Sophie Schillaci is an LA-based mama and journalist behind MomNeedsMerlot.com, soon to be wrangling two kiddos under two.
Today I’m sharing my experience with toddler separation anxiety, from the heart-wrenching goodbyes to finding free help with childcare when you’ve got no extended family in sight. Below, I’ve compiled my top five tips for helping your little -- and yourself -- through this challenging phase. You’ve got this, mama!!
“What if she loves her daddy more than me?”
This thought bounced around in my head throughout pregnancy. Not a real source of concern, of course, but something of a sore spot. I wanted nothing more than a healthy and happy baby girl -- but I’d heard plenty about the special relationship between dads and daughters, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit jealous at the thought. After carrying this little one in my belly for nine months and with fourth trimester postpartum looming ahead, I hoped to have earned some special treatment from my daughter… Who am I kidding? I wanted to be the favorite parent.
And as things stand… I usually am. That’s not to say that Everly doesn’t have a beautiful and sweet relationship with her adoring dad -- she absolutely does. Watching them together melts my heart into a puddle on the floor. She asks for her “Dad-o” often while he’s at work, greets him with a big smile and hug at the door, and loves the special way that he tucks her into her crib at night for bedtime. They laugh and play together while I cook dinner, and all is right in the world. That is, until Everly remembers that I’m there.
Toddler separation anxiety is very real, especially as I’m the primary caregiver in our home. I don’t often have the freedom to leave the house without her, so when I do, tears often ensue. Heck, Everly doesn’t even like to watch cartoons without my company. Bathroom and shower privacy? Forget it.
Oh, did I mention that we’ve got another baby on the way?
I’ve been encouraged by friends and professionals to look into part time childcare options. “She should get used to other people caring for her,” they nudge. But they’re not the ones footing that bill. Part of the reason I’m a stay at home mom in the first place is due to astronomical child care costs, which just don’t fit in our budget at the moment. Especially with a newborn on the way.
Ironic, considering we need the help now more than ever.
So, I’ve had to get creative in working through this season of our lives. Here’s what I’ve learned about tackling toddler separation anxiety in a mindful and budget-friendly way.
One of the first things Everly has needed to learn is what it means to wait and to be self sufficient. As my first child, she’s enjoyed the luxury of my full attention for most of her life so far. Now, when she makes a request, I’ve gotten in the practice of letting her know that “Mama’s busy right now, so I need you to be patient for a moment.” Sometimes we’ll count to 10, 20 or 30… and back down again... while she waits. (Preferably in a nearby room or safely strapped into a high chair where she can’t clamor at my legs the entire time.) Sometimes I’ll explain to her what exactly I need to do first before her request will be fulfilled. Even if she would become upset initially, over time she has learned to trust that I will always come back around to fulfill her needs.
If you happen to live down the street from grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles and longtime friends who are dying to babysit -- good for you!! Take them up on their offers often and switch up the scenery -- from your home to theirs, to the zoo and the park.
But if you’re like myself and so many millennials who have built their adult lives far from “home” and extended families, free help may be much harder to come by.
I’ve been fortunate enough to build a small but mighty tribe of mamas through local pre and postnatal workout classes along with regular parent and me programs. Find women that you trust with babies close in age to yours and make time for playdates -- they’re just as important for you as your little ones, who will learn familiarity with both these mamas and babies.
When you find yourselves in a pinch, there’s no better community to lean on.
When I had a last minute work assignment and my planned childcare fell through, it was a local mom friend who sent over her usual sitter for two days.
When I had a doctor’s appointment and my husband was stuck at the office, it was another local mom friend who said: “Drop Everly off on your way to the doctor. We’ll be home.”
When my husband and I wanted to go to a matinee screening of the new Star Wars movie, it was yet another local mom friend who agreed to host a playdate with Everly and her daughter while we enjoyed a day date.
Mom guilt can show up in many shapes and forms, and it can be hard to not feel like a burden when asking for or accepting help from others. But I encourage you to ask yourself: Would you do the same for them if the roles were reversed? If the answer is a whole hearted yes, then you’ve got to trust that they are equally happy to lend a hand.
This is key: Don’t sneak out that door.
As hard as it might be to pry their little fingers from your neck and to see the tears, it is so important to acknowledge that you’re leaving -- and that you’ll be back soon. It shouldn’t be a whole production. (In fact, I’d encourage offering a quick hug and kiss goodbye while they are showing interest in an activity with their caregiver.) But it’s important for them to learn the ritual of seeing you leave and return.
You can leave them with an object to hold onto in your absence, be it something small of yours or a special lovey that brings them comfort. Tell them where you are going and when you will be back, giving them something to look forward to. “I’ll be back before bed time to read a book together!” The more specific you can be regarding the timing and activity, the better.
Encouraging Independent Play:
If you can’t physically get away, there are plenty of activities you can do outside the home to encourage your toddler to engage with other adults and children.
Weather permitting, public parks can be a wonderful way to burn off that energy and learn independence. Allow yourself to monitor from a distance while your toddler explores climbing, sliding and taking turns with others on the jungle gym. If they want to hold your hand for the first few visits, allow them to gradually their their time to warm up to the concept. By a few visits to the same playground, they will hopefully be ready to take off on their own.
Story time at a public library or bookstore can also be a great opportunity for your toddler to meet and learn about new people in a cozy, safe environment.
Above All Else…
Take comfort, Mama, in that this is just a season. Your baby will continue to learn and grow, and will one day drive away from home without fanfare.
Lead with love and follow your instincts.
Trust that you know how to support your little while they are learning to spread their wings.
We’ll all get through this!
Mom Needs Merlot