By Grace Zell, staff writer for The Attached Family
About a year ago, a friend convinced me to do something good for myself and join the local gym. She would leave her two-year-old daughter in the gym’s nursery and enjoy a nice exercise class. Up to this point, I had only left my 18-month-old daughter, Katie, with my mother at our home, or with a trusted babysitter who my daughter warmed up to after a few times with me present. Unfortunately, the babysitter was back at college and my mother lives three hours away, so I figured the gym nursery would be the next best thing to get some “me time.”
I was nervous as I signed up for a gym membership, thinking that this whole enterprise hinged on my daughter being able to tolerate the nursery. The staff of the nursery seemed attentive but not overly warm or concerned about anything other than the safety of their wards. Luckily, on our first day, my friend dropped her daughter off at the same time. Katie was preoccupied with playing with her friend, and I snuck away after telling her that I would return after I was done riding the bike.
Not Yet Ready
After ten minutes, I was paged to the nursery. Katie’s preoccupation with her friend’s presence had worn off, and she noticed that she was alone with a roomful of strange children and adults. She was crying and looking for me at the door. The nursery staff followed a policy of not allowing any child to cry for longer than ten minutes before paging the parent to come, but they advised me to continue leaving her at the nursery while I was exercising — that eventually Katie would be able to stay without crying.
I felt fairly sick about leaving her there again, but I was intent on trying to make it work. I tried to go in with her for five to ten minutes to help her warm up to the place, and I struck up friendly conversations with the staff to show Katie that I felt they were safe and to try to get them to care about our predicament. Invariably, however, I could only spend about ten minutes on the Stairmaster before being paged to return to the nursery. I would always find her crying and waiting by the gate.
In desperation, I consulted a social worker whom I had consulted in the past for guidance about behavioral issues with my son. Her approach had always seemed respectful of a child’s needs and developmental stage, so I was surprised when she suggested that I ask the nursery staff not to page me. She indicated that it wouldn’t hurt Katie at all, and I got the vibe that she felt I was being overprotective and not taking care of my own needs. Other friends said the same thing, and one friend even said that Katie was manipulating me.
The Final Decision to Wait
I half-heartedly tried the nursery one more time, and this time when they paged me, I found Katie shaking as well as crying. She seemed truly hysterical, and I decided to trust my instincts and put the gym membership on hold. Thankfully, my husband and my mother were in agreement with my decision and have always shared my Attachment Parenting style.
I was discouraged at the lack of support for my feelings, and the disapproval I received about not wanting to leave my child crying.
I searched the Internet for some validation that I wasn’t being ridiculous in honoring my daughter’s separation anxiety, and it was then that I found Attachment Parenting International. Up to that point, I truly felt like the only parent who didn’t sleep-train my children or who disagreed with ignoring separation anxiety.
I will admit that I did want to get my needs met; just not at the expense of my daughter’s emotional wellbeing.
A Second Try
Fast forward five months to July: Katie had since turned two years old and was slowly loosening the reins on me. She was happy to stay with trusted people while I went out to do errands, and she was enjoying her father taking over the bedtime routine. I decided to try enrolling her in the summer camp program at our local preschool where gentle separation had been supported in the past with my son. The class had only four children, and I felt that the separation would be healthier with a consistency of children and caregivers, instead of at the gym nursery where the children and staff fluctuated from hour to hour.
On the first day, I instructed the teacher to call me on my cell phone if Katie showed any distress. I waited in the parking lot for the phone to ring, and I was astounded when the class’s two hours went by without me being summoned. I peaked in the window before pick-up time, and I saw Katie smiling and laughing in a rocking toy boat. I got tears of joy in my eyes from her new independence and the relief of having her happily under someone else’s care for the morning.
The remaining weeks of camp continued to be a success, although there was some reticence on Katie’s part upon drop-off. To help with this, I would enter the classroom and chat with the teachers or fill out a form while making sure she was alright. I also continued to remind the staff to call me if she was having a difficult time. With both my children, I wanted bedtime and school to be a positive experience and not one fraught with fear and stress.
With this new experience under our belts, I decided to try the gym nursery again. This time, Katie willingly went in and played while I exercised.
Readiness Comes with Age
I mentioned this success to a child psychologist, and she affirmed that it could have been a developmental stage that had to be reached and that perhaps 18 months had been too young for Katie to negotiate separating from me in an unfamiliar environment. I realized then that I wouldn’t try to toilet train a four-month-old, so why insist that my daughter be able to handle something that she isn’t ready for? She was obviously able to handle more separation once she was ready for it.
It is very satisfying to have your decisions validated by the happy responses of your children. With each success, I am emboldened to listen to my intuition and let the criticism roll off my back — or maybe even try to sway them over to my point of view with my positive example!