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One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical

Take my kids, please!

Playtime at City Kids Child Care Centre on Bathurst Street—one of 52 city-run daycares in Toronto, which have a wait list of 15,000

I’m one such parent. At the end of 2010, I returned to Toronto from Berlin with a child on each arm. Having originally moved to Germany on a one-year post-graduate scholarship, I fell prey to Berlin’s powers of seduction and stayed for 12 years. I found wonderful friends, interesting work as a journalist and no reason to leave. Until one morning when a terse email arrived from my partner and the father of my two children, announcing the termination of our relationship. Our youngest son, Liam, was five months old, his brother, Theo, not yet two.

Entscheidungsfreudig—joyful in making decisions—is one thing I am not, and this was to be a particularly joyless chapter in my life. At the time, my ex did not intend to take on much in the way of parental responsibility, so I decided to return to Toronto, where I could rely on family support.

My children and I arrived on my mother’s doorstep on Christmas Eve. I was hoping to be swept away by the merriment of the season, but I found my spirits refusing to soar as we ambled through the snowless streets of my mother’s neighbourhood, Davisville Village, scavenging the carcasses of toys in the park and poking sticks at deflating plastic Santas on people’s front lawns. Thanks to Toronto’s prohibitive real estate market and my mother’s generosity, her home was soon to become our own. My first priority was to find childcare and get back to work, at least part-time.

The nursery school that Theo attended in Berlin was a remnant of the former East Germany, which, following German reunification, had adopted Montessori pedagogy. The hours were 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The children were served a hot lunch and went outside twice a day to play in the yard—a park by Toronto standards, containing an herb garden, berry bushes, climbing rocks, a willow labyrinth, multiple playgrounds and a century-old walnut tree whose nuts the children collected to bake into muffins.

Theo was in a group of 20 children aged 18 months to six years, with two teachers. Within the school-sized building, the kids could migrate between activities, and the director floated around, greeting all 160 children by name and inquiring about their stuffed animals or pets, whose names she also knew. Every day she invited a subset of the older children to have lunch with her in her office.

We paid 86 euros (roughly $105) a month for this. It was our Kita fee, calculated as a percentage of our household income, and would have applied to any public Kita in Berlin. Kita, the short form of Kindertagesstätte, is the program German children attend before school starts at age six (no distinction is made between daycare, nursery school and preschool). Had we been rich, we would have paid the maximum monthly fee of 466 euros ($570). When Theo turned three, our rate would have been reduced to the universal 23 euros ($28) to cover his lunches.

Theo spent a year on the waiting lists of three local Kitas and had been accepted into all of them by the time he was one and a half years old. Among my peers, it wasn’t uncommon to wait that long—with 12 months of paid parental leave in Germany and guaranteed post-leave job security for three years, it was possible to ease back into work gradually.

In Berlin, children arrived at Theo’s Kita on foot, bike or sled depending on the season, accompanied by a parent or grandparent. In Toronto, two of the first English words Theo learned were SUV and nanny. And what I learned as I hit the salted sidewalks of Davisville Village looking for childcare was that making comparisons with our Berlin Kita would only lead to disappointment.