Q. My maternity leave is about to end, and I've made plans to send my 3-month-old to daycare. I thought I would be prepared for this, but as the date draws closer, I can't help but feel that my infant will develop a closer attachment to her caregiver than to me. Is there a real reason to be concerned?
A. No! No one can take your place. Moms and dads are special to their children in ways that not a single person can ever replace. By nature, the emotional connection between parent and child is strong. As long as you build a loving bond with your child, by reading and responding to her cues and needs, you will always be number one for hugs and kisses, nose wipes, Band-aid application, and nighttime tuck-ins.
Even so, know that you are not alone in these worries. Many parents who share the care with childcare providers also share the fear of losing the prime place in their child's life. Although it's very common to experience uncomfortable, hard-to-deal-with feelings such as jealousy, competition, and guilt, it's important to be aware of these emotions, because acting on them without thinking can have unintended negative consequences. For example, these reactions can create distance between caregiver and parent or inadvertently place the child in a loyalty conflict where she feels she is betraying her parent when she cares for another adult.
I knew a mom who was limiting contact with her son's caregiver because she was upset over her son's close attachment to this provider. If Mom arrived and found her son playing with his caregiver, she would abruptly pick him up and leave, without giving him time to say goodbye and make the transition back to Mom. She also rarely stopped to chat with her son's caregiver. When she did, the interaction was strained.
This lack of communication had more than one significant downside: Not only did both adults miss out on sharing important information about the child, but the situation also ended up confusing and upsetting her son, who grew anxious when his mother dropped him off and picked him up.
There also may be times when you find yourself questioning your special place in your child's life. You might, for example, find that when you arrive at childcare at the end of the day, your daughter refuses to look at you or clings to her caregiver while communicating through her actions or words, "I want to stay here!"
While this may feel awful, it doesn't mean your daughter loves her caregiver more than you. More likely, your kid is trying to tell you, "I'm having such a good time here. I need a little time to get used to the idea that I have to go, and I need some help saying goodbye."
Keep in mind there are wonderful aspects of sharing the care of your child with others. She learns new and different things from developing close relationships with others. These bonding experiences also help prepare her for a future time when she will have to trust and cooperate with other adults, such as teachers.
Plus, childcare providers also can be wonderful parenting partners. They know a lot about your child. Rather than being threatened by their knowledge, try to see it as a valuable gift. You can share the different ways you each have developed to soothe her; what her likes and dislikes are; how she gets along with the other children, and so forth.
My own child's caregiver offered wisdom from her 20 years of working with infants to help me as I struggled to establish a nap schedule for my 6-month-old daughter. She also offered much-appreciated support and empathy when we both shared stories of what an iron will my daughter displayed in her determination not to nap.
In the end, that strong relationship with my daughter's childcare provider enhanced my relationship with my daughter. Your childcare experience can do the same for you.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.