Working Mom Wonders How To Handle Meltdowns, Maintain Connection

Dr. Laura,

I am writing for advice on how to be the most connected working parent that I can. My son, who is 25 months old has been in a nanny share that I think he enjoys (since 20 months, previously mostly home with me and my husband). He talks about the other little boy and nanny when he's home, and has a great calm, predictable routine with the nanny who is very loving (perhaps too much sometimes she is smothering!). Anyway, he looks happy when I pick him up at the end of the day, but as soon as we get home and I start dinner, he begins one long meltdown until bedtime. He cries and cries if I can't give him full attention, but also when I don't sit exactly where he wants me to, or leave the dinner table when he wants to play. The whining and crying drives my husband insane, and sometimes he has to leave the table.

I'm assuming that he feels he is not getting enough of our attention. I would like to know how to make this better. My husband and I just made a big mistake and bought an expensive house that requires us both to work. I didn't realize until the house was purchased how much I would miss being with my son while at work, and now the sadness and guilt about missing out on his childhood is all I think about and it's really depressing, but there is no way out of the mortgage at this point. So, short of selling the house and staying home full time, how can I best connect with my son so he is not permanently negatively changed by being away from us all day?

I realize that working FT is common for moms, but I tend to think that it's not ideal, and I worry what the impact is long term? I may try to negotiate cutting back hours with my boss, so in that case, would it be better to go in late each morning, or to just spend a whole Friday with him? I guess I am both looking for advice about how to make the situation the best possible, and also reassurance that I not damaging him emotionally for life. I am also trying to cope with my own personal sadness about the whole thing, and wondering if I am just projecting my grief onto my son? I am concerned that I will regret not being home with him for my whole life. Any advice is appreciated!

Thank you!

My heart goes out to you. You're in a tough position – feeling like you made the wrong choice and you're stuck with it. That might not be true, of course. There might be another solution that's outside the box, like taking other children into your house for a few years. And this is an adjustment period, your son is still adapting and may do fine in daycare. I do encourage you to consider all options, so that in the end you are choosing the life you have, rather than feeling stuck with circumstances beyond your control. If you do continue in the current situation, I think it's important that you realize you're choosing it – you aren't a victim here.

I hear how sad you are, so I also encourage you to take the time to mourn what you have lost. If you don't, your son will pick up on it. And you won't be able to be the mother you want to be. So journal about it, talk about it, cry about it, and really acknowledge your grief.

But you asked me about your son. As you no doubt know, many kids are in full-time daycare and thrive. Moms have always worked outside the home, and they have often been able to raise wonderful kids. Research reveals three essential components to their success formula: the relationship with the parents, the relationship with the caregiver, and the number of hours in care.

Let's take those in reverse order. You say that you could try to negotiate cutting back hours with your boss. That sounds terrific if it is doable, both because it would give you more time with him, and because it would make you more relaxed. It's always challenging to work fulltime outside the home and also be a relaxed parent, because so often you feel like you're rushing and overwhelmed. So cutting your workday back would certainly be helpful to your relationship with your boy. I think that is preferable to taking off Fridays, because it is more in keeping with what your son needs, which is fewer hours of his day in someone else's care. I wonder if you could cut back both at the beginning of the day, as you suggested, and at the end? I suggest that because it will mean you are less rushed in the morning—always a hectic, stressful time of day—and also that he gets you sooner in the evening. I think that might help his meltdowns.

It sounds like you have hit the jackpot with your son's caregiver. First, she is loving and affectionate and presumably they have a great relationship. Second, she has only one other child to care for. Third, he seems to love her and the other child. So nice work on that! How wonderful that you can trust that your son is good hands during the day.

Now, what about your son's relationship with you? I'm not sure this is just about "not enough attention" from you. I think it might be more about "I need to tell you what's been happening with me since I last saw you." Let me explain. The most important thing you can do to have a good relationship with him is to be responsive to his emotional needs. That includes his need to vent and cry and tell you about his feelings. At the end of the day, he needs you. If he's having one long meltdown from his arrival home until bedtime, it means he has saved up a lot of feelings that he needs to tell you about. Listen to them!

This won't go on forever, but for now your son needs you intensively after he's missed you all day. Prioritize him. Don't expect to be able to cook dinner. Order out or ask your husband to cook or eat convenience foods, for now.

If you can really focus on your son, and really listen to his meltdowns, he will get all that crying out, and he will have a much happier evening and be able to connect with you and with his dad. And he won't be tearful every night. This will help him adjust much better to missing you, because he isn't lugging around a full backpack of upset feelings that he can't tell you about.

Think of this as giving him regular opportunities to empty his emotional backpack. You'll know that's what he needs if he's whining or tearful or controlling. So the next time he desperately needs you to sit exactly where he wants you to, that's a signal. He's letting you know that his world feels so fragile that if you don't do exactly what he wants, everything will fall apart.

Of course, you could do what he wants in an effort to keep him from having a meltdown. But even if you do, your whole evening will be spent catering to a toddler who is on the verge of falling apart. Not only will that make you and your husband miserable, it will actually make your son miserable, because his attempts to control his inner turmoil by controlling you won't be successful. So gently, compassionately meet his eyes and tell him “No, Honey, I can't come play with you yet.”

That will trigger all of his built-up feelings of wanting you and not being able to have you. Expect a complete meltdown. Hold him, or if he won't let you, stay close. (BTW, you aren't actually going to stay at the table and finish your dinner. That was just a limit to help him get to the source of his upset. You are about to spend an hour helping your son feel safe enough to dump all those emotions he's been carrying around, so I'm hoping you got a few bites of dinner in first.)

Don't say much, just be warm and loving. Tell him that he's safe, you're right there. Acknowledge his upset: “You really wish I would always play with you.” Honor all of that pain and anguish as he pours it out to you. That's how much he wants you when you aren't there all day long.

If you do this for a week, I think you will find your son completely different in the evening. Of course, he will still need intensive connection time with you as soon as you're reunited. Take a look at my article on Surviving Arsenic Hour for some ideas on how to stay connected while you start dinner in the evening.

I would also suggest that you step up the physical roughhousing with him to help him giggle out his tears and fears. I particularly recommend you play separation games with him. For instance, tell him you want to play the ByeBye Game, and you are going to go ByeBye behind the couch (or in the bathroom, or whatever.) Tell him that if either of you misses the other, that person should yell Tyrannosaurus! Or whatever word you think will make him laugh. Then, start to go behind the couch, but before he can even miss you, jump out, yelling your silly word, and hugging him. Tell him you just missed him so much! Then tell him you want to try it again. Do it over and over, very gradually making the separation times a bit longer, but making sure that you always miss him before he can miss you. You'll know you're on the right track if he's giggling.

I think it's important for your husband to play with your son as well since he's having a hard time empathizing with his boy's anguish in the evenings. I would encourage your husband to play the Fix game with you, where you and your husband “fight” about which of you gets to kiss and hug your son because you both love him so much. Here's a link describing the Fix game:

Also, make sure that on the weekends, you have some intensive, low key special time with your son, where you simply stay with him while he plays, pouring your love into him. That's what he needs from you to build the closest relationship possible.

Finally, a word about discipline. Toddlers can be a handful, and research shows that toddlers who spend the most hours in nonparental care tend to have the most behavior problems. (NICHD Early Childcare Research Network, "Early Childcare and Self-Control, Compliance, and Problem Behavior at 24 months and 36 months," Child Development 69 (1998) pp. 85-92.) Luckily, by preschool age, this effect is no longer measurable.

But it does mean that your son might act out a bit extra. I raise this issue because responding with punishment--including timeouts-- is the fastest way to erode your relationship with your son. If you aren't already using positive parenting, I urge you to read up on it. Here are some articles to get you started:

So I want to reassure you that your son is not damaged, as you fear. Working full time makes the parents' job harder, because it is harder to stay connected to the child, and also because you are inevitably more stressed and tired. But it is entirely possible to stay deeply connected to your son. Just remember that when he feels disconnected, it's not just the time apart, but the emotions he's built up and needs to "tell you about." Once he does that, he'll be able to reconnect. And over time, he will gain in maturity and will be better able to handle the separation.

I wish you and your son every blessing.

Dr. Laura

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