This piece first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Mothers Always Write.
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.
Initially, I was thrilled that we found such a perfect caregiver for our perfect child. She was doted upon. She attended playgroups, Bible studies, and walks to the farmer’s market. By four months old, my daughter was part of a social circle that even 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, I was again responsible for outsourcing not just her supervision, but a portion of her upbringing. I loved the love my girl had received from her former part-time family and wanted that to continue, though I did not yet realize the consequences of that decision.
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 new 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 and clearly enunciate “kitty cat”, 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 morning’s sleep and bowel movement report, neither of us acknowledging the “M” word.
Then I got back in the car.
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 those 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 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. “Mommy!” Mommy, she repeated again. “Very, very good. Now who are we going to see tomorrow?” Mommy? “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 on the regular.
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 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 with Mommy Lisa as the main character.
“Quiet down cobwebs,
dust go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby
and babies don’t keep.”
The poem hanging in my mother’s hallway was right. Babies don’t keep. I was missing my baby’s childhood.
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.
One Friday night I carried her downtown. It was the night the art galleries stay open late–free cheese and people watching beckoned us out of the house. 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 (and that unfortunate 14 year old dressed up as a dog) had shared.
She still spends a LOT of waking hours with Mommy Lisa. They continue to have special experiences at the splash pad, the playground, and McDonald’s Play Place (with its secret fries). My daughter demonstrates what I should have recognized all along: there is room for both mommies in her mind, in her heart, and in her life.
Lord (and our checking account) knows that I need a job, and we need a caregiver. But instead of panicking this week when my daughter drew a picture of “a daddy and two mommies”, I paused for a moment of thanksgiving for a babysitter she deems worthy of my favorite name.