Mary Poppins of the North is pseudo-mom par excellence

Her commitment to her children is one of Debbie Sitzer’s most endearing qualities. When I first met Deb, she was on the down side of working as a comptroller for corporate Canada. An accountant by profession, Deb had survived corporate mergers (which are an accounting nightmare), corporate downsizings, corporate renegotiations. She and her commuter husband were living life on THE SCHEDULE. Get the kid (then, later, kids) up and out the door and be gassed up and through Timmies and on the highway by 7 am or it’ll take an hour longer to get there.

Because she was “high up”, Deb was also expected to be there for the late meetings, the negotiation of tactics, the extra stuff that high-end corporate Canada expects. Aware of and determined to break through the “glass ceiling” Deb knew that her key partner in her life was her day care provider.

She didn’t select Margaret Richard lightly. Armed with a list of questions, Deb put her potential providers through a gruelling interview session… she asked about discipline, she looked into cupboards, she interviewed other parents, she examined scheduling. And she found Margaret, the woman she calls Mary Poppins of the North, in the south end, Ardagh Rd/Essa Rd area.

“Margaret was the only person who answered my questions with common sense and was comfortable when asked to explain why she did what she did. She was not defensive,” says Deb.

“Every time I read in the paper about how something horrible has gone on in a day care, I thank God I don’t have that worry. There isn’t a doubt in my mind. Thank God I have Margaret.”

As Deb talked about Margaret this week, she described the secondary primary person in her daughters’ lives. They’ve known no one else but Margaret. When Deb and her husband were late returning from Toronto, Margaret or one of her employees would take Deb’s daughter home, feed her, get her ready for bed, and be there until her Mom and Dad walked in the door.

“She gave me the time to have quality time with my kids,” said Deb.

When Deb was expecting her second child, Margaret agreed to hold two day care spots open for 10 months so she could accommodate both children when Deb returned to work. And when corporate Canada decided not to renew Deb’s work contract, Margaret didn’t whine about losing two day care spots… she took both Deb’s kids so she could take some courses, think about self employment as an accountant, write her business plan and move into being self employed.

Margaret was a similar kind of “rock” for her other families. She was flexible. She was committed to the kids. She was regimented. She involved the children in learning how to relate to each other and care for those younger than themselves. A five year old will “read” books to a toddler. The kids are all learning sign language. They’re all learning basic French. They have workbooks that teach letters and numbers. Margaret runs constant information funnels between kids and parents, with ongoing discussions about issues like thumb sucking, nursery school, children’s preferences for one activity (like dramatic play) over another (like art).

Using her two employees, Margaret made sure each group of kids got outdoor time every day, whether it was play in the side yard of her home, or a walking jaunt to the playground of a nearby school.

Last week, acting on a complaint from a “former” employee, the Ministry of Community and Social Services shut down Mary Poppins of the North. [incidentally, this is not what Margaret calls her Day Care] Her 3400 square foot home, with three levels and four bathrooms, does not comply with ministry guidelines for day care. She is allowed to care for five children. No more… unless she adds four bathrooms to her lowest level, increases the amount of glass to so many square centimetres per child, adds back yard to side yard equipment, changes kitchen facilities to resemble those of an institution.

In short, the ministry, acting on the complaint of one person, has stopped the second-most-intimate experience a child has.

Now we all know that government guidelines are there for a reason, to protect children from ‘ghetto’ experiences of abuse and ill health.

It’s amazing how the parents of the 15 children that Margaret was caring for have pulled together to deal with this catastrophe. Some have taken early Christmas vacations to deal with the trauma of kids who are accustomed to going to Margaret’s and don’t understand that the upstairs bathroom isn’t good enough anymore. People are trying to scamper to find good day care spots. They’re investigating Montessori and Waldorf, but struggling with what happens after school while they’re still at a desk in downtown Toronto.

Those, like Deb, who are self employed are juggling schedules with each other. One fellow will keep his son home for a morning, so another can send hers so she can do a client meeting. Another set of parents are trading off taking their kids to work. Others are negotiating with Margaret to provide care for Saturdays and Thursday nights so they can change their work schedule to accommodate this. They’re coordinating with south end nursery and private schools, driving kids in a haphazard fashion back and forth. The kids are now little squares in a rubix cube, shunted from here to there to make up enough part time experiences to fulfill Margaret’s new full time legislation. No more than five.

Margaret’s two employees and three part-time after school teens have lost their jobs.

Parents have lost their rock.

And kids have lost their friends, their stability, their expectations, their comfort, and their Margaret.

I know this is a departure from my usually cheery missives, but I wonder sometimes if we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater… it’s hard to see who’s benefitting from this. Maybe the unhappy former employee.