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Of course I feel guilty about sending my daughter back to nursery – but it’s the right thing to do

Thais Portilho
Little boy playing mathematics wooden toy at nursery: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Since the coronavirus crisis started, I have been anxious, paranoid and scared. I have always been known by friends and colleagues as a bit of a hypochondriac and a germophobe. Which means in the current climate, anything that comes through the door from the outside gets bathed in anti-bacterial gel or disinfectant wipes. I always wear a mask outside. My hands are raw from all the washing. And if anyone had asked me only three weeks ago if I would send my two-year-old daughter back to nursery from June, my reply would have been something along the lines of “Are you out of your mind?” or probably worse.

However, my husband and I, when prompted earlier this week by the nursery – which intends to reopen in June – decided to claim back Penny’s place.

It was not an easy decision for me, but three things played a huge part in my change of heart: Penny’s development; our fatigue; and the nursery’s extensive list of new policies to ensure social distancing is observed. The building is clean and well-ventilated, staff are tested and screened regularly and there is minimal contact between all adults involved. They are also reducing the number of (symptom free) children who can return, keeping them in small groups with one member of staff, and enforcing social distancing for parents at drop off and pick up.

I love spending time with Penny – she’s beautiful, clever, witty, strong-willed and very funny. She throws the odd tantrum here and there, but then, so do I. She turns three in July and up until March she was doing incredibly well at nursery, progressing on potty training, using cutlery like a big girl and generally sailing through the transition from baby to little girl.

But a few weeks into lockdown and the discipline to ask to go potty started waning, the fork has been left aside in favour of fingers, and sleep has become fractured again. She has become increasingly clingy and walks around the house going “waah, waah, I’m a baby” for five to 10 minutes non-stop at times. As an only child, she understandably needs constant attention, and has no one else but us to play with.

If being away from friends and family is hard for us grown-ups, imagine being a two-year-old who is suddenly told she cannot have cuddles with the grandparents anymore or play with her little friends at nursery or at the playground. We sometimes wonder if she thinks she has done something wrong and this is her punishment, so we try to explain what is happening in ways that she can understand. The truth is, we have been increasingly worried about her emotional wellbeing and social development and desperate for her to return to some normality.

Then there is the fatigue. I have always been fascinated by something called the Banach-Tarski paradox. Basically, some mathematicians once figured out that if you cut up a sphere into pieces and reassemble those pieces in the right way you can make two spheres which are identical to the original one.

The 24 hours of the day are our sphere. Between a full-time PhD, a part-time job in a PR, public policy and research agency, a collaboration with a group of academics analysing data collected by one of the Covid-19 symptom tracking apps, and the occasional freelance writing gig, I change nappies, play with Duplo superheroes, watch the same episode of Hey, Duggee! 15 times, cook special meals, and organise arts and crafts activities. Or sometimes just lounge on the sofa looking at my phone while she plays with her tablet, because I’m only human after all.

My husband works full-time for a California-based tech company, so as well as running Daddy’s “nursery” in the morning, his working hours stretch well into the evening because of the time difference. We do Penny’s bedtime routine together every day, take it in turns to cook dinner for ourselves (or order a takeaway), then watch a film or catch up with stuff on Netflix when he’s done working for the day. We rarely go to bed before midnight. Then sometime between 6.30am and 7am, we start it all over again.

We are privileged and we recognise it – we have work we can do from home and we have a good-sized house and a garden, all of which make the lockdown bearable. Even though the three of us were quite ill at home with suspected Covid-19 for about a month, we have recovered and are also healthy, thankfully. But we do still have to share the daily responsibilities of caring for our daughter and doing our jobs.

I understand the magnitude of this crisis – we do, as a family. We have been following all the rules and recommendations of lockdown with military precision. I am acutely aware of the fact that many people are badly affected and have suffered unimaginable loss. We all know someone who’s lost a loved one to this disease or who has been seriously ill with it.

However, I do believe my daughter’s nursery is acting responsibly. I would not send her back three days a week if I thought they were being too relaxed about it.

Do I feel somewhat guilty about our decision? Yes – but I could write a 1000-word essay about that alone. And Penny needs to see her friends, learn and have fun. We are not the only parents in this situation. I appreciate we are not experiencing hardship – things could be much worse – but we are exhausted. We need respite. We will continue to follow the rules to protect ourselves and others and hope that everyone else can experience respite too, sooner rather than later.

Thais Portilho is a mother, a criminology and computer science PhD student at the University of Leicester, and communications consultant at Public First

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