Friday, September 4, 2020

On Childcare After Loss

G & Mama. Photo by Casey Rae Photography

Sometimes I think I've already written everything there is to write about loss, but a parent who is coping with a recent loss of a child commented and asked how I reconcile sending G to the babysitter after losing a baby, so I thought I would write about it a little. I think most working moms feel some level of mama-guilt, but in my experience, babyloss working moms get a double dose.

Yes; the question did make me feel a little defensive at first. I understood what the person was asking, though. When I was pregnant with Zuzu, I planned to go back to work, but I though at lot about how hard that would be and whether I'd want to stay home. 

Before I share my thoughts on this, I do want to say that of course the situation is different for everyone, so I'm just writing from my own experience and what felt right for me. Some moms--loss or not--never feel comfortable putting their kids in full time childcare. Other moms--loss or not--feel that it is vital for their mental health to outsource childcare. Every individual should do what is right for them, and should feel free to do so without judgment. Also, not everyone gets a choice. It would have been a financial adjustment for us if I'd quit my job--the kind of adjustment that I preferred to avoid--but we could have made it work. Not everyone has a partner whose job could provide for the household, so I'm acknowledging the privilege that comes with feeling like this is a decision to make, rather than a financial necessity.

I should also clarify that I am not currently furloughed--I'm working from home full time, plus teaching a class in person two afternoons a week. Zuzu and Coco are self-sufficient enough to make that work, although it's still not easy. I spend a large portion of my day in Zoom meetings, emailing, record-keeping, and researching, and that's all on my computer. That kind of work--and really any kind of work that requires sustained concentration--is not easy or really even possible when a wrecking ball of a toddler is around, so for me, outsourcing some childcare for G is pretty much a necessity since David has gone back into the school building (schools are virtual, but buildings are open and many teachers work from their classrooms). If she were a different kind of kid, maybe I could have kept her home longer. But she is a 15 month old who learned to open the back door and let herself outside. She's not really the sit and play quietly on a blanket and stay in my line of vision kind of baby. She is alarmingly independent and there is a reason we call her Wrecking Ball.

I think this person was really asking about the kind of philosophical mindset. Like how did I wrap my head around leaving my baby with someone else. When Zuzu was born--and really, with all three girls at first, especially after G was in the NICU--I did feel for a while that if I let her out of my sight, she would slip away from me. There is a reason that I had Angel Care monitors and (for G) the Owlet monitor. All of the loss parents I know have an increased level of anxiety when it comes to the health and well-being of their living kids. I spent a lot of time in therapy after Zuzu was born talking about this anxiety and finding healthy ways to cope with it.

I did think about quitting my job and I know that, having lost my child, many people expected me to do so. I had a lot of people ask me if I was going to stay home, so many that I thought that maybe it was what I was supposed to do and I felt guilty about not quitting. I certainly knew some people who did that, settling full time into motherhood, unwilling to put their baby into care, and I didn't want it to appear that I loved my baby less than SAHMs or that I took her for granted. 

When Eliza died, though, I had just earned my PhD. I wanted an academic career at a university. I wanted to teach and to learn and to have conversations about interesting and complicated ideas. I had worked very hard on my degree and was just starting my career after seven years in graduate school. It seemed doubly unfair for me to have to cancel that out as some kind of trade for having a baby that I got to keep, and it would have been impossible for me to talk time off and then enter into an academic track. I would have had to change career paths. I also resented that people would just assume I was going to stay home, as though my degree and the work that I put into it was meaningless or pointless, or as though not staying home meant I wasn't grateful enough for my living children. (This was probably my guilt talking more than what they were actually suggesting!) And I'm a feminist, so I was irritated that my husband was never asked that question.

One of the hardest things to come to grips with after Eliza died was feeling like I'd become a completely different person. I had worried that becoming a mom would make me boring or something, but living in a fog of grief made me feel like my entire personality was smothered by sadness. I did, however, emerge from that fog eventually. Of course I've never stopped missing Eliza, but I was able to find interest eventually in the same things that have always interested me. In fact, for me, going back to teaching at a university after Eliza's death was enormously helpful. It made me feel like I had a purpose and that I was capable of doing something meaningful. Talking about all of that in therapy and having someone assure me that these feelings didn't mean I didn't love my baby was extremely helpful.

I was also incredibly fortunate in that I didn't have to go back to work until my kids were older. Zuzu and Coco were each 6 months old before they went to daycare. G was 8 months old. That's not to say that I didn't still worry about them, or that it wasn't still hard, but I didn't feel that same kind of panicked urgency to keep them close to me the way I did when they were newborns. If I'm being totally honest, having time away from them made me enjoy them more when we were back together.

I'm not going to lie--going back to work at first was HARD. All three times. The first week was a real struggle and lots of crying (at least from me). With Zuzu and Coco, I started out piecemeal, just going back 3 days a week for a semester, which was really helpful. Then I was home all summer, and then they were over a year old before I went back 5 days a week. It's still hard on the mama heart, but it also felt good to be at work, even though I was also sad. It felt good to get absorbed in a task and to focus my brain power on something. My therapist also talked to me a lot about prioritizing myself and my needs/wants. We've all heard the thing about putting on your oxygen mask before you assist others, and for me that oxygen eventually included help with childcare so that I could work. 

It helped that my kids thrived in daycare. They loved their teachers, they loved being around other kids, they loved the variety of toys and games. They got a more consistent routine than I was able to provide at home, and a different kind of engagement. It was important to me that my kids be loved by a community, that they knew there are people who love them and keep them safe besides just their parents. And since we are far away from extended family, we outsourced some of that to their daycare providers.

I was also surprised that instead of being extra worried about how they were doing in daycare, I felt a sense of relief that someone else was temporarily responsible for their well-being. I don't know if that makes me sound terrible, but especially in the early months/years, I felt (feel) so much stress about keeping them safe and keeping them alive. The world can feel so full of risks and potential deathtraps. Sometimes it feels like a statistical miracle that any of us lives to grow up! I feel like I'm always on high alert with the baby--is she climbing too high? is she putting something in her mouth that isn't food? is she choking? is she still sleeping?

For me personally, perhaps because my trauma was specific to pregnancy rather than infant loss, and definitely because I found care providers I really trusted, I was able to relax while my kids were there. I was able to trust that they were loved and cared for and--most importantly--safe. And the responsibility was not on me to keep them safe! Instead, I got to have adult conversations and read books and write things and teach, and then I could pick up my kiddo at the end of the day and love on them. 

I worried about whether they missed me, or if they understood that I'd always come back for them, but I was able to trust that they were kept safe, fed, warm, and mostly happy, and that allowed me to feel comfortable leaving them in someone else's care. I think part of that is because Eliza died before she was born, so rather than saying I couldn't trust anyone else to keep my baby, I honestly feared sometimes that I couldn't trust myself. After all, I was the only one who could have known something was wrong when Eliza died. I liked the idea of a daycare with a director and cameras and multiple teachers keeping my kiddos safe. It was a relief to share that responsibility. Being vigilant gets exhausting. With my newborns, I still felt that I had to be on alert all the time (and, I mean, you do need to be alert all the time when it comes to baby safety!). Allowing a daycare provider to carry some of that responsibility was good for me.

On a more superficial note, I didn't have to prepare and clean up breakfast and lunch and snacks and craft messes and sensory play experiences. The tedium of meal prep and clean up is the bane of my existence--although at least my babies/toddlers were pretty appreciative eaters (unlike my 6yo and 8yo). I thrive when I have time to myself, when I have extended projects to work on, when I feel appreciated and productive, and when I can engage with others, share ideas, and get meaningful feedback. As much as I love my babies, life at home with them is basically the opposite of that. I feel so lucky that I got to have as much time at home with them as I did, but it felt like the right choice for me as a human person to go back to work. I do not feel like my best self when I am doing the difficult but tedious tasks of being a SAHM and trying to keep our house clean all day everyday. 

So, that's my answer to how I was able to drop my baby off at daycare. I was able to do it because I had several months at home with them first, because I started out going back part time, because it felt important to me that they had a community beyond our immediate family, because I found providers that I really trusted (recommended by friends whose parenting choices I also admired and trusted, and, in G's case, her babysitter was recommended by friends of mine who've also lost children and she herself had a stillborn baby, so she really gets how complicated it is), because I talked through my guilt and concerns in therapy, and because ultimately it was good for me as a human person to go back to my job.

That doesn't mean that because this was the right decision for me that it is the right decision for everyone, but I am relieved to say that I don't have regrets about those choices. We all feel guilty and judged, no matter what we decide, and after losing a child, these decisions feel even more loaded and fraught. I don't think the SAHMs I know have regrets about their choices, either. Somehow, it works out in the way that feels right for your family. Sending big love to anyone grappling with this decision, particularly in pandemic times. 


  1. This is so beautifully articulated, Brooke (as always), and so candid and real. This is such a complex decision and so unique to every family, but the underlying emotions and especially the anxiety ring true for so many of us. I chose to stay home after my (living) kids were born, but like you, I really need for my own mental health to feel productive and to expend some energy on something besides worrying about my kids' safety. In my case I've been lucky to have my parents nearby and my mom is here almost every day to give me a couple hours to devote to non-profit work, activism, and my "projects" around the house. (And needless to say, I'm obviously very privileged to have the choice not to work for income, as my husband's job can provide for us financially.) So all this to say, even though I ended up making a different choice for our family, I still connect with so much of what you've said here and I think many other loss moms (and non-loss moms!) will as well. Thank you <3

  2. I think you mean to say "nanny" instead of "babysitter." Own it!