She reached her hands out to me and cried. I walked away and it broke me. They say to make a quick exist. Not to drag it out. Not to show that you are just as upset as they are. They say this will make it easier. I stood outside the door, frozen. I could hear her crying. This is not the type of mum that I am. I parent in the way that feels most natural to me. I have never let my baby cry. I know she needs me. She doesn’t self soothe, she can’t put herself to sleep. I breastfeed, I co-sleep. I know she is learning love and attachment. I respond to her immediately, when she needs me I run. I know these days are numbered. One day she will run from me.
I’m frozen, the first three times I left her at daycare she didn’t cry. I told a friend I wouldn’t be that mum, that if she was upset I wouldn’t leave her. I’d take her. I’m her mother. I am her source of everything – of food, of comfort, of cuddles, of safety. I am her playmate, her best friend. I do not believe a baby can be too attached to its mother. She needs me. And I love that.
I feel so guilty. Simultaneously I look forward to my daughter’s day care days and I dread them. I am truly split. I hear a voice that says – ‘she’ll be little for such a short time, you don’t want to miss this, you might regret working but you wont regret this’. I hear another voice – ‘you need this mumma, you’re working, you’re productive, you have bills to pay, your daughter is friendly, the interaction will be good for her, she wont have separation anxiety, she’s lived in community and been cared for by so many since she was small, she’s not a fussy baby, she’s a happy baby, she’ll thrive’. And then ‘how can you leave her there mumma? It’s just a room full of toys. No one there loves her like you do and she can feel it. These women are there to get paid. They wont lie on the bed and snuggle her to sleep. Their hearts wont bleed if she’s upset. They don’t know her. They don’t know that she loves books, that her favourite pastime is splashing, that going outside calms her, that she likes to feed herself.’ And then, ‘but they will know her soon and the younger you transition her the easier it will be, what are you concerned about? Many babies go to daycare and they are fine’.
I didn’t expect to be so emotional. I’ve been working part time since she was four weeks old. So it’s not like I’ve never left her. Yet when it came to the day it felt different. This was a business, an institution, she’s still very little. I left her in a room of strangers. I started to question whether I actually needed care. Maybe I could be super woman and do it all. I have two friends with babies who work from home. I have no idea how they do it. Maybe their babies sleep more than mine during the day. Maybe their babies are much more chilled, less likely to insist on working with you, typing for you and pulling at the laptop charger. I have tried working and looking after my daughter at the same time. It didn’t work for me, I felt I was failing at both. And that awful little voice makes me feel I’m failing. I should be able to do this, I should be able to manage both.
The day I left her in that room full of strangers the way I felt about work changed. I had really been enjoying work, it was a break from the constant needs of my little one, it made me feel productive and good about myself, it’s been a lifeline in me adjusting to being a mother, an escape. I do something else as well. And all of a sudden it changed. And I didn’t want to leave her. I found myself cuddling her for longer. Not wanting to let go.
Three weeks into care and she’s arrived home with a running nose and a cold. It’s awful to see her sick because she can’t do anything to help herself. She doesn’t know how to blow her nose, she has trouble sucking and feeding, which is her ultimate source of comfort. And it’s my fault. She’s sick because I chose to leave her, because I wanted to go to work. What kind of mother does that?
What surprised me though, was the way I carry the guilt alone. My husband and I co-parent in everything. He has been just as involved as me in every tiny detail of her life. He has spent more time with her than me. Yet early in the morning he is out the door, no deep soul searching about whether he was doing the right thing, no second thoughts, no guilt. He texted me while having a before-work-café-latte and I felt jealous of the freedom he had. I love before-work-coffees but since leaving my daughter I have felt guilty about every moment I am gone. I can’t waste time getting coffee, or chatting to a colleague. That’s precious time away from my her and the voice inside my head says, ‘she may be upset, and you’re drinking coffee, what kind of mother are you?’ Instead I run and don’t waste a second. Constantly a little anxious.
There are lots of reasons we are starting daycare. Our financial reality is that we will both be working parents. But there’s other things too – like that I need a break, that working is good for my confidence, that I’d lose my mind at home with my baby day in, day out, that sometimes I feel I enjoy my time with my daughter more when I’ve had half a day without her, that I desperately need this time. Then the voice says, ‘that’s a bit selfish isn’t it?, it’s all about you’.
And I realised this is what you call mother’s guilt. In fact, I felt so guilty about this that I delayed calling my mum for two weeks because I wasn’t ready to tell her Nala was in care. Two weeks. But as I’ve learnt so far as a mum, it’s not about what others think, there are so many ways to parent, it’s about what works for us, for our family of three. I need to ensure that my daughter is happy, that is my responsibility. But I also need to take responsibility for myself. Because as the mother of the house, the home maker, the wife, I know that if I’m not happy my home wont be happy either.
I thought long and hard about who would care for my daughter. Initially I wanted a nanny – one on one care with someone who genuinely cared for her in our home. I liked the control that gave me, like knowing what food she was eating, and we’re lucky enough to live in South Africa where affording a nanny is very possible. But I felt overwhelmed by the idea of finding that perfect person, of trusting one person completely with my child, of not knowing what was happening after I said goodbye. It felt risky, so I started looking at childcare places. I went up and down looking at places. I finally chose one, not because I loved it, but because I found bigger problems with all the others. Eventually, resorting to the fact that I’d never find the perfect place, that no one’s care would be good enough, I chose somewhere.
Like so many things in motherhood, I feel vastly unequipped to make a decisions about these things. I’ve never studied babies, I just got thrown into their world the day my daughter was born. And I wonder – what does a day feel like for them? Do they understand time? Was it easier for Nala when I left her for 2 hours than half a day? Are two half days easier than a full day? Or is time irrelevant? Is the problem just that they can’t see mumma no matter how short or long mumma’s been gone for? Is she too young to benefit from the extra stimulation and playmates? And are viruses inevitable? Or does it has something to do with the schools hygiene practices? How does Nala feel when she is there? What’s really going on after I walk away and drive to work?
We’re seven days in. I’ve experienced the awful feeling of walking away, the concern of wondering if she is ok, I’ve arrived at work impatient, wondering if it is too soon to text and see how she is doing, I’ve pounced as I’ve seen photos arrive on my phone and I’ve felt so proud of her when I heard she finished her milk. For the first two days she didn’t eat or drink so I picked her up early. On day 3 she finished two bottles of milk and ate her lunch and I felt so proud. And so far when I’ve collected her I’ve either found her sleeping peacefully or playing happily. The caregivers tell me she’s only sad for a moment when I leave and then she has a great day. Maybe I just need to find my own peace with it. Today when I left her crying I stood outside the door frozen waiting for her to stop and I wiped away my own tears. “Be brave mumma,” I told myself. When I came back in the afternoon one of the managers said, “Nala’s had a great time, you’re the one with separation anxiety,”. And I knew it to be true. And then Nala crawled over flapped her arms with excitement, exploded into a smile and I picked her up, her arms wrapped around me in her latest trick, giving a cuddle. “Mummy missed you my princess,” I said. And we went home.