When when I had my delusional fantasy of my carefree retirement into the world of SAHM life, I assumed that once Little C was old enough, I would have no trouble dropping him at the gym day care for a couple hours so I could work out, shower or just kick back and relax.
When we moved to our current apartment and were seeking out a gym to join nearby, Mr. Confetti and I specifically searched for fitness facilities that had a high quality kids facility attached, so that once Little C was born, we would be able to take advantage of it and get back into shape post-baby. I joined a fabulous gym that was reasonably priced and for an extra $25 per month (per child), you tacked on unlimited kid care. Unlimited. Up to two hours per visit, as many times per month as you like. I was sold.
Sadly, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Little C was not. He grasped the concept of object permanence extremely early on (around 5 months), and separation anxiety immediately reared its ugly head. My first attempt to take him there was at about 6 months, and it was a colossal fail: ten minutes of wailing before mommy retrieval. We had several similar visits, a few months apart, with absolutely no improvement despite his change in age and abilities.
You see, the challenge is that I have a clinger. A mommy’s boy. He is sweet and silly and adorably cute, but he isn’t so great at hanging out and playing independently. Sure, he’ll play alone for 5-10 minutes, but I often find him looking over at me for recognition that I am nearby and approve of what he is up to. We are together all the time, since I am his primary caregiver, so I can only imagine how scary it can be to be deposited in a strange room with new faces, new toys and new surroundings. I resolved that we were going to tackle this issue once we pulled off the switch to one nap, since his longer wake time would give me a large chunk of time to actually use the gym in the mornings.
It took a lot of work, but clearly, he is getting along with the staff just fine now!
Before we revisited the gym, I did a couple things that I am sure had a large impact on improving our outcome. First, I commited to having a regular babysitter come when Little C was awake. In the past, most of our babysitter use was restricted to evenings once Little C was sound asleep. When C was around 12 months, I started having our sitter come for an hour or two, once each week, so I could run a few errands and Little C could practice having mommy leave on his own home turf. While there was a cost involved, I figured that spending ~$20 a week would be well worth the investment in the long run. At the beginning, he would be a wreck for 15+ minutes, and then cry intermittently until I returned, but slowly, his anxiety began to lessen. He would still cry a little bit as I left the house (and still does), but within a couple minutes, he would be all calmed down and ready to show our sitter all his favorite books and toys.
Second, I bought the book Bye Bye Time, and we read it about a zillion times. This book is part of a series called Toddler Tools, and even at age one, it is amazing how much he understands. We’ve established a bye-bye routine (hugs and kisses, saying bye and “see you later alligator”), and while many people suggest sneaking out (either from home, or at gym daycare), I have found that it helps us immensely to say goodbye and reassure him that I will be back.
After all of this work tackling separation anxiety at home, I decided to take the plunge and return to the gym with Little C two weeks ago, this time with a plan and much more determination to make it work. I prepared myself for the tears (and tears there were many). I knew C would need to get to know the space, familiarize himself with the staff and other kids, and get used to the fact that I would leave and come back.
On our first day, I brought him in and reintroduced him to the two women working that day. He recognized where we were, and immeditaely panicked, clinging to me like a little koala. We sat with him on my lap and played with some toys and after about 10 minutes, I told him it was bye-bye time, gave him a huge hug and passed him to the arms of one of the staff. He sobbed so loudly that I could hear him upstairs from the machines. I sat on a bike feeling horribly while I waited out the ten minutes they give an inconsolable child before they retrieve a parent, and then headed back down. I came back in, gave him a big hug, and calmed him down. And then I sat back on the floor, and we played together in Kid Care with all the other folks in there for about 45 minutes before we headed home.
Next day, same story. And the day after, and the day after. It was a long and grueling week, but there were some small victories. We found a few toys that he really enjoyed, he was beginning to smile and flirt with the staff, and he didn’t flip out at the mere sight of the room. I also decided that while he only uses the pacifier for nights and naps, we would make an exception for the gym during this transition, especially since he hasn’t really chosen a lovey yet despite my best efforts. After a treacherous week, I resolved that this would not break me, and we continued, except this time, I talked with the staff and since they said that he was not as much crying as he was yelling (hello toddler tantrums), we would lengthen the time that I was gone before returning. While there was still an element of separation anxiety going on, he had also begun a battle of wills, and sorry Little C, I do not negotiate with pint-sized terrorists.
Week two was a vast improvement over the first week. He would scream and cry, often for ten minutes, but eventually he would calm and at least hang out and watch the other kids. By the end of the week, he was even playing side by side with them. I would come back in 15 minutes, then 20, then 25. Each day, we still stuck around to play in the Kid Care room, and by the end of week two, once I returned, he would crawl off to explore without worrying whether I stuck around or not. The staff has gotten to know him, and they light up when he enters the room each morning, which in turn makes him happy to be there.
If you are facing this same challenge, a few pointers I received that have absolutely worked include:
1) Go every single day. It will become routine and less scary each time. Even if you don’t want to work out, go for 20 minutes to keep up your momentum so that you overcome the worst of the anxiety.
2) Talk about saying goodbye, and then when “bye-bye time” comes, keep it brief, and get out of there as calmly as possibly, even if your heart is breaking.
3) Bring a lovey or a special toy with you. For us, this has been C’s pacifier, but hopefully down the line, he won’t need it.
4) Avoid peak Kid Care hours. Every gym is different on this one – I have found that it is easier to go closer to 8 am when it opens so there aren’t 15 kids running around. With only 3-4 children there, Little C can get one-on-one attention when he needs it.
5) Give the caretaker some tips about calming your child. They can be overwhelmed with all of the other children’s needs, but if you prepare them with a trick or two that will specifically help your child and remind them before you leave, it will make a huge difference (for us, it was the toy cars, watching an older child play a computer game and giving high fives – all of them seem to cheer him up in there).
I am so glad that we faced this challenge head on. Not only is it a head start on what I am sure we will face when C is old enough for preschool, but having a break in the morning to workout or shower and relax will make a huge difference in my happiness as a SAHM, particularly with Mr. Confetti traveling for work as much as he is. I know this will be an ongoing battle that requires consistency, but it’s one worth fighting for me.
Those are my tricks – have you faced a similar challenge? What were the best strategies you employed to overcome separation anxiety in a new environment?