“Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future. We make discoveries about ourselves.” -Gail Lumet Buckley
We welcomed a new infant into our program a few months ago. At age ten months, she seemed to adjust quickly and easily with just one hitch: without fail, she would burst into tears when Mom or Dad walked through the door at the end of the day. Even worse, she would sometimes fall to pieces just moments before they appeared. After a long day of separation, the first image they would have of their baby was her tormented face, scrunched up with tears streaming from her eyes, reaching desperately for them. We would see their faces fall and crumble as they rushed to hold her, asking always, “Oh no! What’s wrong? What happened?” Her primary caregiver would describe what a lovely day they had had together, with nary a tear shed. She ate well. She slept well. She smiled and laughed and clapped. She engaged with her peers and the caregivers. “It’s a long day,” we would say, “She missed you.”
This infant, now one year old, no longer cries at every reunion. However, if her mom or dad does not arrive at the anticipated time, the odds are good there will be tears. After two months, her parents have learned to keep their routines as predictable as possible. They have come to see that during long days of missing their baby, she too is missing them. Her longing is made all the more poignant and deeply affecting by the reality of her situation: at one year old, she can’t control when she next sees them; she can’t call them up to check on how they’re doing; she can’t even predict where they may be or what they may be doing (she most likely doesn’t envision them at the office, tapping away at their computers, as they envision her merrily playing with her “friends” and cuddling with her caregivers) — all she knows for sure is that they are gone. She has a very good sense of when they will return, as it is pretty much the same time every day. This is crucial. This is her lifeline.
What a relief it is to be reunited with those we love! The beauty and purity of these reunions can take your breath away. If you are a parent experiencing these kind of reunions with your baby, my best advice to you is to take a second to savor this moment, when your baby wants nothing but you, nothing but the safety of your arms. One day your self-confident baby is going to be a young adult climbing out of their own car at the end of the day with a breezy, “Hey,” for you. In the blink of an eye, your baby will have learned that you are not the entirety of their world. Absorb this special kind of love for as long as you can and do your best to appreciate it for what it is.
One of the most common topics to arise with our families is that their child is melting down after being in childcare all day. With infants, we often hear, “We get home and all she wants is to be held! She cries and cries.” With toddlers we hear, “I can’t do anything with him. He’s throwing himself on the floor and screaming. He acts like he’s exhausted but you say he slept!” We hear it from preschool parents, from kindergarten parents, from the parents of elementary school-aged children. Children are melting down at the end of the day and parents, worn out and stressed out and burnt out themselves, don’t know what to do.
While it may not seem like a sensible thing to do in regards to our own job security, we explain to parents that what studies indicate is that less is always better when it comes to childcare, regardless of the quality. Studies have been done to examine what quantity of childcare is optimal, but there are no easy answers. What is certain is that every child, every family, and every caregiving situation is unique and should be treated as such. When I have given advice to parents in the past who have struggled with their feelings of uncertainty and guilt in relation to childcare, I have told them, “Trust yourself. Follow your gut instincts.” It can be a struggle to balance the expectations we have for ourselves, the expectations we believe others have for us, and what our hearts tell us to do. I’m not sure true balance is ever achieved on a permanent basis — as your child and your family grows and changes, as life throws us curves, it’s natural that we’re going to have to fight to regain our footing. One thing that helps us to stay on course is staying in tune with those we love and doing our very best to recognize and appreciate the rollercoaster of emotions that surround greetings and departures.
As a parent, when you think about your child’s day, try to imagine it from their perspective: more than likely, they don’t choose what time they leave the house in the morning. Often, they don’t choose when or what they eat for snacks and meals throughout the day. Older children are told when it’s nap or rest time. Wherever they are, they’re pretty much stuck there — they can’t step out to take a break, walk around the block, or meet up for a lunch date. Hopefully they feel comfortable and secure in their environment, but they’re well aware that it’s not home and they’re not with their family. Particularly for children between the ages of four and seven, the weight of behavior expectations can weigh heavily on them. Parents often communicate to teachers that their child is a “different person” at home, as compared to in the classroom. In the classroom, they may follow directions, behave agreeably, even be helpful to their teacher without prompting. In other words, they’re everything their parent and teacher wants them to be: the very best version of themselves. Is it any wonder they’re melting down at home? They’ve kept it together all day and now, finally, at home with the people who will love them no matter how they behave, they can let their hair down.
One of my friends has a child who started kindergarten this year. She says that when he gets home after school, he wants to take off his shoes and his pants and lay on the floor with his toys. He can play for hours this way, comfortable and content in his own space, reconnecting with simply being himself. He is recharging his batteries. This is something we appreciate busy adults taking the time to do, but something we may not recognize the need for in children.
Magda Gerber described two types of “quality time” with children in her book, Your Self-Confident Baby. The first is “wants something” quality time, which is when, she says, “you and your child have a goal to accomplish together.” This could be routine care for infants, such as diaper changes, feedings, or changing clothes. With older children, this could be preparing and eating a meal, reading a book together, or working on homework. It’s a time of shared focus on a common goal. It’s a time when you have turned off your phone, the television, and the computer. It’s you and your child. “Wants nothing” quality time, by contrast, is when you’re together without a goal. You’re hanging out together, observing one another, enjoying one another’s company. Your phone is still off. You’re not checking your email. Magda writes, “It is a supportive and validating experience for your child because she is allowed to be and do what she wishes (in a safe environment) as you watch. […] Fully being with your child, wanting nothing, is quality time.” Children need both kinds of quality time with you every day. They need the opportunity to reconnect with themselves and their families every day.
If you find that your child is struggling at the end of their long day, there are a few things you can do to make things easier on both of you:
- Be consistent and predictable in routines. Pick your child up at the same time every day. Put your child to bed at the same time every night, following a routine that they will come to know and understanding (for example, dinner, bath, story, sleep).
- Talk through your routines, reminding your child about what comes next.
- Hang up the phone. Wait to access your email until your child is in bed. As the adult, alter your routine to accomodate your quality time with your child. NEVER have a reunion with your child while you’re on the phone with someone else. Your child is the most important person in the world to you: show them.
- Consider the shortest reasonable schedule for your child in childcare and leave enough time at the end of the day for a proper reunion and your evening routines together (this doesn’t happen very smoothly when you’re ten minutes late to pick them up and the center is closing).
- Be aware of your child’s meltdown triggers and avoid and avert them as best your can. (Common triggers include tiredness, hunger, and disruption in expected routines.)
- Communicate openly and honestly with your child’s caregiver about what the end of the day looks like for your child and yourself. If you’re going to be late, let them know — they will help your child to expect and cope with this change. If you need your child to have an extra snack twenty minutes before pick-up, ask for this to be done. Together you can think more creatively about ways to help the situation. You’re not alone.