I visit the toddler’s room first. After seven months of day care drop off trial and error, I’ve discovered that this routine works best. The 3-year-old runs ahead. I follow her into the classroom, hauling two massive tote bags and a squirming 16-month-old.
The toddler waves frantically at her lunch bag. My 3-year-old finds a toy to play with while I locate her sister’s breakfast. I hand the toddler off to *Miss Jane, the teacher, and dig out a container of mini pancakes. I relay the morning’s events: wake-up time, last diaper change, and the most recent meal.
“She didn’t sleep well last night,” I add. “Teething, maybe? I don’t know, but she might be a little cranky this morning.”
The teacher smiles kindly at me. “She’ll be fine, don’t worry. We’ll take good care of her.” And then, “I just love this little girl!” I glance at the teacher, surprised by the statement, made so quickly and easily. My daughter responds by bouncing up and down in her high chair. She makes a kissing noise at Miss Jane. She sends a second kiss to me. I brush her hair out of her eyes, and say nothing.
Miss Jane backpedals. “I’m sorry, is that a weird thing to say? I hope I didn’t offend you.”
I try to speak, but there’s a lump in my throat. I produce what I hope is a reassuring smile. “It’s not a problem.”
I look at my daughter, who has a pancake in each fist and crumbs on her chin. She’s in a fun phase of early toddlerhood, where she’s silly and communicative and the tantrums haven’t really started yet. She has a belly and thighs that squish like soft challah rolls, on which I blow endless raspberries. My heart cramps; my eyes sting. I kiss my baby’s nose and promise that I’ll be home soon. I entertain a brief fantasy about a world where cars and clothes never need replacing and mortgages pay themselves. In that world, we could spend all these days together. I stamp out the sudden urge to grab both my daughters and run. Instead, I do what I have to do: I take my 3-year-old’s hand and walk her to her classroom, then start the long drive into work.
I replay the conversation, over and over. Jealousy isn’t something I feel often, and I don’t like it much. But I can’t seem to shake it. Her teacher loves her? Really? What does that mean for me?
A student knocks on my office door, waking me out of my reverie. She asks me to proofread a scholarship essay. She sits down, and apologizes for interrupting. I wave the apology away, and say that she’s never a bother. I shift a pile of papers to the side and pluck a red pen from the drawer. I start making a few suggestions. Together, we refine the essay. Her eyes widen with joy when she realizes what she has created. I tell her that she is a talented writer.
My student looks at me with gratitude. “Thank you for always helping me, Mrs. Minkowsky. You’re the best. Love you!”
That was all it took. Something clicked; the shift in understanding was almost audible. I thought of all of the kids that I’ve known and cared about during nine years of counseling. The list is long. It takes nothing away from the love most of them have for their families. It means that, while they are in school, my students are in good hands. I know my children are, too. My daughters are safe while I’m working. They are being looked after, fed, and played with. They’re learning. They are happy in day care, and I need to start appreciating that gift.
I sat quietly for a minute, ashamed. I sigh. I should be profoundly grateful, and I had behaved like such a schmuck.
“Your girls are great,” a teacher tells me at pickup, as she helps my 3-year-old into her jacket. “We all just love them here.” My older daughter hugs her teacher goodbye. The toddler waves, and blows a kiss.
I smile this time, and mean it. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”