Unhappy at Daycare?

It took Amie over four months to find happiness at daycare. Even then it took an experiment to make her feel more at ease.

  • The babysitter

Two weekends ago, Amie’s Baba and I went to a concert. We had gone out only once since Amie was born, at a time long ago before she tumbled into a long and difficult phase of separation anxiety. For a long time we couldn’t think of anyone she would be comfortable with – this was before (we caught on to) the miraculous transformation in her social attitude. That Sunday, however, we felt confident that she would love the babysitter. It was the wonderful assistant at the daycare center she attends three days a week and to whom she is very attached.

We left in the middle of the concert – we were new at this babysitting thing! – not wanting to be away from our daughter any longer, not knowing how her evening was going, and not keen on adding another $13 to the exceptional cost of that evening. When we got home, we could see that Amie had had a wonderful time. The assistant, eager to set my mind at ease about the evening, told us:

“She was so happy! I’ve never seen her so happy at the daycare. I’ve never seen her laugh so much!”

  • Stressed out at daycare 

She said it with the best of intentions, but my reaction of relief was shortlived. Soon I was mulling it over, worrying it to death, fairly plunging into grief and doubt. Amie had just been who she is when she is here, at home. She was obviously very unhappy, “stressed out,” the assistant said, at daycare.

I am all for daycare, and later on preschool and school, if the child is happy there and thrives. And if the setting or institution can provide the education, stimulation and friendship the child needs. And if the home situation complements the “formal education” with whatever is needed for an all-rounded person. But those are other matters.

Daycare makes it possible for me work on my dissertation, novel and writing and reading: all projects that I add up to the kind of role-model I want to be for my daughter. That is, a woman who can balance motherthood, creative work and homemaking. A mother who loves to give all of herself, but who also is herself. I don’t mean to say that one can’t be creative while childrearing, but personally I can’t concentrate on long, complex philosphical arguments while singing Patty Cake.

  • Experiment

Having that particular person babysit was an experiment and a risk. At daycare, she was Amie’s total mommy-surrogate: immediately after I left after drop-off, Amie clung to her (like she clung to me at home); the moment I came in for pick-up, Amie ran to me and ignored her. The hours in between, Amie monopolized her, demanding to be picked up and cuddled by her (I was assured this behavior sprung from her personal emotional need, not from a manipulative or bullyish nature). It was hard on the staff and the other kids. What if our experiment had made he attachment more intense?

It didn’t. The Tuesday following that babysitting Sunday, Amie went into daycare and was happy! She was on Wednesday and Thursday as well. And she no longer laid exclusive claim on the assistant. After more than four months of struggling to adjust, she had turned the corner. The one moment she had cried – woken up from her nap by coughing – the assistant had calmed her down and made her laugh by reminiscing about what they had done that Sunday.

No doubt this change is connected to Amie’s newfound sense of independence and freedom. But I believe the experiment helped substantially. Amie realized that she could be relaxed and feel safe and happy with the assistant, and she carried that attitude over into the daycare situation.

  • Be committed 

When it comes to the crunch (an unhappy child who doesn’t seem to adjust), it pays off to experiment, but you have to be committed to the result.  Amie had been at daycare four  months and was still unhappy: it was an unbearable situation. If the experiment had failed and made things worse, I think I would have taken her out of daycare altogether.

Of course the experiment isn’t over! Last week may have been a fluke. She could revert back to unhappiness any time. She’ll have to adjust all over again to pre-K, to Kindergarten.

I guess that’s what we signed up for when we became parents!

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