Reminders of my daycare days: A wicker basket holding plastic building blocks rests on my living room floor, next to a stack of children’s books and a big old teddy bear. Little Marshall, the firefighting Paw Patrol dog, sits in his rig parked on my TV stand.
Sippy cups hide somewhere in my modest apartment. I am sure of it. They can’t just disappear of their own accord, can they?
How do you explain random solitary socks and small shoes, left to their own devices?
Whenever I head out to my old, cold Camry, well, the steering wheel has three small bite marks on it.
These are among the remnants, the artifacts of my time as a less glamorous Mary Poppins.
During a time filled with uncertainty, contagion, confusion, delusion, misinformation and misanthropy, I, of all people, found footing for a bit by looking after three toddlers. I was Danahey Daycare sans LLC. In fact, this was strictly nonprofit.
See, my bubble during this oft-deadly debacle in which we find ourselves has been either staying home alone or hanging at Best Fest Buddy Tom’s. Until recently, he basically had been raising his three grandchildren there, mostly by himself, since spring.
Grandparents raising grandchildren. It’s a long, sad story, and one with about 3 million versions in this country.
Then, about two-and-a-half weeks ago the baby daddy took the kids for what Tom thought would be just the weekend. Come Sunday night, baby daddy didn’t drop off the kids. Tom texted, only to learn his services would longer be required.
At least for now, the grandkids live with their dad, daddy’s new girlfriend and daddy’s girlfriend’s dog. Tom still has baby daddy’s dog.
The mom – who is Tom’s daughter – is living with her new boyfriend somewhere else. Apparently she’s ok with the arrangement.
It’s 2020/2021, so it’s convoluted, complicated, confounding and at least one or two other C words.
My role in the drama: Prior to the little trio entering daycare in August, for maybe 12 weeks I became the daycare provider most weekday afternoons. Past that, on other occasions I served as the world’s oldest au pair.
I also dine(d) with Tom, his brother and the grandkids many if not most nights. That’s been my aforementioned corona-bubble.
I don’t remember the exact details of how I wound up Manny Nanny. For a 5-year-old girl, a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old boy, no less. Most likely I volunteered, given my state of sort-of-retirement. See, there’s not as big of a demand for writers my age during a pandemic as you might think.
Tom might have asked me to watch the kids, per him being left in a bind and having to head into his workplace. I’m not exactly sure of the details as to why the mom and the baby daddy couldn’t or wouldn’t look after their own children. It took a bit of time to get the kids into an actual daycare center.
As they say on Letterkenny, when a friend asks for help, you help them. Next thing I know, one week watching toddlers turned into more than three months, and my weekdays had a routine.
A routine turned out to be a good thing to have during a pandemic. It kept me focused and out of a rut. My days had purpose beyond just masking up to buy food or checking online want ads.
Plus, being a writer I sit on my ass way too much. Daycare turned out to be good exercise. As someone who doesn’t have kids, at the very least the experience provided a glimpse at the parenting experience.
Being Pre K Daycare Dude could be exasperating. There were way more laughs, amusement and bemusement along the way than frustrations.
Maybe there are some revelations among my recollections, some incite from the sight gags. Time will tell.
Maybe somebody will read this and offer me big bucks to babysit their kids. Or not.
Whatever the case, writing this gives me something to do during this frigid weather.
Think of each segment here background material for episodes for a yet-to-be made Netflix series. Alas, these adventures contain neither spaceships nor a sexy chess player.
My apartment became a kiddie day spa
Given the current arctic blast, let’s start this scrapbook by returning to summer.
To help the kids beat the heat, I bought attachments for the garden hose. My landlord provided a small wading pool.
That worked well, until the time or two when the 5-year-old went full-on diva, decided she was bored and took off down the block. Pleading with her to get back where she should be was not pretty – especially with two other tykes heading in various directions.
One rainy afternoon I came up with an alternative.The kids could play in the bathtub.
As long as the water ran not-too-hot or not-too-cold, they were happy.
A friend had mailed me a godsend: A bucket of plastic, magnetic fish replete with nets and small fishing poles helped in the tub. I could sit in a recliner not far from the bathroom door and in air conditioning to keep a cool eye on things.
Well, one time, the water leaked into the downstairs dwelling. Oops. Just once, though. I also wound having to hide soap and shampoo from the scene to prevent slippery messes.
On another occasion, the 2-year-old climbed into the bathroom sink. Yes. He fit himself in the sink. And he turned on the water. The boy grew fascinated with plumbing fixtures. He also enjoyed flushing the toilet for no reason at all.
He and his brother also liked to climb into cardboard boxes. Any place adults can’t be, right?
After playing in the tub, the trio sometimes made blanket forts; built things with blocks; looked at picture books graciously given to me by a neighbor; colored in abstract expressionist ways; or bounced on an inflatable mattress.
I made the kids eat their snacks in the kitchen. They’d frequently rifle through my refrigerator. The tourist attraction magnets attached to the fridge will never be the same. I will probably find Cheerios in unusual places years from now, too. If I never see a chicken nugget/ring/finger/toe it will be too soon.
More than a daycare center, my place became a kiddie day spa.
Making like St. Christopher, but not a medalist
Most summer days, though, we’d head from Tom’s house to the nearby park.
On more than one occasion their mom left me with at least one of the tots wearing nothing but a dirty diaper. So first things first. I needed to find clothes, shoes and even duct tape once, when the adhesive on the one remaining diaper gave out.
Tasks accomplished, herding three toddlers into a wagon involved NASA-like logistics. Snacks, water and blankets must be secured. Don’t forget diapers and wipes. Seriously, that’s the worst thing you can do.
Then the eldest often had to decide if she wanted to ride her bike, the Frozen-themed one with the training wheels. Next came negotiating where everyone sat.
Let’s just go. Let’s just go. Let’s just go! Just like Queen Elsa.
Surprisingly, all the above typically was settled in no more than an hour or so.
Next was the button for the crosswalk light to negotiate. Who got to press that? What arguments came of it? Would anyone fall into traffic? Who would get yelled at for almost getting us killed by a distracted driver who couldn’t spot a stocky 6-feet-tall old guy pulling three kids in a wagon?
Once at the park, more decisions had to be made.
Would they play on the stage? Making sure no one decided it might be fun to try to jump off kept my heart rate in or above the target zone.
Would they crawl on the Korean War era cannon next to the stage? Would I have to scold the two-year-old not to taste parts of the cannon?
Would they roll up and down hills? Or would they push each other down the hill?
With the playground off limits most of the summer per the pandemic, another option was to head to the baseball field to run around in the dirt.
We had races there, putting our own words to Queen’s arena rock song for encouragement. We love. We love. Izzy. We love. We love JT. We love. We love. Lily.
Sometimes we walked a mile or so over to the local for some socially distanced outdoor dining. Chicken tenders, of course. The choice of children all around the planet. Water and iced tea to wet our whistles.
Once or twice it rained, and grandpa Tom picked us up on his way home from work. Another time he met us for some grub, outdoor dining at the pub.
These kids loved shoulder rides, too, which gave them an opportunity to grab various parts of my face. So much for the modeling career.
Unlike St. Christopher, I didn’t carry any on the tots across the river. We did throw small stones in a creek and looked for small fish and ducks, though.
Speaking of water, porto-Johns held way too much interest for these toddlers, as did the accompanying porto-sinks. I’m afraid of these contraptions as it is, much less having to worry a 2-year-old might decide to go mining down into the mire.
Rainy daycare dance parties and YouTube mind control
For rainy daycare days, what kid doesn’t like to bust a move, while potentially breaking furniture even?
Who knew kids would like Lady Gaga videos – more than Madonna ones, but not as much as the Gummy Bear song or the toddler earworm of the decade, Baby Shark.
Along with our own steps, we even made up a Weird Al-like parody song from this – Papa Don’t Poop, as a tribute to Tom.
Dance parties were definitely preferable to what kids have become hypnotized by online, namely Paw Patrol and any number of annoying, consumerist YouTube famous kids and families.
Paw Patrol is a weird, seemingly innocuous cartoon about dogs who have jobs as public safety and public works employees in a town run by humans. However, upon exposure, kids almost immediately begin chanting, “Paw Patrol. Paw Patrol. Paw Patrol” and demanding you purchase every piece of Paw Patrol merchandise.
The YouTube famous are worse. These online stars live banal lives that seem so soothing and benign to young kids. And that’s fine. What’s not is most are really just pushing unattainable lifestyles where everybody always gets along, mommy and daddy are always home. Nobody needs money for anything because, as YouTube stars, they get everything for free to become walking advertisements for brands on display.
YouTube and Paw Patrol are why I spent as much time as possible keeping the kids outdoors and/or away from TVs.
For daycare fields trips, on a few occasions I drove the kids to Lords Park in Elgin, which has a small zoo.
Deep down I’m hoping one of the toddlers grows up to become a Nobel Prize-winning author who can come up with a first line to match this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Or maybe one of the trio will set their sites just a tad lower and go for the Pulitzer, a la Frank McCourt recalling his Irish childhood.
Something like that.
In my aim toward literary inspiration, I brought the kids to see bison for their first time.
Sure, their parents couldn’t afford to pay me for my daycare services. Never really offered. Never even said thanks. But somehow, just prior to their breakup, the mommy and daddy had found a way to take the kids to Disney World. Don’t ask me to explain.
Given that, I thought the youngster might already be too jaded to visit a place with but a smattering of deer, a few elk and three seemingly lonely bison. I knew in advance the bison wouldn’t give a crap about more kids staring at them.
Speaking of, bison make big poops. Almost at big as toddlers. That impressed the tykes.
They also enjoyed a nearby set of playground equipment to explore.
Better yet were walks through the park to a pond holding ducks and geese. Turns out cantankerous, begging waterfowl scare wannabe tough-guy toddler boys. Not their sister, though. Just the boys. And I hope this information comes in handy for her one day, boys being boys and all.
It took at least three trips to the park before the boys accepted the fact the birds have bird brains. The boys finally realized the birds were just mooching for food. Maybe the boys could relate.
The 20 minute trip to Lords Park also came in handy for causing naps. Our last zoo visit happened before Christmas giving us all a chance to scope other parks to visit one day and to see holiday decorations, too.
A sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and wonder
If nothing else, the visits to the zoo and the other things we’d do reinforced one of my favorite things I discovered about taking care of toddlers.
Despite running me ragged, screams to rival banshees and occasional meltdowns, these kids impressed me with their sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and wonder.
Whenever I’d arrive at Tom’s I’d be greeted by the kids with smiles and hugs. When I’d walk over, if they saw me ambling down the road, they’d run to greet me. When I drove over, they’d scurry to my car to open my door.
The 2-year-old went through a phase when he had to take my keys. He always wanted to wear whatever hat was on my head. He also loved to sit in the driver’s seat, which led to the aforementioned bite marks on the steering wheel.
The 4-year-old got to stop over at my house by himself one day, and he found the experience magical. All those books, those blocks, those snacks, just for him!
To think, a good many of us spent way too much of the pandemic bored and griping about not finding anything to our liking on Netflix.
When the trio dropped by my home they all willingly took to doing tasks – opening the front door, putting the key in the lock, even helping do laundry.
I found it fascinating just watching them play: building block houses and hotels; making up dialogue with their toys and their duffies (what they call stuffed animals); intently coloring way outside the lines; sneaking to open drawers and cabinets they should leave alone.
Frequently it was a struggle to get them to clean up after themselves, to deconstruct the blanket forts and to put the plastic blocks back in the basket.
But making up songs about cleaning up would help with that. Or yelling.
Playing daycare games to deal with bad behavior – theirs and mine
As per turning into an old school parent, hey, it happens to the best of us. Not to stereotype, but the Irish aren’t exactly known for Zen-like patience, either.
But that became one of our daycare games.
If I’d catch myself yelling, it would mean I was doing an imitation of Papa Tom. If one of them started yelling, I’d ask if they were imitating me or imitating Tom.
We watched out for each other using curse words. I try hard not to drop too many f bombs a day anyway. Yet, with what’s been happening the last year or so, how can you not frequently resort to the traditional Gaelic, “Fer feck’s sake”?
However, it became jarring to hear a toddler pair an f bomb with b**** (That’s how my voice-to-text types it). So we would fine each other imaginary money for saying bad words. Which is sort of how Bitcoin works, isn’t it?
Since kids believe in Santa Claus, I thought up another imaginary all-knowing authority figure. On occasion I’d call a buddy who lives in Austin, Texas. He played along as Officer Steve, who would make sure they were behaving and wish them a good day.
I also stole some shtick from Harry Potter. If anybody did anything good or cool, they received points. Points could be taken away. On a whim. Again, like Bitcoin. Now these kids can become online day traders.
We’d also see who would be the first to say hello to people we’d pass along the way on our covid-19 safe-distanced walks. If I didn’t say hello, the 5-year-old and the 4-year-old would remind me to do so.
The trio liked to grab my phone to look at toys they wanted, watch shows they like, look at photos and to take photos then look at photos of themselves, because that is life in the selfie-involved 21st Century.
In early fall, I took some pictures of weird demonic baby dolls for sale at a Halloween shop. Somehow, those became a favorite set of photos for the tots to request. It also led to a catchphrase – scary babies – which was whispered in sinister tones.
That can’t be that bad, right? I mean, we all survived Grimm’s Fairy Tales and look how normal we all are.
Handy tips for other daycare providers
Along the way I picked up some handy tips to share with other daycare service providers.
For instance, no matter what kind of cup you give a kid or have yourself, somehow at some point during the day somebody will spill something.
At some point during your de facto daycare adventures, if there is a dog in the picture, the dog will at least try to eat a diaper. The dog also will bolt down the block any chance it gets. It’s not your fault. It’s just how things are.
Tablets and smartphones are the electronic daycare providers for kids today, much like TV was to past generations. Eventually you will give in to this. Just don’t do it too much. If worse comes to worst, it’s ok to turn the damn devices off when they kids aren’t looking and to say they are broke, right?
Those devices were necessary for at-home learning. A few times I had to set up the 5-year-old for her kindergarten gym class via Zoom in the kitchen and trying to keep her feuding brothers occupied and quiet in the other room. That gave me a newfound respect for teachers and parents who work at home. It’s a humbling experience to have teachers virtually in your home as toddlers do toddler things.
Closets make good spaces for timeout. Experts might tell you to leave the light on, but if you have big closets and curious kids they’ll just start playing with your tax returns, holiday decorations or dress shirts. Dark for 30 seconds or less gets the message across..
There is a trick to getting kids to nap and I have yet to learn it. If you know it, please share.
Building blocks are great but can kill you. On more than one occasion this happened to me. That includes an afternoon where I almost fell off a balcony. Hey, the balcony has a high railing and it was a nice fall day. Fall being the operative word. Either way, why does it seem a neighbor’s always there to witness cure-word-laden foibles?
Most of all, be honest about losing your temper and making mistakes. If you want kids to say they’re sorry and to forgive, the best way to teach is by example. Who wants to be perfect anyway?
Finally, at the end of the day, always say goodnight and I love you. Group hugs are nice, too.
Cripes, I’ve turned into Barney, whose show Tom put that on to get the kids to sleep sometimes.
I tried to come up with something clever about feeling like a dinosaur but not quite ready to head back to the La Brea Tar Pits. Turns out the pits hold nary a dino, but scientists have found the occasional Ice Age bison.
That’s somehow fitting enough.