By Sutton Eaves
Leaning over the edge of the sandbox, Mario Estable has been left in charge of digging the moat. While his daughter searches for a flagpole among a pile of twigs, he buries his fingers in the sand, scooping up handfuls and encouraging other children to join in.
“What are we going to call the castle?” he asks a group of four who have been enticed by the growing mound of sand. They fall to their knees and start moulding it with their small hands, patting it into a fantasy fortress.
“Casa Loma!” one child cries.
“That’s a good name,” says Estable. Sand is caked to the knees of his black jeans and in the grooves of his running shoes. Grains fall from his chin when he turns his head to keep an eye on his daughter. The three-year-old runs up to him, stick in hand.
“I want to be a princess!” his daughter decrees, affixing a Timothy’s napkin to the top of her flagpole.
“I want to go to Casa Loma,” says another child. “Me too,” says a second excitedly. Estable asks his daughter if she wants to go to Casa Loma. She nods slowly, her blue eyes wide.
“She’ll go with her mom and dad,” Estable says, pointing to the little girl beside him, “and you’ll go with me.”
Estable is a research scientist and professor of biochemistry at Ryerson, but also a single father. He was training as a postdoctoral fellow at the Rockefeller University in New York when his daughter was born in 1999.
“All my life has changed,” says Estable. “My time is now my time with my daughter. That’s the time for myself. It’s no longer me, it’s us.”
With his daughter, Estable moved from New York last October to establish the first HIV/AIDS research lab at Ryerson. He was attracted to Ryerson for a number of reasons, one of which was the on-campus day care.
“The prospect of being able to pursue my research, teach biochemistry and have my daughter attend the multi-age day care facility became a package deal for me to move … to Toronto,” says Estable, who carries a cellphone on him at all times in case the day care needs to reach him.
The Early Learning Centre’s multi-age program was attractive to Estable, who believed that his only child would benefit from socializing with children of all ages and abilities. “The fact that the Ryerson day care offered this made it a turn-key decision to send her there,” says Estable, who is one of many parents that favour the multi-age structure.
Martha Friendly, coordinator of the child care resource and research unit at the University of Toronto, says that many prefer multi-age programs because they are more similar to real life.
“People who promote multi-age grouping say that it reflects what happens in real families with children across an age range,” says Friendly.
But since Estable’s daughter started at the ELC last fall, some drastic and unexpected changes have left parents scrambling for answers and questioning the future of the day dare.
By next fall, user fees for parents will be hiked by 56 per cent, and the multi-age structure swapped entirely for a more “typical” age segregated program, according to Dale Shipley, the director of early childhood education. The program places its students in the ELC for a one-week placement, making it a lab centre as well as a day-care centre — a major point of debate between the parents who use the day care and the administration that helps fund it.
The decision to phase out children with special needs is especially disconcerting Estable, who says it gave his daughter the opportunity to be tolerant and tender with children less fortunate than she.
“Once my daughter started attending the Ryerson day-care centre, the opportunity for her to interact with children requiring special care also became an extremely important and very very favourable reason to leave her at the Ryerson day care,” says Estable, who also notes that centre “provided excellent care for children with disabilities.”
But with a growing pile of assignments to grade and a research facility to run, Estable can hardly afford to trade the convenience of having his daughter on-campus for a day care that’s across town. He says that they have come to cherish the subway ride home as a way to spend quality time together in a day that goes by all too quickly.
“The experience has been enriching for my daughter, since there are lots of people who will interact with us on the commute and we usually read through a picture book and talk about her day,” says Estable, who is called “Mr. Mom” by his brother Juan.
After a long week, Estable and his daughter like to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario on Friday evenings. Followed by a walk through Chinatown, the two sometimes end up in Little Italy for a bit of supper and for Dad, a glass of wine. Estable sacrifices this time, which for many is an evening spent with friends, to be with his daughter.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been a movie at the theatre that isn’t animation or a Disney movie,” says Estable. “I used to really enjoy dinner at restaurants with a fine bottle of wine and witty conversations with … friends, but all that seems far away.”
Estable admits to never having taken advantage of Ryerson’s evening childcare program before it was cut last December. After running a deficit for two years, the program was chopped in an attempt to recoup some of the lost money. But parents who has previously left their children there for $3 an hour were stuck without a place to care for their children after 5:30 p.m.
While the absence of evening childcare may not have seemed like an inconvenience at the time, Estable was rudely awakened in August when he received his fall timetable.
“One of my classes was scheduled for 5 to 6 p.m. The day care closes at 5:30 p.m. As a result, I had to scramble at the last minute with timetabling to change the class to another day and schedule a double class,” says Estable, who wants to see the program restored. However, the administration has given no indication they will fund evening child care, and assert that they will only fund the ELC as long as it functions primarily as a lab school, not a day care.
The parents who send their children to the ELC are waiting for another meeting with Shipley and other members of the administration in hopes that their frustrations will be heard. The staff at the ELC refuse to comment on the changes and how they will impact the children they care for. Meanwhile, Estable and his daughter live life as usual.
While his students swing sleepily at the snooze button and indulge in a few more hours of sleep, Estable is awake before his daughter reaches his bedroom door, woken by the sound of her tiny feet padding down the hall. At 6 a.m., the two of them are up and debating what to have for breakfast. Lately it’s been pancakes, and she pops them in the toaster and retrieves the syrup from the fridge. Groceries arrive around this time — Grocery Gateway allows Estable to shop online after his daughter has gone to sleep — and in between breakfast and dressing her for school, Estable finds time to dash into the bathroom and clean the sleep out of his eyes.
“The difficulties I face in raising my daughter as single parent, I try and turn into benefits, like making the subway ride into quality time rather than a monotonous commute. It’s all good, it’s all a benefit. I would not trade positions with anyone in the world.”
With files from Karolyn Coorsh