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Single parent, extra daycare guilt

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype


A knot starts building in my stomach sometime before 7:00 AM, as I sip coffee at the computer and clean new spam and newsletters from my inbox. My 3-year-old stirs in his bed: I hear the covers slide on to the floor and then the thud of little boy on the hardwood, the patter of small feet running over to me. He smells sweet, like milk and honey, and his hair is damp and stuck to his perfect peach forehead. He climbs on to my lap as he does every morning, leaning into my neck, allowing me to curl my body around his and remember what it felt like three years ago when he was protected, inside me. We’re quiet, as we are every morning, content in our perfect satisfaction with each other’s company.

And suddenly I blink back tears. I’m going to leave him screaming in horror and turmoil in just over an hour from now, and I don’t know whether I can stand it anymore.

Nolan has been in daycare for a month and a half now. I drop him off four days a week, from Monday to Thursday (my angelic mother takes him on Fridays) - and each drop off is an exercise in torture. It starts in the morning, before we leave the house.

“Am I going to Sham’s today?” he asks, big eyes imploring and fearful.

“Not now, in a little while,”I say,”You can play cars there, right? Or maybe play basketball with Thomas?”

“No, no!” the tears have already sprung to his eyes,”I want to stay with you, Mommy.”

I sigh and brace myself for the scene.

The daycare is nice and clean, the kids are friendly. There is French class and yoga and a room full of vibrant, happy children. Nolan clings to my leg, shaking, whimpering. He has to be pried off me physically, and his screams reverberate through the room in anguish as I fight back tears myself.

“I’ll be back in 7 hours!” I say feebly, staggering away,”I love you very much.”

He tries to run after me, squirming with terror in the arms of the kind daycare Director. I know this place is a good place, I know it could be anywhere and he would still struggle. I know, in my heart, that he is fearful that I will go and not come back for weeks. It happens with his Daddy, why shouldn’t it happen with me? For that I feel an extra measure of guilt: my separation from his father is causing a big component of his unmanageable fear.

The daycare team tells me he is fine about ten minutes after I leave, and indeed, when I pick him up at the end of the day he is inevitably playing on the swings with his friends, holding hands with a doe-eyed little girl who has taken him under her sweet wing. But the next morning, it will be the same scene, and I don’t know how to make it better.

If anyone has tips on how to make the day home landing softer, I sure would appreciate it. I leave there every morning blinking back tears, dreading tomorrow’s drop off.

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14 comments so far...

  • make it as short and quick as humanly possible. see if you can hand off at the door so you don;t even have to go inside.

    i know, this is the exact opposite of the impulse to try and comfort… but it does work. whether from giving the seperation less attention and thus significance, or whatever. maybe its just that it gives the drama less chance to get worked up.

    but it does help.

    blue  |  August 8th, 2008 at 12:07 am

  • It’s heartbreaking, I’ve been there…

    I completely agree with a very quick drop off — it seems a bit odd to literally run out the door, but when my kiddo had a hard time the teachers told me the faster the drop off the less the tears.

    Another tip someone had suggested was to try and teach her time on the clock — e.g. mommy will be back when this hand points to 4 or whatever number it is. It took my daughter a bit to get this, but by 3.5 or so, she was pretty good at knowing that yes, mommy always comes at this particular time.

    Hang in there…

    Nataly  |  August 8th, 2008 at 8:34 am

  • I was that kid for years. I can still remember jumping onto my dad’s Fiat Spider and grabbing onto the windshield wipers in order to stop him from leaving–drama, much?

    I don’t remember when it got easier. I do remember enjoying the last set up we had before I started school and I think that was mainly because my best friend was there with me (she’s still my best friend 30 years later). Hopefully Nolan will settle in very soon. I know it is hard.

    Mandee  |  August 8th, 2008 at 9:03 am

  • I really feel for you and have been there. One thing that will help you enormously (if you can do it) is this: Drop him off and scoot out of sight (per usual). 15-20 minutes later, return to peek in the room. He will be fine and you will see it with your own eyes.

    My son started going to daycare at 18 months ( a couple of mornings a week). At 3, we ramped it up to 5 mornings. At various times between about 2 1/2 - 4, we had these episodes. They will come and go. Anytime you need reassurance, do the peeking in the window thing.

    Mary  |  August 8th, 2008 at 9:21 am

  • It gets better, but it can take a while. The short drop off helps a lot, and I found that, when my kids first started care (at 2 1/2 and 6-months-old, last summer) having a “love book” helped my 2 1/2 year old. It was just a little brag-book of snapshots of everyone in our family, and my daughter kept it in her cubby. She also was allowed to bring one stuffed animal with her, so if she was feeling sad or missing me during the day, she would take her stuffy and the photo book and look at the pictures for a few minutes. She only had to do it a few times, but it made a huge difference for her to understand that she could “see” me even if I wasn’t physically there.

    When my youngest went through a super-clingy phase a few months ago, he wasn’t interested in a photo book, but he liked it if I kissed the palm of his hand and asked him to hold on to it and give it back to me at the end of the day. It was like a promise that I’d be back, and it helped him a bit.

    Lylah  |  August 8th, 2008 at 9:33 am

  • It’s rough huh? I know how you feel. With my daughter she goes back and forth with the separation anxiety. Sometimes she can’t wait to get rid of me, then there will be a bout of clingyness and guilt trips. Just hang in there. I know you feel badly, but it’s kid stuff.
    Also, the short and sweet at drop off is a good idea. My daughter is in daycare 50+ hours a week so try not to feel so guilty about 28 hours.

    Miranda  |  August 8th, 2008 at 9:54 am

  • Kristin, have you tried adding up the hours you lose driving Nolan back and forth to daycare (time you aren’t producing actual work), the cost of the gas to do it, plus the cost of the day care, would it provide enough savings to try a “home care” situation like you had with your former nanny, even if for fewer hours?

    Virtual hugs,


    Judie Ashford  |  August 8th, 2008 at 3:13 pm

  • Thanks all. I love the clock idea, and the palm kiss, and the treasure book. And I’m definitely going to try to escape more quickly on Monday morning.

    Judie: the daycare is just down the street, so gas and time is almost nothing. A nanny costs almost double per month — and I really can’t afford it at this point. I wish.

    Kristin D  |  August 8th, 2008 at 10:24 pm

  • Hi Kristin-

    Like everyone, I agree, the drop off sucks!! Here’s another perspective on the concern that you leaving Nolan is reinforcing his fears of abandonment… every time you return at the end of the day to pick him up, you’re reinforcing for him that you will do what you say you’re going to do. I know for me that one of the hardest aspects of parenting is learning how to live with the ‘negative’ experiences my kids will have in their lifetimes, and the role I play in those experiences. Some may say that it’s rationalizing, but given your situation (and the reality for many families. mine too), I think you have to work with what you have. Nolan sounds like he’s very attached to you and loves being with you- and, that because he loves that time together, it’s hard for him to transition into letting go of it… but even if you were with him every single minute of every day, he’d still have to learn how to get along in this world without you. Heartbreaking, but (I think) a part of parenting just as much as giving our kids unconditional love and affection. Hang in there, and know that there are many people out here who appreciate your struggle and understand how hard it is to strike that balance of love and life-reality management!

    Traci  |  August 9th, 2008 at 10:51 am

  • Well, a quick drop off is all fine but if you remember your days of being that age, it was a sinking feeling and as a dad, I can’t imagine leaving my girls knowing what their heart is feeling. So, what do I do? For starters, kids sense the anxiety in you and the stress and they react to that. I let the girls (4 and 1 1/2) walk in on their own carrying their lunch boxes or a stuffed animal or a book. Also, in the event they cry, which the first couple of months they did, I let them walk to a friend and I put their stuff in their cubbie so they can see me. Lastly, with the older girl, it used to be difficult. If I was planning on being there at 7:45, I started going at 7:30, sat down and let her eat her cereal and spend 10 mintes there. I am not the quick drop off advocate.

    Junaid  |  August 9th, 2008 at 6:22 pm

  • I have to agree with Junaid. I believe you need to give kids time. It is because of my very strong childhood memories that I now parent the way I do, including acknowledging and helping my little girl transition during very tough times. I feel very strongly that kids need to know that you are leaving (no sneaking out) and they also need to know that you will be back.

    I have had my 3 year old torn from my arms by her wonderful teacher (because she just wouldn’t let go) and leave her absolutely sobbing, watching me out the window as I’d drive away. She’d get over it very quickly, but I always acknowledged that this was a big deal for her (and me). She never has a difficult time being left with people and so these episodes tell me when she really is having a hard time adjusting.

    My boss was kind enough to actually tell me I could come in late or miss work when she had days like these (He was a GREAT boss)! I actually never took advantage of that offer, but did find that when she spent more quality time with me (I’d make a point to spend a lot of time holding her, playing with her, and giving her my absolute undivided attention) or if she spent more time with her daddy (we were separated at the time), she rarely acted out. She needed security and love, especially since I went back to work full-time after being at home for 2 1/2 years, and since my husband and I were going through a divorce.

    It sounds like little Nolan just needs to have some security within the whirlwind of emotions he is experiencing right now. Maybe some time off work (not so coincidentally, my little girl would get very sick when I first went back to work. It was a sure way to spend an entire day or two with me). Maybe a stable family member to pick him up early a few days a week. If those are not available to you, make peace within yourself about your situation (single mom, on her own, wishing desperately she didn’t have to work). I have found that, when I am having a hard time dealing with what is going on in my life (especially with regard to her father), so does she. However, when I am able to make peace with it, even if at times she is a little sad, then she is at peace as well. Just listen to your heart and you’ll know what to do. God Bless.

    Rose  |  August 11th, 2008 at 3:50 am

  • I know exactly how you feel. It rips your heart right out. I went through this for three years. My daughter went to a great place, Mon-Thursday and cried every single day at drop off.
    In May when it was her last day forever of daycare (she starts school in September), she even cried, an d she’s five.
    I don’t think regular school is going to be any easier either. My oldest daughter never shed a tear at daycare or school, so I think it’s just the child’s personality.

    Marcie  |  August 11th, 2008 at 11:20 am

  • I was in the same boat with my son last year. (I’m a single mom too.) What we did was decide on a routine that was a bit silly and fun. It went like this:

    and three kisses
    high five
    scary face
    three more kisses

    We’d say it together and do the actions. Ben knew after the three kisses, I’d have to go. After a couple days, he actually started looking forward to our goodbye routine.

    It’s so hard! Hang in there!

    Erica  |  August 15th, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  • I wish I had a magic bullet that could make it easier for both of you. Have you tried leaving a picture of you and him with him? He could look at it throughout the day? Or a watch that could be set to beep when you are due to arrive? Sometimes little stuff like that can help.

    If it helps at all, my son did this for at least a year and he was ok. Now he is 6 and cries if I pick him up from afterschool care “too early.” Translation: more than 5 minutes before they close, lol.

    Cheryl  |  February 24th, 2009 at 8:29 am