Leaving Your Little Ones to Go Back to Work

Part three of our Child Care series focuses on the emotional toll parents can feel when they return to work. How do you manage the guilt? How do you balance both of your worlds?

Amanda Ellis-Pelletier, originally of New Boston, is a pediatric critical care physician. She’s also a mom. Working days, nights and sometimes weekends as an attending physician in Chicago, Ellis-Pelletier follows a schedule that sometimes entails 60-hour work weeks and nights away from her two little ones. Her husband’s similarly demanding job as a surgeon has meant the couple has relied on outside child care from early on.

In the four years since her eldest daughter was born, Ellis-Pelletier and her husband have shifted from home day care to a nanny to yet another nanny when they relocated from the city to the suburbs and found themselves expecting once more. She recalls the anxiety she felt leaving her then new baby and toddler in the care of their new nanny.

“I was leaving my girls with a complete stranger basically,” Ellis-Pelletier says. “It was very difficult. I see neglected and abused children all the time in the hospital. I have seen kids who were left with terrible people who did terrible things to them. I’ve had to remind myself that what I see at work is the exception, not the rule.”

Over time, it has gotten easier for Ellis-Pelletier, who relishes the daily text and photo updates about her girls from their nanny, Ana.

“Not a day goes by where she doesn’t send me something about what the girls are doing.”

For working parents the world over, the emotions tied up in leaving their children in the care of another can by myriad and complex.

The fourth trimester

Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist based in Manhattan, has counseled moms for more than 20 years and has also led many workshops for working parents.

“Anyone who is self-aware and reflective gets conflicted about this,” she says of the adjustment to leaving children with an outside caregiver during the workday. “Very few women do it with ease.”

Dorfman says women should acknowledge their seemingly conflicting feelings.

“Women often think ‘I love my child, and I want to be with him or her, but I want to resume working and reconnect with my work self,'” Dorfman says. “These feelings … are not necessarily indicators that one must change her arrangement. It’s a natural part of the process.” Especially early on.

“I tell women there is a fourth trimester. The intensity of the decisions women are often faced with during that time is so great. It’s like asking someone in the midst of an earthquake where they should move. Don’t make long-term decisions during the fourth trimester. So many factors are influencing your thought process, including hormones. Thinking short-term is more palpable.”

Elaine McGhee is a San Diego-based working motherhood coach and the blogger behind ThriveMomma. She is also a working mom of two young girls. She launched her business and website after what she calls her own “hot mess” of returning to work after her first child was born.

“I made all the classic mistakes,” she says. “I remember crying on the freeway regularly on my way to work.”

Preparing for the return

Among McGhee’s tips for new moms facing their return to work and their child’s transition into a new child care arrangement are what she calls the “Three B’s of going back.”

“They are preparing baby, preparing your boss and preparing your brain,” she says. “It’s not easy to go from full-time baby bonding to full-time work. You need to prepare.”

As for preparing baby, McGhee advises moms to leave enough time before their work return to transition their baby to a bottle if he or she isn’t already taking one. If they’re breastfeeding, she urges mothers to begin pumping and freezing a supply of breast milk early in their maternity leave.

She also strongly advises parents to practice their child care arrangement.

“My big mistake was not making a transition into day care,” she recalls of her own experience. “I wanted to maximize my time at home with my baby. So when I went back to work, I went cold turkey.”

Rather than following in her footsteps, McGhee advises women to begin taking their child to day care or having their nanny or other child care provider start as early as two weeks before they start back.

“If it’s day care, go with baby the first day and stay with him or her for just one hour,” she says. “Then the next day, leave the baby for an hour. You don’t have to leave the building necessarily. You can go into another room, or you can leave and go run an errand or get your nails done. The third day, maybe you leave the baby for half a day. The point is to phase it in.”

But first, she advises leaving the house for a few hours now and then without baby.
“Baby and mom are learning a skill. The baby is learning that mommy always comes back. Mom is learning that she’ll survive for a few hours without baby. At the same time, it’s about self-care for mom. She deserves a bit of recharge time away from baby.”

This is a practice reinforced by Jenn Gundersen, center director of Childtime of Commerce Township. On any given day, 110 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 12 years of age are in care at her center. “Visit multiple times before starting your child in day care. I always try to build a relationship with our parents. I encourage them to do the same with their child’s teachers and the front office staff from early on.”

This relationship-building can do much to make parents and staff more comfortable as everyone eases into their new routine, Gundersen says. Childtime offers a free trial where a child can spend a half or whole day at the center before they enroll – or after they enroll but before their official start date.

“Parents can stay in the classroom or leave for a little while,” she says. “It’s up to them.”

Gundersen adds that many parents with new infants make the decision to enroll their child months before the child is to start in day care; sometimes even before the baby is born.

“Come in and spend time in the school with the baby in the classroom and with the teachers,” she advises. “Begin communicating their needs and their schedules. Start building that relationship before your child even starts.”

Preparing grown-ups

Preparing mom for the emotional and logistical changes heading her way as she and baby begin their new normal also means preparing her boss, McGhee says.

“First, you need to know your legal rights. If you plan to breast-feed, you are entitled to pump at work and not just in a bathroom.”

McGhee advises women she coaches to have a conversation with their boss before returning to work about where and when they will express milk. She also advises working moms to work with their employers, so they can return to work mid-week if possible.

“Start back on a Wednesday,” McGhee suggests. “Or work half days your first week back. If you can, gradually transition into your routine.”

McGhee says women need to be prepared for mixed emotions upon their return. This is where her third bit of advice on “preparing your brain” comes into practice. “You won’t feel like yourself when you come back, but everything at work will be the same as it was. You’re different, but work isn’t.”

This realization can be unsettling for women, and to help, McGhee urges working moms to piece together their “tribe.”

“I suggest your tribe include a ‘mom pro friend’ – someone who has been through this herself, has done child care, also has a commute and is managing the working-mom gig,” McGhee notes. “I also urge women to include in their tribe a friend – who isn’t necessarily a mom – but someone whom she can be emotional with.”

Another tip McGhee encourages to help manage it all is practicing mindfulness.

“I’m all about taking care of mom who can then, in turn, take care of baby,” she says.

Simple meditation, McGhee notes, can help reset one’s emotional state of mind.

“Inhale for five seconds, exhale for five seconds and so on for an entire minute,” she advises.

McGhee practices this breathing exercise herself once she gets in the car after leaving her children with their nanny. She does it again before getting out of the car at the end of the day.

“It helps me to stay present,” she explains. “Baby will react to how mom is emotionally. This also allows moms to live in the moment and savor the time they are together at home with their child.” McGhee also encourages parents to put their cell phone away in the cupboard when they get home for truly distraction-free parenting.

“Quality of time spent with your child is way more important than quantity,” she says.

McGhee is on to something. A 2010 study led by researchers from Columbia University and published by the Society for Research and Child Development revealed that, overall, children whose mothers went back to work full-time within their child’s first year of life fared no worse on a series of cognitive tests compared to children of stay-at-home moms when certain factors were in the mix.

Specifically, kids of mothers whose work improved the family income significantly and who arranged high-quality child care did not experience negative impact from their mom’s full-time employment outside the home.

Similarly, moms who remained sensitive to their children’s needs offset any negative cognitive and social development outcomes.

“We look at things like, when the baby picks up something and starts playing with the toy, does the mother respond?” child development specialist and study co-author Jeanne Brooks-Gunn told The New York Times back when the study was released. “And if the child is fussy, does the mother pick up the child and try to soothe the child?

“It’s something one can think about – even if one comes home from work tired or grouchy, and you’re running around trying to get dinner ready – one can think about high responsivity as an offset to the effect of working outside the home.”

Pulling it together

While the science of quality versus quantity may be on their side, many working mothers still struggle with convincing their heart of what their head knows to be true.

“Mothers feel a useless but inevitable feeling of guilt that is there all of the time,” Dorfman acknowledges.

This can be compounded by the fun or milestones mom’s missing while at work.
Working mom Ellis-Pelletier wishes she could be taking her 4-year-old to ballet class.

“I love doing that,” she says. “But our nanny takes her most days. I feel guilty thinking that should be me. I feel that way about school parties too.”

Ellis-Pelletier was scheduled to work on the same day as her daughter’s first ballet recital.

“It can be hard to get someone to cover for me on a Sunday,” she says. “Part of me thought, ‘She’s only 4. She probably won’t even do the routine. I could go to the dress rehearsal and pretend it’s the recital.’ Then part of me thought, ‘No, I know I will feel really bad if I’m not there.’ Fortunately, I was able to work something out, so I could be there. There are just some things that I know it will really bother me to miss.” Luckily, Ellis-Pelletier is reassured to know her nanny is not only capable but adored by her girls.

Dorfman notes that many women she has counseled struggle with the close attachment their children form with their nanny or other caregivers.

“I remind moms that no matter what, they want their child to feel completely loved,” she says. “Kids really do know who their parent is. There is an inevitable bond kids form with their parents even if quantity of time doesn’t define it. A child’s bond with a nanny is an indication of his or her ability to love and attach. That’s a good thing. It’s reflective of the security their parents and their caregiver provide to them.”

Ellis-Pelletier sometimes leaves for work before her girls are up for the day. Though she will have told them the night before about her early departure, they still wake up in tears some mornings when mom is already gone.

“Sadly, that makes me feel a bit better,” she laughs. “I know our nanny is not a replacement for me. I know they’ll always prefer me.”

On the day care front, Gundersen and her team keep parents apprised of their child’s daily doings through an electronic system that details baby’s meals, diaper changes and experiences in the classroom. Teachers also post photos of the kids to the site, which parents can access remotely.

“And parents can call us at any time and be patched through to their child’s teacher,” she adds. “Each classroom has a phone.”

Drop-in visits from parents and grandparents are also encouraged at any time.

“We have an open-door policy,” she says. “Parents can pop in for lunch with their kids. New moms who are nursing can come in and breast-feed their baby.”

And, as Gundersen points out, the reality is that it’s the parents who experience more emotion about leaving their child in day care than the child does.

“Lots of kids put in long days here, but they love it,” she says. “It’s not an issue for them. It’s the parents who feel bad.

“There’s so much excitement and learning that comes with being here. I always say even if a child is crying when a parent leaves, it’s a few seconds of tears followed by smiles and laughter all day.”

Read Parts I and II of our Child Care Series

Discover how the U.S. stacks up to other countries, and our guide to your options.

Illustration by Melanie Demmer


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