"We're telling everyone," said the daycare teacher, as I tried to stop my toddler's backward shuffle out of the playroom. "We've had complaints from other parents."
I unwound my son's hands from my knees and lifted him over the threshold. He backed out of the room and stuck himself against my legs again.
My son's daycare had just shared a rule I never knew existed about how long parents are supposed to stay during drop-off: 15 minutes, and then, no matter what state they're in, you have to leave.
I had been staying and waiting as long as it took for the moment my son was happy and distracted enough that he'd stopped turning to look for me. I looked at my watch. There were already only 12 minutes left until the new-to-me rule kicked in. My child needed me there. How could an inflexible rule be what was best for him?
I bit back a snarky response about the daycare supposedly following a Montessori "child-led" approach. Instead, I said I'd never intended to stay so long every morning and that I did it, in part, to make it easier for the staff – not because I was coddling him.
That's what I told myself, too, and it was partly true. But the person I was most protecting from seeing my child's face crumple into tears and screams as I closed the door was me.
The separation anxiety was new. At my son's last daycare, he'd waddle off to play with barely a backward glance as I said goodbye. But at this new daycare in a new town after a move, he'd become clingy and fearful. I reasoned that it was because we'd moved, this was his third daycare in five months, and that I'd ease the transition by being there to settle him in.
I joined in with playtime, or sat him on my knee for storytime, or eased myself onto an adjoining tiny stool while they had their morning snack, waiting for my moment to sneak off. Eventually, he'd get involved enough that I could leave, but I worried all the way home.
What if I was causing the very anxiety I was trying to alleviate? Wasn't he learning that mommy vanishes as soon as he turned his head? But I knew from the times he'd caught me halfway out the door that announcing my goodbye would lead to tears and upset. Sometimes for both of us.
Another boy in my son's class cried all morning after his mother left. He cried through morning snack. He cried when they went outside to play. He never let up, even with a dummy or food in his mouth. His mother had no choice but to leave because of work.
As a freelancer, I have more control over my schedule. I was prepared to erode my working hours as much as needed while my son settled in. Except he didn't settle in, and I stayed longer and longer each day – 20 minutes typically, but sometimes it crept up to 40.
When my 12 remaining minutes were up, I said goodbye and shut the door in his blotchy, tear-stained face. I stayed at the front door as long as I could stand, listening to the staff comfort him.
Despite how the day began, I picked up a happy, energetic, non-traumatized child that evening. I knew he didn't hate being there, but I still dreaded the next morning, and the next. Some days, I'd sneak off. Others, I'd brace myself and say goodbye, standing in the corridor until he stopped crying. But, I could hear the cries shortening each time.
After a week of leaving at curfew time, my son stopped wailing before I even got to the front door. Then finally, one morning in the second week, I said goodbye and he just looked at me and carried on playing. No tears, no drama. I was in and out in five minutes.
I'm grateful for the 15-minute rule. It's better for my son, and it's better for me. It's allowed us both freedom from separation anxiety.