I guess it doesn't help that the hubbie and I completely changed our minds about what type of childcare we were looking for. We had always thought that we wanted to send our little girl to nursery from 7 months because she'd benefit from being around other babies and for having some structure to her day. We visited 5 nurseries which I had chose from the OFSTED website (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/oxcare_providers/list) based on location and on their latest OFSTED reports. None of them wowed us. They were fine, nothing more, nothing less and I failed to get excited about them. Back in July/August we put our names down on two waiting lists and sat back to do just that.... wait.
During the summer, my path crossed that of a local childminder (I happened to offer her some stuff to through Freegle); she was a lovely woman with an OFSTED grade of 'outstanding' who, despite not having any vacancies, invited me round for a cuppa to tell me all about the benefits of using a childminder. In that one afternoon, I was a convert. I felt I could have left Lara with her there and then!
In October, I started trying to find a childminder of a similar calibre to the first lady I had met. Its hard to find out a childminder's current OFSTED grading without first contacting them. Childminders aren't listed by name on the OFSTED website, only by their registration number. The information that each childminder publishes about themselves in the material that local councils or vacancy websites provide is often vague and rarely includes their OFSTED number. For me, I decided the best approach was to contact them, decide whether I liked them, and then to go back and find out whether OFSTED agreed. Most of the women I met were graded 'good'. Not surprisingly, the 'outstanding' childminders rarely have vacancies... and when they do, they go extremely quickly.
I suspect I had been a little bit spoiled by meeting such a well-respected, accomplished childminder at the beginning of my journey because many of the childminders I have since been on to meet have been so far away from my ideal that it gives me the shivers just thinking about it...
- … the geezer mum whose teenage daughter and granddaughter lounged on the sofa all day with the kids in front of TV (I didn't spot a single book in the house).
- … the woman in the hand-knitted cardi and crimpline trousers, sent from GOD who expressed no interest in my daughter, and seemed more interested in reminding me how unfortunate she was to be a single mum.
- … the desperate woman whose house was a building site (and it didn't look like the DIY would be complete any time soon) who had a huuuuuge dog who was able to jump as high as me!
- … the ancient woman whose house was packed full of delicate ornaments, was heated to at least 40 degrees centigrade and into whose living room was squeezed the largest TV I've ever set eyes on (actually, that's probably what was heating the house up, come to think of it).
In total, I contacted 41 different childminders in two different regions (close to work vs. close to home). I visited 10 of them. After eliminating all of the women who couldn't do the days or hours I needed, and rejecting any who were clearly round the bend; I finally found the woman I KNEW deep down was right for my little girl. I think you just KNOW the minute you meet someone, or step into a premises, be it a nursery or someone else's house, that this is it... the one you've been looking for.
The childminder I chose, couldn't work on a Friday. It was regrettable, but I figured that if I had found the right person, then I could explore other options for that one day a week even though I really really didn't want to get involved with the complications of family members babysitting. I still had one lady to visit so didn't sign on the dotted line there and then (although from previous experiences where I had got home from a visit to find an email saying the place had now been taken, I had been sorely tempted). That weekend I received a panicked call from the childminder saying she didn't think she could take the job; that she was struggling with the school run and didn't think that she'd be able to cope with a small baby in tow. I was gutted. I got very emotional. Then I chilled out; after all, there's no point in sending your child to a minder who can't keep them safe 100% of the time, or who can't offer them all the attention they need.
Co-incidentally, the same day, I was offered a place at one of the two nurseries I had signed up to way back in the summer. The place they offered me was for the wrong days of the week and they seemed a bit taken aback when I turned them down, saying I couldn't and wouldn't change the one day of the week that I take off work. Bonkers.
By this point I was getting a bit desperate. Thoughts did cross my mind about postponing my return to work. I stuck it out though and visited the last childminder on my list - she was also lovely, but also couldn't work all of the days that I needed. She proposed a job share... and do you know who she suggested she could do it with? Yup, the lady I had previously set my heart on. The two ladies live very close and had been chatting at the school gates. Between them they worked out that they could provide me all the days I was looking for and that at two days per week each, neither of them would get too stressed with having to handle a small baby as well as their other children.
So that's it, I've got an arrangement for the new year which works out wonderfully. My little girl will spend two days a week with two different childminders from two very different backgrounds; she'll get to mix with two different families, two different groups of children, two different approaches to childminding. And the best thing (and I know this sounds silly of me) - neither childminder gets to spend more days of the week with my little girl than I do! Genius.
The lessons I've learned on my travels? Start early, explore all your options, choose what's right for you, and keep at it – something will come along eventually. Also, don't be distracted by the OFSTED ratings, they aren't always up to date and can't give you a good idea of whether the childminder or nursery is right for you – nothing can compare to meeting a person face-to-face. I've checked both of my ladies out since signing my contracts just to make sure that OFSTED generally agree with my judgement, and I'm happy that there are no niggly things they noticed that I didn't pick up on. I'll update you in the new year with how things go.
If you're on the hunt for childcare yourself, the best place to start is your local authority childrens information centre who should be able to provide you with a list of child carers who may or may not have vacancies. You can also try http://www.findababysitter.com/ or http://www.childcare.co.uk/ .