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Opinion: Detachment parenting – deliver, bond, and then deposit in creche

Many parents have no choice but to return to work when their babies are still very young – and the process is a bit brutal on all concerned.

Claire Micks

THERE ARE A number of old reliables that I wheel out to myself whenever I am having one of my many crises of conscience about the fact that my toddlers spend so much of their waking lives outside of their home cared by someone other than their own mother.

Stimulation. Socialisation. Learning. Independence.

These are all the reassuring buzzwords that I have accumulated over time. These are the developmental attributes which their being cared for within a communal environment alongside their peers by trained professionals adds to their little lives, or so I tell myself. This the repertoire of benefits I repeat back to myself whenever I am having a sentimental mummy ‘moment’, and find myself wondering whether they’d be better off with me.

Some days I manage to convince myself. Other days I don’t.

For what six month old needs more stimulation than simply existing outside of their own mother’s womb? What socialisation are they really capable of beyond the basics of one-to-one contact with the two people who brought them into this world? What are they going to learn in that environment that they wouldn’t eventually discover in their own front room? And, as for independence? Well the ridiculousness of that particular suggestion, at such a tender age, speaks for itself.

Which leaves me with no cogent arguments left really for why we put our babies into the communal care of others, other than the simple fact that we often have to.

A message that resonated 

A very brave Cork woman wrote a letter to the Irish Independent this week wherein she lamented the fact that, owing to the economic demands of their lives, her husband and herself felt that their children were being raised ‘like hens’. When she made that analogy I doubt there was a working mother in the land for whom the sheer honesty of her unapologetic view did not resonate. She spoke the unspeakable. She articulated what many of our hearts had long been instinctively feeling, even if our heads had done a remarkable spin job of reconfiguring that inherent sense of unease we all feel when faced with a line of high chairs ready and waiting for assembly line feeding.

I can’t really remember my daughter’s initial weeks in crèche, I suspect because part of me has blocked it out. She was nine months in the womb, and less than nine months in my exclusive care, before she was unceremoniously handed over to a virtual stranger to be minded ten hours a day. It was traumatic for both of us, not least because it wasn’t really a voluntary choice on either of our parts. Economic necessity dictated this care arrangement, and personal choice never really came into it.

I have a vague recollection of smudged mascara and carrying a pair of her pink socks discreetly around in my handbag so I felt a part of her was always with me. I remember the kind and understanding women in the crèche who were sympathetic and patient and did a wonderful job of managing what was inevitably a painful transition for both of us. But, other than that, my memories of that time are limited. All I really remember is a very loud voice within my own head shouting, ‘Enough of the sentimentality, Claire. Time’s up. Get on with it’.

I never did the drop off. Never. Because I knew that if she so much as squawked, it would be gut-wrenching in the extreme. I got the nicer end of the day. I got to be ‘good cop’. The one who brought her home. Daddy got the clingy baby who often had to be pulled from him as she desperately clung on to the familiar. He was better able to handle that. Could easily rationalise it as just being ‘what had to be done’, whereas I would have been a basket case. So instead I got the big smiles and delighted hugs when the familiar eventually returned at the end of the working day.

‘Remain sensible about the whole thing’

Now that they are older I can definitely see the value of the stimulation, the socialisation, the learning, the routine. They bound in, and often don’t even say goodbye, and they are definitely very happy there. But they are older now. And capable of exercising all those skills which childcare undoubtedly fosters. But my memories of Lucy’s early months will always be tinged with sadness and regret. Not because she wasn’t well cared for. She absolutely was. But because she was just so young to be taken out of the family fold. And in many ways, it felt as if just as we were getting used to each other, that just as we had finally gotten the hang of his whole ‘mummy/baby’ malarkey, then we suddenly found ourselves apart.

We have our babies. We’re encouraged to breast feed them, co-sleep, even wear them for Christ’s sake. Our lives revolve around them for the first few months, and rightly so. ‘Roll up, roll up, all aboard the Attachment Parenting train! It’s officially now ‘All About Baby’! But don’t get too close now. No, no, don’t get too involved. Remain sensible about the whole thing. Because six months from now you’ll be expected to hand them over and resume your normal life for the foreseeable future’.

Her crèche is brilliant. The girls there are patient and caring and clearly adore the children in their care. But they are not their parents. And, in my own very uneducated, overly sentimental opinion, there is ultimately no replacement for that. And a society where the expectation is always that both parents will work, where financial commitments are routinely undertaken and long term plans are made upon that automatic assumption, without any real knowledge or appreciation on an individual basis of how that impacts the path ahead, is not necessarily a healthy one. For it doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre in later years. And it sets young women up with a mindset that working and parenting simultaneously is normal, and easy, and eminently manageable. Which it isn’t always.

Uncertainty, doubt and guilt

That letter resonated because in one or two short sentences it unearthed the reservations so many of us parents harbour around the choices we make for our children in these very early years. It scratched beneath the surface and revealed the uncertainty and doubt and guilt that lies beneath the decisions we parents make each and every day in modern Ireland around our children’s care.

Sometimes I wonder if my relationship with them would be very different if I hadn’t ‘detached’. I wonder how my own relationship with the outside world, and ultimately my relationship with myself would have evolved had I remained within the home. Perhaps, by definition, we will always have to ‘detach’, but it just seems that current practice where we attach, attach, attach for months on end, and then overnight ‘detach’, is a bit brutal on all concerned.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read more of her columns for TheJournal.ie here

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Claire Micks

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