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Day-Care Depression

DOREEN OLIVER is writing a memoir,
DOREEN OLIVER is writing a memoir, "The Overeducated Housewife." (Courtesy Author)
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By Doreen Oliver
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Concerned about our toddler's lack of speech, my husband and I enrolled him in day care twice a week. It wasn't an easy decision. After almost a decade as a film and live show producer, I had traded in my MBA and frequent-flier miles to stay at home when Solomon was born. Sending him to day care -- even part time -- seemed frivolous and would pose considerable financial difficulties. However, our son was 15 months and had uttered only a couple of comprehensible words. Though the experts we consulted told us this was "age appropriate," we were still uneasy. We thought being surrounded by kiddie chatter might shepherd him into the land of language.

I had sought out companions for Solomon, but as an African American woman in my early 30s, I was closer to the exception than the rule. My girlfriends all had powerful careers but no boyfriends, leaving both Solomon and me without daily playmates. When the two of us strolled through the park, kids were everywhere, but I was the rare black woman with a black child. A nanny clique definitely existed, and, from the clipped West Indian whispers and occasional terse nod offered in response to my eager smile, it seemed clear that my Graco stroller did not fit in with their clients' tony Bugaboos.

For three weeks, Solomon cried when I left him at day care. The fourth, his cries subsided to moans, but after we came back from a vacation, he hated day care even more.

I worried some, but I knew that any kid who has been home with his mother his first year would be distressed when abandoned to share toys with nine other droolers and a couple of strange adults. Plus, for me, something unexpected had happened: Solomon's 11 hours a week of day care had become joy served on a chocolate platter.

Uncertain at first, I'd squandered my freedom with the likes of grocery shopping and cleaning. But soon I began planning a new business, scheduling networking lunches and even working out. Driving to an appointment, I'd look in my rear-view mirror to check on Solomon in his car seat -- and be surprised to find myself alone, in daylight hours, for the first time in a year. I was free!

The second month, I noticed my normally happy-go-lucky child never smiled or laughed at day care. Arriving early one afternoon, I secretly watched Solomon toy with a yellow school bus in the middle of the room, then push it aside with a burst of tears.

Terrified, I went to my husband. "Solomon's depressed."

Ayo stopped checking his e-mail and looked at me. A Nigerian immigrant who finally achieved U.S. citizenship after two decades, he is rarely bothered by things that make me fret. Although he wants the best for Solomon, a sad moment at day care is less of a crisis than, say, deportation.

"He's 15 months old. He is not depressed," Ayo said.

"Call it what you want," I said, "but he's not happy. What's the point of using day care to help him verbalize when all he wants to do is slit his wrists?"

Ayo glared at me.

"You know what I mean," I said.

Eventually, Solomon developed an unyielding cold and an occasional fever. We avoided day care and tried to figure out our next steps. I didn't bemoan staying home, despite feeling once more like my brain and Ivy League degree were collecting dust. My mother had stayed home for 14 years. True, I no longer had time to seek investors for my film production company, but at least my son was giggling again. We'd play the keyboard, read, sing; he was bright-eyed and safe. Still, I worried that being with me, a mother who implicitly understood him, meant Solomon wouldn't feel obligated to talk. I needed another option.

"He should be around bigger kids," I said to Ayo after seeing our son squeal with glee around his older cousins one weekend. "There's a bunch of babies there. He's active -- that place is so confining. And those women aren't very stimulating."

Those women evidently didn't find Solomon very stimulating, either. I had kept him home for two weeks before someone called to ask about him. The call came on the day the check was due for the next month. We never sent him back.

Ultimately, being housebound with a silent tot did make me go a little bonkers. I picked fights with my husband over small things, such as getting home from work 15 minutes later than he promised. Once, when Solomon woke up prematurely from his afternoon nap, he cried in his crib for more than an hour -- until Ayo returned at the end of his day and rescued him -- while I sipped chamomile tea and surfed celebrity gossip Web sites in another room.

We did find a day-care center full of older kids a few weeks later. It's not in our neighborhood, and I don't think the hallway rug is clean enough, but the staff appears eager, and the activities are fun. Solomon and I have been visiting; he seems to like it. I'll fully breathe a sigh of relief once I know he's adjusted and thriving -- and once he finally says, "Mama."

"Don't worry," my mother says. "Boys are slow." Still, I know the frustration of being unable to express yourself and would never want that for my child. I just pray that as he finds his voice, I can reclaim my own, too.

E-mail: XXfiles@washpost.com


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