Potty training. Stranger danger. Cyberbullying. To this list of universal sources of parenting dread, I’ll add one more: saying goodbye to your child’s caregiver.
“C” has taken care of my now-5-year-old son for at least a few hours almost every week since he was 3 years old. For the past two summers, she has more or less been his “camp.” Until recently, she was a grad student, but — unfortunately for us — not the kind who would be working on her Ph.D. for years and years. As this summer waned, a gnawing ache began to form in the pit of my stomach. I’d have to figure out what to do — and more importantly, what to say to my son — now that C planned to leave us for a full-time job as a mental health counselor.
I am a single mom, so I always need someone to look after my child while I’m working or running errands. Enter C, whose quiet but warm personality easily won her the job. Not that my son was necessarily happy about her showing up in our lives. It took a good three months for him to stop running and hiding (and not in a playful way) whenever C arrived at our door. There was a very long period of his greeting her at the door and then deciding immediately that he “wanted to be alone.” C would sit down in a corner out of sight and read a book quietly until my son was ready for her. Without fail, he would yell for her to come and find him 20 minutes later, which she did in the best way possible.
She first won him over by telling him that the two of them could go on magical “journeys” together. (How she managed to convince him that their travels from the living room to the tiny hallway of our one-bedroom apartment constituted a journey, I’ll never know.) But their imaginations took them everywhere: the deserts of ancient Egypt, a faraway land of dragons and even a farm where a brown blanket served as mud and they splashed around like piglets. For the longest time, my son would ask to go on a journey whenever she arrived. Anyone not named C was forbidden to come along.
That’s what makes her imminent departure so tough. When the caregiver-child relationship is right, it’s like any good relationship. It’s the two of them in their own little world. The ideal caregiver gets to see every version of your child: One day, it’s the child with an unstoppable imagination who wants to show off his lava-fighting superpowers; the next, it’s the quiet, introspective child who wants to sit down and read eight books in a row.
At the same time, she’s often the person who’s around to cope with the myriad emotions that come with growing up.
“We’ve been talking a lot about feelings today,” C has told me on more than one occasion when I return home.
She has taken on complex topics from “What do rainbow flags mean?” (C: That everyone can love whomever they want) to “What do dads really do?” (C: The same things mommies do). My son’s father is not in his life, so C is always very careful not to mention whenever she sees her father. She’s always been sensitive to issues she knows may raise some uncomfortable feelings.
So, of course, I cornered her in one of the brief moments my son wasn’t attached to her hip and asked her how she thought we should tell him she wouldn’t be taking care of him anymore. Very calmly, she suggested that we simply say that she would be changing her schedule just like he would when he started kindergarten. I agreed, that made sense. The feeling in my stomach turned ever so slightly from dread to anxious anticipation as I planned the conversation.
Perhaps I needn’t have worried quite so much. While my son and I were sitting at dinner one night, I did as C and I had decided and just came out with the truth. No sugarcoating. No lengthy explanations. When I asked him if he understood that we wouldn’t see C very much anymore, he simply said “Yes” matter of factly.
Even so, I thought it would be best to ease him into the loss. Luckily, C would still be available to watch my son for a few hours on Sundays for another month or so. After that? Well, I guess she will just have to be his friend. The friend that texts videos and shows up at his birthday parties not to work but just for fun, which she has always done.
In a way, my son has already moved on to being “friends” with C. Just a few days after our conversation about her leaving, he said out of the blue, “I guess I’ll have another babysitter someday.”
Right then, my anxiety turned to something close to joy. My son recognized that change is to be expected. All I can do now is give him the space to handle the loss and prepare for the next caregiver to enter his life, which will likely become all the richer for it.