I am not sure that anything could have prepared me for Ella's first day away from family.
It's no secret that as a part-timer, I find it hard to keep up with everything that working and mothering require of me. I've been entertaining the idea of putting Ella in childcare for one day each week, so I could have a few hours to stay on top of things that can't be attended to in Ella’s waking hours.
I couldn't justify why I should, when I'm lucky to be able to spend four days a week with Ella and have her looked after by family on the other three days (which made it much easier for me to feel comfortable going back to work and certainly helps with our family budget). I know many mothers don't have the luxury of having as many days at home with their children, and I felt guilty thinking about putting her into childcare.
But then I thought about how one day a week of childcare could actually be very good for Ella, aside from any benefit I might gain from it. When I visited the childcare centre for an orientation session and saw happy kids playing well together and how lovely the teachers were, I managed to convince myself it was a great idea. They had times for craft, music and outdoor play, and were all set up for Ella to have her noon nap in the baby room.
However, when I contemplated how Ella would react to being left with strangers, since she has only ever been looked after by family, I began to feel edgy. She has been especially clingy with me in the past few months, running straight to me when she needs comfort, and getting upset when I duck off for short times to go to the bathroom, even when she is with other trusted family members. Even Daddy won't do sometimes.
So I was expecting the worst on her first day and didn't sleep very well the night before. We arrived at the centre, and as I unpacked her bag and discussed paperwork with the teachers, she trotted off happily in the direction of the playground and the other children. I took the opportunity to say goodbye and blow her a kiss while she was preoccupied, before heading for the gate.
The instant the gate closed, she ran after me, waving goodbye to the teachers, believing she was leaving with me, and my heart just sank. I waved to her again and started to walk away. Her cries grew louder as I continued up the walkway and I turned to see her squeezing her chubby little leg through the gate trying to get to me. I rushed back and hugged her, promising her I would see her later. Then when I set her down on the ground again, the crying resumed.
I really didn't want to leave, but I also didn't know if I was making the situation worse by staying. Not wanting to make things harder for the teachers, I made a second exit. In retrospect, I wish I had stayed a little longer. I had several thoughts running through my head: 'Does she think I’m abandoning her?' 'Did she understand me when I said I'll be back?' 'Is she going to worry every time I leave her with anyone from now on?'
I got all the way to the car, called my husband, and sobbed. He said all the things a supportive husband says, but it didn't make me feel much better. I spent the rest of the day watching the clock and wondering how I could possibly do the same thing again next week.
Of course, when I picked her up she was fine. She’d painted, made friends with a little boy who she'd apparently exchanged a few kisses with, and wowed the teachers with her animal-sound skills. She didn't have her daytime nap, but she was okay. Most importantly, she hugged me and said hello without a trace of resentment, and was ready to come home.
I like to think she felt confident I would come back for her, but I think the only way I can truly prove that I always will is by continuing to take her every week, and then returning every afternoon.
I will stay longer next time to ensure I feel as though we say a proper goodbye – for my sake as much as hers.
Q: How did your child react on their first day at childcare?