the room, an entertainment centre takes prominence in a circle of beanbag chairs. It's by far the largest playroom of the daycares I've visited, but to me it feels like a cave, even with the lights on.
"This is where the children spend the majority of the day." Anita leads us over to the kitchenette where she pulls a handful of papers and a booklet from a drawer and hands them to me. "This is the parent handbook and a contract. You can sign it and get it back to me when you're ready. If I'm not around, Allison, here, will be."
The other woman-girl really, she looks like she might be 18 or 19-extends her hand to me. She's a little taller than Anita, but so thin she looks like she might snap like a twig when I shake her hand.
"Allison's my daughter," Anita says. "She's going to Camosun, but helps out part time."
"I'm getting my Early Childhood Educator's certificate," Allison says, practically beaming. "I just love kids."
A kid taking care of my kid. I smile and bounce Lily.
Allison turns to Lily. "Hi there."
Lily, sucking a finger, just stares at her.
"Do you want to come see me?" Allison holds out her hands. "I have a pretty doll house just over there. Do you want to see it?"
Lily buries her head in my chest.
"She's never been very good with strangers," I say.
"Don't worry about it," Anita says. "Most kids are shy at first. But they usually warm up once they're more accustomed to the place."
"Yes, I imagine," I say.
"So when did you say you're going back to work?" Anita asks.
"Next week." I try to force the papers into a pocket on the diaper bag, but they won't cooperate.
With a sympathetic smile, Anita takes them from me, folds them neatly in half, and tucks them into the pocket. "That's not a lot of time to accustomize her to daycare then."
"I didn't realize finding good childcare would be so difficult," I say, almost apologetically. "I wanted to start her at least two weeks before I began work. Sort of to get us both used to the idea. But..." I feel tears creeping into my eyes and look away, at the little girl and boy giggling as they squish Cheerios into their banana slices.
"It can be hard at first," Anita says to me in a grandmotherly tone. "But we do our best to make the transition as easy as possible. We only want what's best for your little girl, after all."
I nod and blink away the tears.
Anita clasps her hands together. "Well, just let us know when you'd like her to start."
"I will," I say and head back up the stairs.
Outside in the car, I just sit there staring at the steering wheel, holding back the tears. Until Lily starts to buck in her car seat and cry.
"Okay, okay. We're going." I start the car, turn up the Toddler Tunes CD.
She automatically quiets down and starts kicking her foot against her car seat and sucking her finger. I pull out onto the road. Jellybeans Childcare Center is next on the list. I let out a long sigh and a silent prayer it won't be quite right either.