The Five Stages of Grief When Your Child Calls the Babysitter Mom
Full-time work was my only option after our daughter was born. We savored ten weeks of unpaid bonding before I bought a bigger pair of khakis and headed back into the office, breast pump and lactation cookies in hand. While I responded to emails and analyzed incident reports, my daughter was off on her own adventures–with her daytime family.
I was thrilled that we found such a perfect caregiver for our perfect child. She was doted upon and attended playgroups, Bible studies, and walks to the farmer’s market. By four months old she was part of a social circle a sorority sister would envy.
It was the community I wanted to create for her, if health care benefits and mortgage payments hadn’t been calling my name.
When our caregiver moved out of town, a sweet social media goodbye post had messages from a half dozen women who were strangers to me, professing how much they would miss my daughter’s presence in their weekly gatherings. I loved the love my girl had received and wanted that to continue.
Luck and Craigslist granted us a new caregiver with equal passion and involvement, just as my daughter’s babbling was turning into possible words. Lisa was a former Head Start teacher who lived adjacent to a park only a block from my office. Jackpot.
At the beginning it was no big deal when we arrived for our 7:23am drop off and my daughter continued to murmur “Mamamamama” as I handed her over to our lifesaver, the woman who made our day-to-day possible. Words were new, probably not even words, and she said “Mama” to everything—my boobs, the dog, her fist. She didn’t really mean to call the babysitter Mama, I reasoned. It was just her tongue practicing and her voice finding its pitch.
After months of vocal warm-ups, the party tricks my daughter demonstrated at those morning exchanges progressed. As she began to walk, she also began wobbling into the sitter’s arms shouting “Mommy!” before collapsing into a warm welcome hug.
Lisa and I both feigned deafness and focused on the day’s sleep and bowel movement report, neither of us acknowledging the “M” word.
Then I got back in the car. WHAT. THE. FUDGE. Except I didn’t say fudge. “THIS is why we should have gone with a day care instead of an in-home setting,” I would lecture my husband as he drove me to work. “I bet the women at the YWCA don’t get called “mommy.” There are boundaries there. They are WAY more professional. Besides, there would be so many different caregivers it would be CLEAR to our child that THERE IS ONLY ONE MOMMY.” He nodded with what looked to me like agreement but was actually avoidance. He knew this irrationality was rooted in my own insecurities and not in legitimate concern for our daughter’s welfare.
My husband would wish me a good day as I slammed the car door and huffed off to my desk, vowing to produce even more milk than the day before–the one thing her daytime Mommy couldn’t provide.
By the time I returned home each evening, the anger had evaporated. My baby fluttered her eyelashes, called me “Mommy,” and nursed herself to sleep. We were still BFFs, even if we weren’t exclusive. Our family didn’t switch to a daycare. Truth be told, my daughter’s woman on the side was fantastic. They went to the park and the library. They sang songs and nursery rhymes. My girl was in love with the brothers her second family provided. The pros were overwhelming, and finding childcare gives me hives, so I began a new tactic.
Each time we were alone I would coach my girl. “Okay Baby, let’s practice again. Mommy!”
Mommy, she repeated again.
“Very, very good. Now who are we going to see tomorrow?”
“NO. Lisa. You are going to see Lisa.”
Mommy Lisa? Mommy Lisa?
“Okay. Fine. You are going to see Mommy Lisa. But I am your REAL Mommy.”
I could agree to that compromise, for a time.
The milestones began piling up and my daughter’s understanding and use of language grew exponentially. She found new words for endless food items, cartoon characters, and colors. She demonstrated a particular knack for names, greeting each of our neighbors individually and asking about extended family members regularly. Still, there was one name that she didn’t say quite right. “Mommy Lisa” persisted.
My daughter weaned herself around sixteen months. Instead of viewing this change of events as rediscovered freedom, I calculated it as a loss. There was no remaining physical need that only I could provide. Fueled by the accompanying shift in hormones, my thoughts spiraled into regrets.
I recalled a poem, cross-stitched and hanging in my mom’s hallway, about “babies not keeping.” That poem was right; I was missing out on her childhood. “I never should have gone back to work. We could have maxed out a credit card,” I professed, as I imagined not just the daily needs, but the fun outings that would form my daughter’s core memories all starring Mommy Lisa as the main character.
I made plans to start a savings account for her future therapy fund; a fund with enough copays to explore her feelings of neglect and uncover at least of glimmer of devotion from her absentee working mother.
And then, the veil lifted.
One Friday night I carried her downtown. It was the night the art galleries stay open late–we were there for the people watching and free cheese. She had just learned about farting and yelled to every stranger that we passed, “I farted!” and laughed hysterically to herself. We shared an ice cream cone and met Clifford the Big Red Dog outside of the library. We walked home when I felt an actual fart and feared solid repercussions would soon be running down my back.
The next day over her morning egg she looked at me and said, “Mommy, we met Clifford.” Yes. Yes we did.
It was the first time she had relayed a memory to me. It was barely twelve hours later, but my daughter recalled a special moment that only she and I had shared. My daughter demonstrated what I should have recognized all along: when I am not there, she can think of me. There is room for both mommies in her mind, in her heart, and in her life.
Lord knows that I need a job and we need a caregiver. She still spends a lot of waking hours with Mommy Lisa. They have adventures and share secret French fries at McDonald’s Play Place, but I am at peace with our reality. Which is why, this week, when my daughter drew a picture of “a daddy and two mommies,” instead of panicking, I paused for a moment of thanksgiving for a babysitter she deems worthy of my favorite name.
Melissa Ressler is a writer, full-time social worker, and mother who loves little city living with her husband and two year old daughter. Her writing has recently appeared on Parent.co, Upwrite Magazine, and The Good Mother Project and can also be found at www.melissaressler.wordpress.com.