Countless are the conversations I have had with friends, colleagues, and the occasional stranger about the guilt that comes with leaving your child somewhere. Anywhere, really. Even if it’s the world’s best preschool, the most fun camp ever, or your parents’ house where you know your child will be showered with attention and snacks every moment that you’re gone. I have friends who work full-time and friends who stay at home with their kids. I have many friends who, like me, have their own businesses and work from home, so they cobble together some amount of preschool or day care or nanny sharing or babysitting or playdate exchanges so they can get work done, and do the rest of their work long after the kids are in bed, so they can spend more quality time with their kids during the day. Because this is the category I fall into, I have the most experience with it. I know, based on what friends tell me, that full-time working parents have plenty of guilt of their own, and stay-at-home parents are more likely to lean toward insanity than guilt.
Most of these conversations lead to the conclusion that this guilt we feel is totally pointless. We are not abandoning our children on a street corner or locking them in the basement. We are finding safe, fun, stimulating activities led by nurturing caregivers so we can do the work we need to do to support our families and, theoretically, love to do as well. I love my work, and we need my income, along with my husband’s, to pay our bills. My daughter loves meeting new people, going new places, making friends, and exploring dance and art and her imagination. She loves her grandparents. She loves her babysitters. Sometimes she asks me, apropos of nothing, when a babysitter will come over to play.
But it just takes one morning where she is clinging to me at drop-off, giving me one more hug after one more hug, plaintively whispering that she’s scared or worried or going to miss me, to squeeze my heart until it hurts. Not to mention that I seem to be the only mom left in the classroom while all the other kids are sitting cross-legged and attentive listening to the teacher. The teacher this morning was nice about it, telling me I could stay as long as I wanted. From past experience I know the longer I stay the worse it is. But she was trying to be helpful. I also know from past experience that Zoe is always fine within minutes of my departure, and has a great day the rest of the day. So today I sat in the shade on the steps outside the art center, taking deep breaths and repeating the mantra of “She’ll be fine.” And I’ve been thinking about her ever since. I don’t feel the same sense of despair I did last year during a particularly brutal period of separation anxiety in which I had to physically hand a crying Zoe to a co-oper in her preschool class in order to extricate myself from the classroom. I know she’ll be fine. And I know the situation is what it is. I work, she goes to camp, we’ll all be fine. Still, she’s the only kid in her age group staying for the whole day of art classes. And my dad has said to me a few times, why is all this necessary? What about lying around in the summer? But my mom didn’t have to work. And I do. It is what it is. Zoe will be fine. My real job is keeping the guilt at bay.