Last night I got a phone call from one of my two sons. "Today I got a phone call with information that was both great news and bad," he said. I could hear him wanting to air a dilemma with me. I'm close to both of my boys and their wives, and they both have very young children. My Los Angeles son called to tell me what turns out to be every young parent's dream. He and his wife had just been offered a very coveted slot in his company's highly reputable and very convenient childcare program.
Quality childcare-it's what every parents wants for a child and it's in such short supply, especially in the nation's major cities. We are very sensitized to the issue here in New York City, where machinations by an executive to win a coveted slot in a highly rated preschool nearly brought down Citigroup a few years ago. But now, on another coast, there was a full-time opening for my son's son. An occasion for rejoicing, right? Well, not so fast. The offer, it turns out, came just about a year too soon, long before my son and his wife expected the wait list to ever inch down to them. Their baby is one very adorable creature (I'm admittedly prejudiced), but he's not quite five months old, and he's still exclusively breast-feeding. What's more, my daughter in law is not quite ready to jump back into her work full-time. She was planning on a more gradual re-entry with time to rebuild the client base she deliberately tapered during pregnancy.
What an agonizing decision they had to make! Turn down the opening now and probably not get another offer for several years, if at all. Take the offer despite being psychologically and practically unprepared, in order to have access to a proven, quality preschool program. I wondered how many other young parents around the country faced the same difficult choices-that is, if they were as lucky as my kids were. High-quality childcare programs are not exactly a dime a dozen. Most families have to settle for whatever they can get, and then they typically have to endure the constant stress of a patchwork quilt of arrangements on days when a child has the sniffles, or Mommy does. This, of course, for our most precious natural resource-our children, our future.
This was one telephone conversation where I didn't say very much. I listened, mostly. I listened to my son air the pros and cons of putting his son in daycare now or turning down the offer. He was still reeling from the surprise of receiving the offer months, if not years, before he thought he'd be lucky enough to get it. He still hadn't talked it out completely with his wife, although, of course, they had already talked about it some. There was much more for them to say to each other. I listened because I didn't have any specific wisdom to impart, at least not yet. And I don't know whether anyone does. (If you do, please share it with me!)
One true way?
I don't know that there is any one course of action in this situation that is right for all families all the time. A lot, I know, depends not only on the parents' preparedness but their sense of the strength of their attachment to their baby and the baby's security in his attachment to his mommy and daddy. This much I do know: Much of his future-his basic sense of security in the world, the ease with which he will feel free to explore his environment and to take in information, his sense that the world is a benign place, his expectation that he can have an effect in the world-will rest on that. In other words, much of his future psychological health.
A Strong Foundation
As therapists, you probably deal with the fallout of this fact all the time: The quality of what comes first has a lasting impact. A strong foundation of attachment between parent and child is irreplaceable. It doesn't determine everything, but it certainly has a powerful influence. No question about it, a strong bond is definitely in place. But it isn't finished yet. So what's the right choice? Some parents can spend all day with their children and never form a strong attachment bond. For other parents, early months of the kind of intense closeness of breast-feeding create a psychological as well as physiological synchrony that will be impossible to undo. There are many other variables of parent background and infant temperament that factor into the attachment process, of course. But its importance can't be disputed. How it will play out in this situation I can't yet say. I'm hoping my son and daughter in law want to continue the conversation; at best, I can be the sounding board against which they can hear themselves think their own way to a solution.
Feel free to chime in with your thoughts below.