If you’re a parent heading back to work after having kids, you are not alone. According to a Pew Research Center report, 46% of U.S. households include two full-time working parents, and an additional 17% have a mom working at least part time. That leaves children who need care. According to a U.S. Census Bureau study, 61% of preschool children (under age 5) were in some type of regular child care arrangement, with 25% of those arrangements consisting of organized facilities, including day care centers and preschools.
You’re also not alone in feeling guilty about leaving your kids in child care. It was five years ago, but I still remember the pit in my stomach, the sweaty palms, the feeling that this just wasn’t right. I was crying, my mom was crying, even the dog was whimpering. The only one not crying was my son, blissfully asleep in his crib. Even though I wanted to go back to work and I knew my mom, a retired nurse, would take excellent care of him, I couldn’t shake those feelings of guilt that I was abandoning my child.
Megan Rogers, a parent from Washington, D.C., says she had a rough time adjusting to sending her son to day care for the first time.
“I thought about how I didn’t really know all the individual teachers in his classroom,” she says. “I felt like I was being a bad mom by leaving him more or less with strangers.”
Grace Alexander, a mom from Dallas, had similar feelings. “He would start crying as I left, and I was immediately filled with guilt, fear, anxiety and concern,” she says. “I would go park in a shopping center a half a mile away and call to make sure he was OK.”
The feelings that surround leaving your child can range from anxiety to relief and can include emotions such as fear, sadness, trepidation and guilt, according to Dr. Carly Snyder, a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist and director of Women’s Mental Health at Family Health Associates in New York.
Snyder says parents may find themselves asking questions like:
Will this person make my child happy?
Will she teach my child and help him or her grow and develop as I would?
Will my child be safe and happy in someone else’s care?
Will my child resent me for leaving?
The answer to the last question, Snyder assures, is no, “but it’s still something many are anxious about.”
If you find yourself battling bouts of guilt, here are some helpful steps you can take to alleviate this all too common struggle.
1. Take time choosing the right child care for you
Whether you are leaving your child in the hands of family or non-relatives, make sure you feel confident in your choice by researching your chosen caregiver carefully.
According to Dr. Sharon Somekh, a pediatrician, founder of Raiseology.com and parent of four from Roslyn, New York, having confidence in your caregiver “alleviates a lot of guilt on how your child will fare during your time apart.”
Ask yourself important questions that may include:
Does their caregiving align with your parenting style?
Are they up to date with CPR/first aid training?
Are they vaccinated to your satisfaction?
Are they able to set structure and routine?
Can you communicate well with them?
2. Take steps to prepare yourself for emotions ahead
When it comes time to put your child in another person’s care, intense feelings are bound to come for many reasons. For some, “returning to work is the end of the newborn period and the transition to returning to ‘real life’ as a working parent,” says Snyder, which may bring on feelings of sadness.
Parents should do everything they can to prepare for these intense feelings in advance. Brigida Aversa, co-owner and founder of Tiny Hoppers, an early learning center in Ottawa, Canada, has these suggestions for making the transition to day care a smooth one (and most of these tips can be adapted for whatever type of care you’re using.)
Parents [should] visit the day care with their child a few times before they start. Even just driving by can help you both get used to the environment as well as build anticipation and excitement.
Keep the conversation about day care with your child positive. Get them excited about making friends, playing with new toys and fun activities.
Take the time to know staff, as well. It tends to be easier if you build a relationship with them early on and makes it feel like you’re leaving your child with a friend rather than a stranger.
3. Acknowledge your feelings are normal
Relax. Breathe. Your feelings are absolutely, positively normal. Don’t just take our word for it. Listen to the experts.
“Feelings of guilt amongst working mothers is one of the most common themes I encounter in my practice,” says Somekh.
As parents, we are deeply connected to our children’s emotions. A 2017 study of first-time moms by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that a mom’s brain actually reacts to the sound of an infant crying, making her want to pick up and hold our child. It is no surprise then that leaving your child in someone else’s care might give you a physical reaction.
Aversa says parents as well as children deal with separation anxiety.
“We often see teary eyes from parents dropping off their kids the first few days, and that’s completely fine and expected even,” Aversa says.
4. Try some positive self-talk
It may seem insignificant, but one of the best things you can do to ward off feelings of guilt is to steer clear of negative thinking and focus on the positive.
Colleen Sims, a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) from Portland, Oregon, suggests parents repeat positive affirmations like:
My child is safe and loved and I will see her soon.
I am a good parent.
Taking care of myself allows me to take care of others.
My feelings of guilt are normal. I can let them go.
5. Learn the benefits for you and your child
There are so many ways that it can be healthy and beneficial for both you and your child to spend time apart, and, in turn, spend time with others who can enrich your lives. Here are just a few benefits:
It’s good for both parent and child.
“Parents who do not have a break from their children often feel burned out,” Snyder says.
Not only that but, “kids need to learn how to function away from their parents while still knowing their parents are always there and available if needed.”
You get to nurture your personal and professional self.
For Rogers, pursuing a career she loved and building up her business made her more complete.
“Being a parent is definitely part, but it’s not my sole identity,” she says.
It can benefit a child’s learning and development.
According to a 2000 study from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, high-quality child care (the kind that mirrors parenting, provides a stable relationship and stimulates the child) can enhance a child’s cognitive and linguistic development.
Your child gets a “bonus” nurturer.
Somekh recalls her daughter crying after a babysitter left. This might bring on guilt or resentment for some parents, but Somekh felt the opposite.
“I was so happy that I was leaving my daughter in the care of someone who was obviously showing her so much love and entertaining her in a way that I couldn’t during those hours,” she says.
You have someone else looking out for your child’s well-being.
Alexander suspected speech delays in her child, but it wasn’t until her son’s provider confirmed it that testing was approved. Alexander suspects this was because the provider was seen as “his teacher and not his ‘hysterical mom’.” Alexander credits the speech therapy her son now receives and the stimulation and routine of the school day for his rapid improvement.
6. Seek help
Feelings of guilt, anxiety, sadness and relief are all quite normal. In Aversa’s experience although “nine out of 10 parents will cry in the parking lot the first time, it usually gets more comfortable after a few times.” But if these feelings persist after several weeks, it may be time to turn to a professional.
Snyder suggests when the fear cannot be turned off, you should seek professional help.
“Fearing the ‘what if’ scenario is normal, but we need to be able to compartmentalize these feelings and continue to function, because we cannot be with our kids 24/7, and living with constant fear takes away from the ability to enjoy life,” she says.
Seeing how my children loved being with our child care providers was the reassurance I needed. Last week, I came home to find a short story my son had “written” and illustrated with the help of his babysitter. It was an adventurous tale involving helicopters, a dinosaur and our family. It might not win any literary awards, but it was a reminder to me that my son is being cared for as lovingly as I would care for him and that he occasionally thinks of me (and dinosaurs and helicopters) when I am gone.