In the Battle for Work-Life Balance, Making Sense of Daycare Guilt

Work-Life Balance on 05.18.11
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Photo: Paul Schultz/Creative Commons


Good Decisions, or Bad Mom?
Two weeks ago, I took a couple days off from being a mother. I had comp days from work, so I sent my son to daycare anyway and took four-hour naps and watched America's Next Top Model on DVR.

Last week, I invited a complete stranger to come to my apartment, stay there all day while my husband and I were at work, and take care of my child. Other parents told me that this kind of thing is inevitable. It's the only solution when you're stuck, they said. There was no sense in dwelling on the fact that this reality is absolutely crazy; my son was sick, he could not go to daycare, my husband and I could not miss work, we were stuck. So we contacted an on-call nanny service. (The nanny was wonderful, but even so, for the entire day, I thought, They could have crossed state lines by now and I can't afford ransom and what picture will we give to the news and how do you issue an Amber Alert?)

For all the insane things I figured I'd do as a parent, I never thought I'd choose Tyra Banks over a sunny spring day in the park with my child, and I never thought I'd leave my son home with someone I'd never met. (On that second point, I felt the same when he started daycare, except the way I looked at it was, I was actually taking him away from his home for something horrible to happen to him.)

Amid all the planning, all the risks, all the knowing that there's no choice, we must repeatedly stifle the guilt of leaving our kids — and the fear of leaving them to chance — and hope we've done the right thing even when it always feels wrong.

Deflecting the Initial Bullet
The first day I sent Stefen, then 3 months old, to daycare, I cried for about one minute. I expected to cry more: Everybody says you simply lose it. But I squared my shoulders and decided not to overthink it. It's not like there was a choice in this scenario. My husband and I both have to work; we can't afford not to. When we visited the facility to interview the director, we immediately felt good about it, and we still maintain, 11 months later, that sending Stefen there is the best decision we've made as parents. They are exactly who you want taking care of your child.

I don't think that not conjuring some kind of financial miracle so one of us can stay home makes me a bad parent. (I feel like I conjure financial miracles every day that keep us just getting by.) On the contrary, I truly believe that if we were wealthy, we'd still send Stefen to daycare two or three days a week. The socialization is great. He's not afraid of strangers. The staff has taught me so much, I don't know what I'd do without them. They feed him, which gets me out of cooking, which makes me happy.

Even so, I know he's in good hands, but I hate that he's out of mine.

Is Daycare Benefiting My Child but Killing My Marriage?
Even though I've been able to embrace trusting somebody else who is more than capable to help raise my son, I had no idea the guilt would then filter into my marriage. But, surprise!

Before Stefen was born, I went on and on about the importance of once-a-month dates with my husband. I informed Josh that we would indeed begin doing this when our baby turned 1 month old. (Note: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!) I laid out for my in-laws that they would be babysitting every month so Josh and I could connect and have precious moments or whatever.

We've done this twice in 14 months.

When Stefen is not in daycare, I want to be with him all the time. I've become that woman. I do not want to go out on dates. I do not want to have dinner and see a movie. (Except Bridesmaids. I really want to see Bridesmaids.) My desire to connect with my husband has not yet trumped my desire to maximize time with my child, something that is so important to reconcile. I'm not sure if it's strange or not that this is the biggest surprise about the whole daycare reality. I knew it would affect how I'd feel about the kind of mother I am, but I never thought it would affect how I'd feel about the kind of wife I am.

Kissing Off the Work-Life Imbalance
So much of this is about not having certain choices: about working, about the type of childcare we use, about how young to start or how many hours a week. And ultimately, I love my job, I love our daycare, and I get one weekday with my son on top of weekends because of my odd work schedule, so the amount we send Stefen is really not that bad.

I think it's more about how the ideal work-life balance is unattainable. The guilt is not from the actual act of hiring somebody terrific, who you grow to love like family, to help raise your child; I think it's from feeling like a failure for not being able to master something that is impossible to master. We cannot have it all. There is not enough time in a day logistically to satisfy the parent part, the domestic part, the professional part, and the romantic part of your body and soul and perform every role well. Something has to give. So maybe now what "having it all" has to mean is having the sense to make the most effective decisions when you delegate your roles — as caregiver, financial provider, housekeeper, social planner, or health-care cop — to others.

If we redefine what "having it all" means, and by turns what being a "good parent" means, then maybe we can take the sting out of certain decisions when those decisions are clouded by guilt and reluctance. Then we won't feel as if we've somehow done it wrong. We'll know we're doing right by our families under own own circumstances, and we'll pick our children up at the end of the day better for it.


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