Portrait

Daycare operator Eliza and her life committed to children. By Kate Holden.

A day in home daycare

Her younger son woke at six this morning and the elder is already at kinder. Her husband is at work landscaping rain-wet gardens, the day going for hours already and now the little ones being dropped off. The yellow lamps are on and the heaters are blasting. “Come in,” she greets everyone at the door. “Good morning.” K, three years old, stands grinning at her knee. “Come in. We’re making a cubbyhouse.”

There is a clutter of tiny snow boots, muddy runners, scooters and bikes and pot plants on the verandah, a box full of Ugg boots and workboots and helmets inside the hall. Handmade mobiles of twigs, dried leaves, beads and wool hang at the door. The husband’s mania for succulents crowds the front yard. There are pots of cactuses lined up on top of the eaves. Buddha heads sprout agave, sculptural under the wet grey sky. Theirs is a comfy house, 1940s brick, kind of worn at the corners and settled into the earth. The four kids are soon in motion, chasing each other back and forth, munching biscuits and baby cucumbers. Eliza always wanted to work with children. “Always. Always. I was babysitting from when I was young. Just always” – K veers closer and Eliza’s voice lowers, that cosy voice parents use when they’re talking to an adult but their eyes are on their child – “liked being with little kids.” She’s a warm giggler, maybe a little nervous, and she makes a kind of enthusiastic chortle every time she speaks. “I knew it wasn’t really for the money.”

The room is large and snug, with lights on, the shades drawn, and carpet. An impression of browns. Bookshelves sag with drawing paper, children’s books, baskets of blocks and train tracks. A glass case holds a blue-tongued lizard and the walls are hung with fabrics from old travels to India and Cuba, blobby paintings and photos of little faces. One wall is stuck over, at child height, with coloured paper signs: Kindness is… “Helping others when they are hurt.” “Letting our friends rest by being quiet.” “Making sure people are happy at our house.” Below that, a painted handprint and suggestions on what to do when feeling stressed. Stop. Take a breath. Be gentle. Ask for help…

She hauls her son onto her lap. “In prep, when we had to say what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.” But she hated kinder. What made you want to spend the rest of your life in one then? She snorts. “Noooo idea.” Then to K, who is showing her a rubber lizard: “Oh yes. It is.”

Eliza worked in child care and kindergarten, did a lot of nannying, never planned to do family daycare, but then her own kids came along and it made sense. “It’s regulated exactly the same as kindergartens and child care; I have to do exactly what they do at the kinder down the road.” K is cackling with C as they poke each other with their toes. She dodges a sweeping leg as her son scrambles up the back of the couch and pulls her half-ponytail straight. There’s a tiny sparkling stud in her nostril and she wears durable shades of grey and brown: woolly leggings, skirts and jumpers. “It’s about following what their weaknesses are and what they need a little bit of help with, and then planning activities that are going to help with that.”

She sends the parents a report each day, with photos and a short, thoughtful observation about the child’s triumphs or enjoyments. It’s more than she’s required to do, but she believes the parents will appreciate it. Then there’s the rest of the paperwork: risk assessments of potential excursions, attendance sheets, invoicing, outing release forms signed… “I’m one of those weird people,” she says, “who enjoy that side of it.”

She calls over to the two bigger boys who are hauling off their socks in preparation for some occult exercise. “We’ll have to put them on later when we go outside or we’ll get cold tootsies…” What do Eliza’s own kids make of sharing their home with others? Saturday mornings are so calm, she says. The two boys are best friends; they stay in their pyjamas until afternoon. “Sometimes I feel sorry for them, when I have to discipline things that I would probably let slide if it was just my own kids.” There have been a few times when it seemed not so fair on the older one. But she’s never lost touch with any children who’ve moved on: they’re all friends, and this is a house of happy sounds. “I do feel bad that K and J get the tired me. When I was working in child care all those kids got the fully energised me from the second I walked in the door to the second I left. I’m always tired.” She squeezes her son. “Always tired, piggy wiggy.”

He wriggles away and another climbs up to her lap. “About every six months I have my little meltdown and then I feel better.” She’s laughing a lot now, idly bending to pick up a fallen toy truck. It’s not really like being a parent to 20 children. These listen respectfully, do as she asks. Ask if she loves her work and her freckled face lights up. “Little kids – you don’t get judged by them. I enjoy being around them, because there is no kind of bitchiness or…” She breaks off to pretend to munch H’s little leg as the girl pulls her pants up to inspect a knee. “Kiss? Or eat?” H asks. “Kiss.” The smallest child draws near, stares with solemn eyes. “Do you want cuddles too?” Eliza smiles at him and reaches out an arm. “Everyone for cuddles today.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Child’s play". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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