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Daycare Drama & Mommy Guilt

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have an almost 6 month old baby girl, and discovered your blog when I was in the very early omg, wtf stages of motherhood.  My husband and I are in the DC area far from both our families, and I swear your blog and the advice smackdown helped keep me sane.  Now those newborn days seem far away and we have the most beautiful, happy, squidgeable, loveable, awesome little girl.  I could seriously cry just thinking about how awesome she is, although it doesn’t take much to make me cry at the moment thanks to a bad daycare experience that we just pulled her out of yesterday.

I had to go back to work when she was 8 weeks old, and much as I hated it, I was confident that we’d done our research and she would be well cared for at an in-home daycare with 2 other babies.  We met the lady before our daughter was born, after she was born, checked her resume and references, etc. and the thing that swung it for me was the webcam she had in her home so we could check in and see our daughter.  My first few days back at work I used to log in and check on her, and aside from not sleeping as well as she does at home and adjusting to being in a new place, it seemed like things were going fine and I stopped checking in because it just made me want to be with my daughter.  Plus I would get a sleep, food and diaper report each day to see how things were going.

BUT then the sleep reports started getting worse and worse and we would get her home and have to immediately put her to bed because she was so tired.  At first I didn’t worry too much because I know babies have that fun way of changing things up and every day isn’t going to be perfect, and she was still napping and sleeping well at night at home.  Then the daycare provider (I’ll call her H) started asking me what I do to comfort my baby when she won’t stop crying, which honestly I didn’t have an answer to because seriously, angel baby. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but we’re on a pretty good routine and I know when she needs to eat, sleep and play, and she doesn’t get to the point of being inconsolable.  I’d given H plenty of information about how our days go, naptimes, etc and, although I didn’t mind it not being exactly the same, that basic structure should have been in place.  Instead it got to the point where her days were barely recognizable as anything other than a mess, especially the lack of sleep which obviously led to an overtired baby and effected everything else.  So I started checking in on the webcam again every half hour or so and I saw a LOT of lying in the Pack & Play (usually not sleeping), or sitting in a bumbo by herself separated from the 2 boys (they are both around 11 months old so able to do more than she can and H said she had to keep my baby separate so they wouldn’t hurt her… um, hello, aren’t you there to supervise?)  I was really unhappy with the situation and it wasn’t changing despite several conversations with H, so I decided to be oh so productive at work yesterday and watch as much of her day as I could on the webcam.  It broke my heart.  She slept a grand total of ONE hour, and this is a baby who takes regular 2 hour naps and consistently sleeps 12 hours at night.  And we took her to England where my family is and she dealt with the time change and strange people, houses and beds like a champ.

No wonder she couldn’t sleep.  There was no transition from activity to nap, she was just picked up and plopped in her bed with all the lights on and the boys running around, and when she didn’t settle H did.not.leave.her.alone.  She picked her up, put her down, jiggled her, put her in a bouncer (which she’s too big for), put her in her car seat (which she has never once slept in unless she’s in the car), and she finally crashed after 4hrs of being awake, which she is way too young to handle.  After her hour of so not restorative sleep H didn’t even try to put her back down again for another 3 hours and she didn’t sleep again for the rest of the day.  Aside from apparently having no concept of infant sleep needs H also didn’t feed her for 5hrs (she usually has a bottle every 4hrs, and I had sent her with some banana that wasn’t touched),  I saw her left in the Pack & Play awake by herself for an hour with no sign of H or the boys the entire time, and I saw H interact with her for maybe 5mins the whole day.  The rest of the time she was just moved around from bumbo to jumper to device to device.

I called my husband and we both went to pick her up and she’s not going back.  She was a sad little exhausted mess last night.  I’ve quit my job with no notice which is completely unfair and unprofessional, and we can’t afford it but omg just NEVER AGAIN.  I feel so overwhelmingly guilty for putting our good-natured little girl there and expecting her to deal with it, and for not trusting my instincts when I started having doubts.  I kept thinking I was a paranoid first time mom, I should let her adjust, its good for her to be with other babies, blah blah blah.  It’s not as though H was mean or abusive, but I feel my baby was borderline neglected and today she’s struggling to get back on track after a good couple of weeks not being herself even at home.  I know this JUST happened and her eating and sleeping has to readjust, but I’m worried what this might have done to her. My confidence as a mother and in my judgment is completely shaken, and I know there are many many good daycares but I don’t think I would trust myself to choose one.

I guess my question is how do you deal with mama guilt and go forward believing in the decisions you make?  I know you had a positive daycare experience with Noah, but between 3 (very gorgeous) boys and a ton weight of decisions you’ve had to make I thought you might have some words of wisdom?

Oh my goodness, I am so sorry to read all this — so sorry that I don’t even know where to begin. You did the right thing to pull her out immediately, but oh my lands, it’s NOT YOUR FAULT that your daycare let you down and your decision to place her there has NO BEARING on your overarching mothering skillz or instincts or any of that. You suspected something wasn’t right, you eventually figured out that something definitely wasn’t right, and you responded with all of the EPIC MAMABEAR FORCE you were capable of.

That said, I am admittedly a tad distracted by the whole quitting-your-job thing right in the middle of such an upsetting discovery. Times of churning emotional crisis tend to not be the best windows for making Major Life-Changing Decisions, and I admit I’m panicking on your behalf a little, for making such a HUGE ONE right when you were feeling devastated and vulnerable and frantic. If there is ANY WAY to go back and undo that (since you say you really can’t afford that decision) and ask for a leave of absence or some other arrangement while you find alternative care for your daughter, I would do that. Because while your betrayal and guilt and shattered trust in your own judgment is looming SO LARGE right now, I promise you that those feelings will pass, in no small part because they HAVE to. It’s part of being a grown-up, I guess. It sucks. You keep waiting for an adult to show up and help you figure this stuff out, and then you remember that oh. That’s you, now.

My daycare experience with Noah was…okay. I have no doubt that there were aspects of his day that involved a lot of sitting in the exersaucer and sitting in his crib and sitting over there and there and there. A lot of that just goes with the group-setting territory.  There were also circle times and walks outside and cuddles and toys and good things though, and I did not see any of the problems you saw at home with exhaustion, and his daily written log (that I had to believe because there was no webcam option) indicated that feedings and naps happened like clockwork. So it sounds like our infant-room ladies (this was at a Kindercare, so children were grouped by age) were much better/experienced at handling little ones and getting them on good, solid schedules. In fact, Noah didn’t even HAVE a nap schedule until he went there!

But like you, I simply had to trust that those ladies knew what they were doing, and that they would care for him the way I wanted them to, and that they were the best ones for the job. (Though I should note that the center we went with was far from my top choice, but simply ended up being the one that worked out from a waitlist perspective — hardly an auspicious beginning.) Your trust was violated, and it’s a tough blow to bounce back from. Especially since us moms are SO GOOD at turning other people’s mistakes on ourselves, because we should have known better, somehow.

Because we had that trust breakdown happen later, at Noah’s first preschool. Which was a total, unmitigated disaster. I was the one who toured it, liked it, filled out the application and put down the deposit. I was the one who sat across from the director and talked to her about Noah’s delays and quirks and believed her when she said the teachers were familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder and the curriculum was perfectly suited to integrate him and help address his motor/sensory/speech needs. I was the one who got sold a bridge to Brooklyn.

I was also the one who was determined to make it work. Who didn’t pull him out at the first sign of trouble, who kept dropping him off day after day thinking that eventually he’d improve and get with the flow of things and etc. etc. That it was more of a problem with Noah’s behavior and immaturity, instead of a problem with the teacher or the environment. I was the one who “selfishly” needed him in preschool, because I needed the break, I needed to write, I needed to focus on my brand-new baby, etc.

So I was the one who got the report from the school district after a psychologist observed him in the classroom and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed at her description of how my little boy simply closed up inside himself the whole time he was there. Because he wasn’t fine and the school had obviously given up on him a long time before, and were essentially pushing him off into a corner and ignoring him all day (except to scold him repeatedly for stimming sounds and actions) while collecting our tuition.

Like you, I was paralyzed for awhile, after that experience. I couldn’t even call special needs summer camps because I was afraid of making the wrong choice. Jason had to do it. I basically handed the decision-making off to him, because I just COULDN’T. When offered a spot in an expensive, exclusive special needs preschool I didn’t sleep for days because I was too busy agonizing over the many ways it could turn out to be the “wrong” decision.

When it came time to send Ezra to a preschool I briefly acknowledged that Noah’s old school would probably be a great place for a social, outgoing, “typical,” kid like Ezra, then practically had an PTSD incident while visiting the website because OMG THAT PLACE. THAAAAAT PLACE. So I enrolled him someplace else. I love it. I love it so much I’ve actually struggled with some residual anger at myself for not sending Noah there — it had been my top choice for him but we decided it was too expensive.

These are not productive feelings, obviously. These are feelings I actively work to keep under control and in perspective — 20/20 hindsight! So many other variables! Noah could have struggled there too!  You can say “never again” to a particular experience, but you can’t let that experience fill you with such fear that, say, you put your family in financial turmoil or decide to homeschool forever and ever because you can’t trust another caregiver ever again. You can’t let that experience continue to punch you in the gut over and over again because you keep replaying your part in it. It’s cliche, but you need to let it go, put it behind you, take a deep breath and put things in perspective. (GAG I KNOW.)

Your daughter is okay. She will be okay. It’s crazy humbling and unnerving to realize you just had a “learning experience” that used your child as a guinea pig, but luckily babies are remarkable, resilient little creatures. You had a really bad experience and have come out the other side with wisdom and insight, even if you don’t feel that way yet. You presumably chose H’s daycare while you were pregnant, so beating yourself up for choosing something before you even had a baby, much less your particular baby, that turned out to not be what you’d now consider the ideal arrangement is unfair.

Now you know to look for daycares that have a better, calmer environment for napping — infant-only rooms, perhaps, so lights can be dimmed over cribs. For centers that send home a written daily log/schedule so you’ll know how often she’s getting fed and how long she’s sleeping. For programs that have structure during the day so even the babies get class-wide “activities” rather than perpetually getting moved from one containment device to another while the teachers wrangle older children. Or perhaps you’d just feel more comfortable hiring a nanny in your own home, and hold off on a group setting until preschool. Maybe staying at home is more doable than you thought, and you’ll one day look back at this as a blessing in disguise, because you never would have made the leap otherwise.

Your shattered trust will repair itself, especially if you focus on trusting yourself again. Noah’s school experiences have been great — not perfect, because nothing is — but gobs better than that first place. Keeping him home forever and cowering in defeat was not an option (even though I felt like doing that, for sure). Even if, say, I did decide to homeschool him, I would not want to make that decision because of FEAR of my own judgment failings, as opposed to knowing for sure it was the best decision for him. He has absolutely no memory of the school (we drive by it quite a bit, and I’m the only one who shoots it a dirty look now) and as far as I can tell, bounced back from the negative first experience within a few weeks of being in a better program over the summer…and went on to LOVE his next preschool environments more than anything.

The weight of a bad/wrong/unfortunate/whatever-you-want-to-call-it decision will only sit heavy on your shoulders if you let it. At some point you have to shake it off and embrace the next choice with hope and optimism. You’ll drive yourself insane if you don’t, and seriously, moms have it tough enough without us making it even harder for ourselves, you know? Good luck, and huge major hugs to you and your daughter.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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