At work, you’re confident and in control. And at home you’re relaxed and happy. But during those times when your professional and private lives overlap — namely, the morning dash to the office and the early-evening chaos that greets you at home — you’re a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s not surprising: Not only are you trying to juggle your dual roles as devoted mom and committed career woman, but your baby may be struggling, too, as he tries to incorporate your entries and exits into his daily schedule. Still, this kind of chaos doesn’t have to be a fact of everyday life if you build rituals and routines into your daily comings and goings.
The Long Goodbye
No one ever said separating from your baby was going to be easy, but keep in mind that it’s a valuable learning experience for him. "Through separation, a child learns to trust others to take care of him, to trust his parents to return, and to trust himself to handle it," says June Solnit Sale, a child-development consultant in Los Angeles and coauthor of The Working Parents Handbook. The key to reducing separation anxiety is keeping the morning hours calm and predictable.
Plan ahead. Do as much advance preparation as possible: Before you turn in the night before, pack your lunch, your briefcase, and your baby’s bag for daycare, lay out your work clothes, set out the breakfast dishes, have pumped breast milk or formula bottled and ready to go, and write out any special instructions for your caregiver. By doing some or all of these things in advance, you can avoid those anxiety-producing last-minute scrambles that tend to waylay you in the morning.
Divide and conquer. Judy Levey, a college fund-raiser in Grinnell, IA, and her husband, Sandy, split their morning chores after their son Gideon was born. Judy showers while Sandy feeds Gideon, then they switch places and Judy clears away the breakfast dishes while Sandy takes his turn in the bathroom. This set schedule eliminates early-morning squabbles and confusion about who does what when. Other couples assign one partner to handle the baby’s morning preparations while the other is responsible for relieving their infant’s caregiver at the end of the day. That way, neither parent is forced to race against the clock morning and evening.
Build in some playtime. You may think, Fun? Who has time for that in the morning? "But if you fit in time for snuggling or playing a simple game together, you’ll feel less guilt about leaving because your baby will be satisfied from your time together," explains Joan Peters, author of When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Our Selves. When her daughter Lily was an infant, Peters would bring her into her bed for an hour of cuddling and playing before she and her husband got ready for work each morning.
Stick to a routine. "Babies need consistency," says Deborah Zambianco, a clinical child psychologist in Los Angeles. So keep the order of your mornings the same from day to day. Consistency can also be reinforced with objects: If your baby is heading off to daycare, let him take along a familiar stuffed animal or a favorite blanket. "Beloved objects are soothing and comforting to a baby," says Zambianco, and they can make transitions less abrupt and scary for him.
Make it a warm good-bye. Whether you’re dropping off your baby at daycare or leaving him home with a sitter, take the time to explain your departure. "Though he may not understand the meaning of your words at first, the process of communicating in a soothing voice is reassuring," says June Sale. And sooner than you think, between 12 and 18 months of age, your baby will begin to understand what you’re saying. It’s also important to create a good-bye ritual, such as waving and blowing kisses, that can be repeated each day.
Stay calm. If you’re nervous and guilt-ridden during your first weeks back at work, try to keep these anxious feelings in check around the baby. You are his barometer of whether or not all is well. If you leave happily and confidently, he’s likely to feel more secure in your absence.
As relieved as you may be to put work behind you and see your baby once again, the twilight hours can be tough. So remember to consider everyone’s needs at the end of the day. "Reuniting is an important part of the sequence of separating," says Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, director of the Sackler Lefcourt Center for Child Development in New York City. It’s also something that should be handled carefully. If you’re stressed out and frazzled, you and your baby will have trouble getting back in sync with each other.
Check in from work. Of course you want to know how your baby’s day went. But do you really want a recap while he’s tugging at your skirt, other parents are shouldering in to get updates on their children, or your caregiver is edging toward the door? If you call from work beforehand, you’ll get a complete rundown and will be prepared for your baby’s mood — whether cuddly or cantankerous. Karen Strauss, a public relations director in New York City, often telephones her childcare provider at 5 P.M., just before she heads out to catch the train home. "This way, I know what to expect when I arrive," she explains.
Take time to unwind. To make the so-called witching hour less wicked, it helps to decompress before you walk through the door at night. Some suggestions: Listen to classical music during your evening commute, read a juicy novel on the bus, or stroll home from the train station instead of driving. Joan Peters makes time to go to the gym on her way home from the office. Another option might be to meet your spouse for a quick cappuccino after work, when you can both recount your day and recharge your batteries before focusing on your baby’s needs.
Make it a happy reunion. Once you’re home, put off listening to phone messages, ignore the dirty laundry, and banish all thoughts of work from your head. "Immediately give the baby your loving attention," Sale says. "After the daylong separation, he needs one-on-one time with you." Be warned, though: He may be fussy, aloof, or clingy at first, so take time to reestablish your connection. You can look through the mail, change your clothes, and return phone calls once he’s settled down.
Stay flexible. Since you may have just a couple of hours to spend with your baby before his bedtime, keep your after-work routine as relaxed as possible. Judy Levey, for instance, decided that time with her son was more important than getting dinner on the table like clockwork. So she and Gideon play together for an hour before she begins whipping up the evening meal. "I have to rush through preparations a bit," she says, "but a child isn’t young for very long, and I want to make the most of our time together."
Of course, frozen meals may need to replace fresh fare, and your home may not be as tidy as you’d like, but don’t sweat it. Twenty years from now, the dust bunnies that accumulated on the floor will be a dim memory. But you’ll always remember the giddy look on your little one’s face as you walked through the door and scooped him up into your arms.