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Second Mothers, Part 2

February 17, 2010

Last week I wrote about the role of second mothers in the lives of parents. This article will focus on second mothers (or fathers) in the lives of our children.

When thinking about young children’s earliest relationships, most of our attention is paid to parent-child relationships. In fact, it has only been fairly recently that we’d consider “parent”-child relationships rather than just “mother”-child relationships. Research has clearly established that infants can form multiple attachments. The importance of fathers in children’s lives has been demonstrated, and more and more families recognize that both parents play significant although sometimes different roles in their children’s lives.

But sometimes recognizing the importance of other caregivers in a child’s life can be a little threatening. In many of today’s families, both parents may work full time outside of the home, and their child may spend a majority of his or her waking hours in the care of someone else. It’s not always easy to acknowledge the power of those caregiver-child relationships. And often the caregiver-parent relationship can be complex, whether it’s an employee-employer or a family relationship.

I remember feeling angry sometimes when I’d pick up my youngest daughter from her babysitter. This babysitter was a very loving woman and my daughter really enjoyed being with her. However, when my daughter was about one year old, there was often a lot of drama when I picked her up. My daughter would be crying and the babysitter would be holding her tightly, saying things like, “You don’t want to go home, do you?” I felt like the babysitter was trying to undermine my role as mother.

It took quite a bit of effort on my part to improve this situation. I needed to take a huge step back and look at the situation as objectively as I could. I knew my daughter loved me, was securely attached to me, and was happy at home. I also knew that this woman provided great care for my child, even if, for whatever reason, she needed to feel especially important in the eyes of her charges and created a bit of “goodbye” drama. She had most of the other children at her daycare call her “Mama,” but I had my daughter call her by her name.

I also knew that my daughter was not benefitting from this goodbye drama, and that she sometimes had difficulty leaving a place or activity where she was having a good time. The drama decreased and the situation improved over time in response to a few changes. First, I made sure I told the babysitter how much my daughter loved her and loved being with her.  Second, when the babysitter would say things about my daughter not wanting to go home, I would try to reframe it by saying something about how much fun she was having there and didn’t want to leave. However, I was firm in taking my daughter. I would take my daughter out crying if I needed to, but she would always stop pretty soon. And eventually the drama stopped.

Even though I was initially angry and definitely had thoughts of finding a new caregiver, I was able to recognize the importance of this woman in my daughter’s life. The positives that she brought to my daughter’s life outweighed the negatives of the goodbye dramas. In my situation, things got better when she saw that I recognized her importance. I helped my daughter maintain her relationship with her babysitter even after she moved on and went to preschool. They both looked forward to lunches together on days off from school, and my daughter remembers her fondly to this day.

Each childcare situation presents its own unique challenges. It’s vital for children’s optimal development for them to be able to form secure attachments with the people caring for them. Choosing the right people and allowing the relationships to develop are key. Allowing someone else to be like a mother to our children can be intimidating, especially if we carry a lot of guilt about our absence or self-doubt about our parenting. But if we can work through those feelings, our children will benefit from having multiple attachments and will have the opportunity to learn more about relationships and people.

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