It’s one of the first big decisions new parents – especially new parents who work – confront: Who will care for their child while they make a living or go to school or even just run the occasional baby-free errand? It’s also one of the most emotionally fraught. Leave the baby you’ve carried inside you for nine months with someone else? Leave him to spend hours in a daycare, rather than at home? Leave her at home with a stranger?
You’ve read or heard the daycare or nanny horror stories that pop up in the media every once in a while. Some of them are urban myths; some of them, sadly, are not. You don’t want to think about those, and as long as you’re careful, you really won’t have to. You need to gather yourself together and do your research, look carefully, think things through, trust your gut, and make the best decision you can for your child.
If you can, try to stretch out your maternity leave for as long as your employer and your pocketbook will allow. Every extra week of early bonding with your child is a bonus. And start your search for good childcare early so that you can take the time to carefully consider your options before you make a decision.
Rule No. 1: Do not feel guilty. Do not beat yourself up emotionally if you cannot spend every hour of every day with your child. You are hardly alone; in fact, you are in the majority. In the United States today, more than half of mothers with young children work outside the home, up dramatically from the 1970s, when about a third of mothers worked. And while, for some women, the decision to return to their careers after their children are born is a choice – and a perfectly valid one – for many it is an absolute economic necessity. Part of caring for your child is finding a way to support him or her financially, so cut yourself some slack and put all that emotional energy into finding the best care situation for your child.
Rule No. 2: Take pride. There’s no evidence to suggest that children with a stay-at-home mother do better in life than those with mothers who work. And you don’t have to take only our word for it: “No scientific evidence says children are harmed when their mothers work,” the American Academy of Pediatrics says on its Web site. “A child’s development is influenced more by the emotional health of the family, how the family feels about the mother’s working, and the quality of child care. A child who is emotionally well-adjusted, well-loved, and well-cared for will thrive regardless of whether the mother works outside the home.” What’s more, by successfully balancing the demands of parenthood and career, you’re acting as a positive role model for your children – and prompting good behavior in other members of your family as well. “In most families with working mothers, each person plays a more active role in the household,” the AAP contends. “The children tend to look after one another and help in other ways. The father is more likely to help with household chores and child-rearing as well as breadwinning. These positive outcomes are most likely when the working mother feels valued and supported by family, friends, and coworkers.”
Rule 3: Take your time, do your homework. It takes time and energy to finding the best childcare option for your situation – whether it’s a daycare center near your work, a nanny in your home, or a friend or relative who can step in and take over. Start early so you can gather all the information you can to make a conscious, deliberate choice. It’s an important decision, and you shouldn’t rush it.
Rule 4: Involve your partner (if you have one) and resolve conflicts. Make sure that you and your partner are in sync about who will work outside the home, who will do the work inside it, and how your child will be cared for while you are at work. You should talk things through, keep the lines of communication open, try to support each other, and do your best to work together as you parent, work and share household chores. Competition, resentment, unresolved conflicts and discord are no good for marriages – or for kids.
Rule 5: Protect quality time. Make sure that, in the stress of trying to do everything at once, you take time to play with your child, enjoying each other’s company as a family (and as a couple), and even taking a moment here or there for yourself. It can be hard – brutally hard – to be away from your children all day long, or even just for a few hours, as you work. (And yes, it can also be delicious: See “Rule No. 1: Do not feel guilty.”) An hour just stacking blocks on the floor with your child (or reading her a book or taking her to the playground) can reestablish your bond and let your child know that, even though you’re sometimes away, you’re really always there for her. So stop stacking the dishwasher and cleaning up the toys (and making dinner and running the bath and doing the million other household chores you have to do for a while each night) and just splash around in your child’s company for a while.
Rule 6: Know it will be hard. OK, listen. Even when you’ve found your child the best child care situation in the world, even when things are going great at work, and even when you have an incredibly supportive partner and friends and family, leaving your child to someone else’s care all day is an emotional roller coaster. Does your child like your nanny better than you? Are the daycare workers talking to her enough, holding her enough, caring for her warmly enough? Are you treating your sitter right: paying her enough, giving her enough vacation, respecting her boundaries? Will you miss your child’s first words or first steps? Are you committing some primal wrong? Just keep reminding yourself that these feelings are normal, that your child is being well taken care of, that you are making good choices for her.