Today I am finally going to answer the question that gets asked on my blog about once a month:
Am I a bad mother for putting my baby in day care?
YES!!! Day care is HORRIBLE! How DARE YOU!!?? I am calling child services RIGHT NOW!!!
OK. Are we done with that bit? I know we all get emotionally involved in this decision (and pretty much every other decision regarding our children, especially our babies) but let’s try to look at it from a rational perspective.
If you love your baby, and are going out to get a job to support that baby, and are leaving them in the good care of a qualified (and hopefully loving) provider, how the hell can you be a bad mother?
And why do we never, ever, nevernevernevernever hear the question, “Am I a bad father for putting my child in care?” For one thing men don’t worry about this stuff. But for another, men never, ever, nevernevernevernever get attacked or judged for choosing to work while their baby is with someone else. In fact, they are praised for doing the right thing and being the breadwinner for their family.
So yeay, Dads! Good for you. Mom – you’re another story.
There are a lot of voices out there right now and they are very loud. They will tell you that if you truly love your baby you will give up everything to stay home with them. Well you know what? Those voices represent the MINORITY of parents. But because they are so loud (and unfortunately many are in a position of power), we all believe them.
I’m pretty sure that in reality there are far more working moms than those who stay home. And are they running around telling the stay-at-home moms, “You should be out working!!?” No. Because you can’t question the moral superiority of a woman who chooses to stay with her child all the time.
At the same time, some of us would envy those moms, especially in the throes of having to hand over the sweetest bundle we’ve ever seen to another woman to care for him. So we feel guilty and beat ourselves up and suffer over something that’s simply a choice. (That each family should make according to what works for them and let everyone else mind their own damn business.)
Some moms are actually quite a bit happier to work and have a break from parenting. Letting someone else care for their child allows them keep a sense of who they are. Their careers are less interrupted by having children – I’ve even had a few moms get promoted in the time they’ve been with me. And some moms have no choice. It ain’t easy finding and keeping a good job these days, and you gotta hold onto it once you’re there.
So let’s look at the child’s experience in day care. First of all they probably won’t remember a thing before age three. It’s true. I’ve seen kids I cared for through infancy and toddlerhood and they look at me completely blank. No idea they’ve ever seen me before, let alone spent years at my house being changed, fed, played with, and snuggled.
But I’m not bitter.
Just kidding. It’s biological – it’s something called autobiographical memory. I once had a professor ask us to remember the color of our first crib. I swore it was white with blue flowers, I could actually picture them in my mind. Then she said you can’t really remember it, and most people answer white or blue. Well at least I’m typical in my stupidity.
So rather than being scarred for life (and blaming you for putting them in day care for all their problems), your child may not even remember much of the experience in the early years. If they cry for a bit because the provider is doing something else and can’t get to them immediately – they will survive. Crying is OK.
But, people say, that’s going to stunt their brain growth! It’s true this time is crucial for building a foundation, but crying doesn’t cause brain damage. Neglect and abuse do. So if you find quality day care with a loving provider, that foundation will be growing strong. If the baby has to wait for five minutes before getting a little lap time, she’ll really really really be OK.
Now here is the crucial part of child care that doesn’t get a lot of press. Babies are constantly watching and connecting with others and learning about people, and this is the key to the brain-building that everyone is so desperately chasing after. Growing a baby’s brain is about making connections – all those bazillions of neurons being able to form into a whole – and in day care they have a whole bunch of people to learn from. It’s not all about the enrichment that we adults can bestow upon them. It’s about them learning with their peers.
Child care isn’t only about the relationship between the provider and your child. As soon as your baby sees another baby they’re socializing. I have a friend who is doing a fascinating study on how infants actually teach each other, and I see it happening all the time. I could even get into how advanced the twins are, and how quickly they developed, simply because they’ve had each other all along.
I honestly 100% believe that the benefits of this socialization, that comes from being around other infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, are immeasurable. A lot of the parents who bring me their kids mention that as a big motivating factor. People worry, “But will Johnny hit my Janie?” And yes, Janie probably will get hit in child care because children hit. An occasional smack from a 2-year-old isn’t going to cause permanent damage. In fact it’s teaching Janie how to handle herself.
If a child has siblings they’ll get some of this socialization, but it’s a different dynamic (and they’ll definitely get smacked – HARD). At home the siblings all want mommy’s attention and they’re with their brothers and sisters so it’s a completely different dynamic. At child care, they don’t have that emotional investment with their provider. Sure they want her love and attention but they aren’t relying on it quite as much. It’s the first steps toward independence.
As in so many other parts of parenting, those of us raised in the me generation have to step back and look at what’s good for our child, not us. It’s not all about us! This idea that in order to be good parents we should be giving up every part of ourselves and running around attached by the hip to our children is just ridiculous.
To be honest, to be really, brutally, harshly honest? I think it’s better to let them go. Personally it’s been the biggest challenge of my parenting experience, and I’m still far from mastering it. But I know I’ve hurt them more than helped when I’ve held on too hard or for too long.
For the first six months or so, sure, keep them home (if you can swing it). That time is precious for bonding and you won’t get it back and it will – trust me – despite the endless days of crying, nursing, and exploding poops, it WILL go by fast.
But remember this: no one else is mommy. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and no child ever stopped loving their mom because they spent their days with me. They WANT to go home at the end of the day. And after they’re done with me they move on to preschool, and kindergarten, and mom will always be there. I’m just a stop along the way and we make the best of our time together. But it’s mom who holds their hand and wipes their tears and walks them through the rest of their life.