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How to Stop Worrying about Childcare

My first sitter, Maggie, spoiled me forever. We met, I adored her, she adored the baby, I hired her, and a love affair began. I left for work on her first day without a second thought – really! I had no urge to run back and ask her 12 more questions about her experience, her references, her opinion on daytime TV or high-fructose corn syrup.

But the love affair had to end after a year  – we moved, too far to keep Maggie – and we went through four more nannies before the next year came to a close. I had more than my share of irrational fears (like the time I was sure Christine had a boyfriend lurking around my house; she didn't, though she simply disappeared one day) and rational ones (like the time I was sure Danielle would quit to return to a glam fashion job; she did  – with no notice!). I second-guessed myself into a pretzel.

Even now, with 3-year-old Daniel and his little brother, James, happily and safely ensconced in daycare, I feel the uncertainty that seems part of handing over your kids to someone else. Should I work less or try again for a nanny? Shell out more cash for a ritzier daycare?

Fact is, "even when you know you've done it 'right' choosing childcare, the uncomfortable feelings come," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. Add in the childcare studies that periodically make alarming headlines in the media-like March's research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development about how kids in child-care centers exhibit a slight increase in minor behavior problems through sixth grade  – and it's a wonder any of us have a moment's peace of mind. (Of course, that study also found that kids who experience high-quality childcare, even in centers, have better-than-average vocabulary skills through fifth grade, but the guilt-provoking part of the findings got most of the play.)

The emotional tug-of-war is as much an unpleasant reality of childcare as late-pickup fees and the times your child calls the sitter "Mommy." To deal with some common childcare trip-ups:

The second-guessing trap

A few weeks ago, when I picked up my boys, I had one of those moments that only other daycare parents can appreciate. I tiptoed in so I could spy for a minute, and found Daniel, my hearty preschooler, on an indoor slide intended for a 1-year-old. My 1-year-old, one sock off and one sock on, was banging a plastic dinosaur against a shelf. The scene made me feel... unsettled. Shouldn't they have been steered to more appropriate activities? Had I made a grave error in choosing this place for them-or was I just having a bad day?

The truth is, you may find a place that's great in terms of location, cost, curriculum, and other quantifiable aspects, but much of the rest of your choice comes down to fuzzy-around-the-edges feelings. Erin Cecil, mom of 26-month-old Cole, never imagined she could replace the family daycare she had in San Diego after a cross-country move to Crofton, Maryland, so she opted for a daycare center. "I figured Cole would do well with more kids and structured activities," she says. But while the center was fine, she soon found that both she and Cole missed their former setup. "Our old caregiver was like a part of the family. She'd even come to Cole's birthday party," she explains.

Cecil called her former provider for advice. "She said, 'If there's a feeling in the pit of your stomach that it's not right, it's not right.' I started looking that day. We checked out a local family daycare with four children that we'd heard about, and we loved it. Cole now can't wait to go; I have to drag him out every evening."

The trick is to tease out which pit-of-the-stomach moments are the result of one bad dropoff or chaotic pickup and which may be genuine red flags. In my case, I decided it was no big deal if Daniel sometimes played with baby toys; he also painted elaborate pictures, sat on the potty more reliably than he would at home, and talked glowingly about Miss Rosie and Miss Allison at dinnertime.

Remember, too, that there's a difference between second-guessing and reevaluation. If you think your childcare choice is no longer working for your family, maybe it's time to make a change. And who knows? The process of reassessing may help you to see that your original choice is still right.

As you go about looking to see what else is out there, think outside the box of sitter interview questions or daycare must-haves. For instance, while you should still ask a potential nanny about her previous work experience, go deeper. "See if her child-rearing beliefs mesh with yours. Ask her if she believes in letting a baby cry it out, or if she thinks it's ever okay to admit you were wrong to your child," Smith says. "If they don't, don't be swayed if she assures you she'll follow your rules. When frustrations run high, she's more likely to respond from her gut."

When you're visiting potential childcare spots, try not to see things under the best of circumstances. "Go at a potentially chaotic time, like lunch or morning dropoff. You'll get a better idea of how they handle things," says Smith. If the center's director shows you the room your child will be in, ask to speak to the staffers inside. After all, they, not the director, will be in charge of your child's minute-by-minute care.

The grass-is-greener dilemma

Even before Monique Fields took maternity leave from her job as a newspaper reporter, she figured she'd have to hire a sitter when she returned to work. "I was often at my desk well past when most daycare centers close," says Fields, of St. Petersburg, Florida. But she also knew that a per-hour sitter would add up to big bucks – and found herself envying friends who could easily afford what she viewed as a luxury. "They didn't have to worry if their schedules were nuts – they could just arrange hours with their sitter."

Fields ended up switching careers to a journalism teaching job with more normal hours and finding a family daycare for her daughter, Simone, who is 1. "Now I realize that having a nanny isn't perfect either," she says. "One friend's nanny just quit. That wouldn't happen with my daycare."

When you find yourself envying your friends' childcare situations, it can be startling and guilt-inducing. Yet it's common to feel the way Fields did: that everyone's got it figured out  – everyone, that is, except you.

Remember that while the grass over there may look nice and green, chances are there are weeds poking through. You may find that your friend with the "perfect" situation is tearing her hair out, too, whether over a no-show sitter or a daycare facility that lets the other kids show up with runny noses. That gleaming new center down the street may make your family care look shabby  – but you may still prefer your slightly careworn toys and homespun circle-time games to its shiny playground and aggressive fund-raisers.

Face it: No sitter is Mary Poppins, no childcare situation is hassle-free, and all working parents have the same woe-is-me story to tell. "If you're comfortable with the person or place you have selected, trust that she or they have something special to contribute to your child's experience," says Veronika Stein, a parent coach and instructor at Parenting Coach Institute at Seattle Pacific University.

The I-can't-let-go problem

Kristen Wilson, a mom in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, got lucky, finding a sitter recommended by her friend and next-door neighbor. Plus, since Wilson works at home, she figured she'd have the best of both worlds. "The nanny would care for my daughter upstairs while I worked downstairs," she says.

Sounds ideal, right? But Wilson, whose daughter, Mackenzie, is 5 months old, still struggles. "I hear Mackenzie crying, and I never know: Should I go soothe her or leave the two of them to work it out?" She has difficulty accepting that even though they're in the same house, she has no idea what's going on with her child all day.

"The reality is that infants and toddlers, especially, don't have the language needed to tell you much of anything about their day," says Stein. "That can amplify a parent's sense of being out of touch with her child's experience."

While jealousy may play a role here (the sitter has all the good moments; you get the cranky, end-of-day moments), so may guilt. "Parents may think, 'Shouldn't I be the one who's home all day?'" says Barbara Marcus, CEO of Parents in a Pinch, Inc., a nanny and temporary childcare placement agency in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The real kicker is that these feelings arise even when you're happy with your childcare choice. Knowing that your child is content at daycare only serves to remind you she's leading a life  – albeit just a small part of one  – that you're not privy to. And if you have a nanny you love, chances are that's because she and your child have a bond  – games, hugs, and songs that don't include you.

Remember that you're not a busybody if you sometimes request more info about your child's day. "If you have a sitter, just call and say, 'I'm sitting here wondering what Kim's doing. Can you give me a sketch?'" says Stein. Same with a daycare center: "Ask the director when would be a good time to call and get a mini-message about what your child is doing – the occasional request shouldn't be a problem," she says.

Once Daniel gets old enough for school, my childcare needs will shift again. I've learned a few lessons: to trust my judgment, follow my instincts, and not fall prey to childcare envy.

Now if only our first nanny would move close enough to babysit on Saturday nights....