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Is It Safe to Outsource Motherhood?

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While getting a nanny is quite the thing du jour, could you be doing your child more harm than good?

Woman wondering

Dr. Wendy Walsh: The female P.R. executive sat primly in a stylish New York restaurant. Even though it was Saturday, her attire -- an impeccable navy-blue suit and smart heels -- was all business. At some point during the small talk that occurred prior to the lunch meeting, the subject of children came up -- and the exec mentioned that she had a 4-year-old and 18-month-old twins. My mouth went agape. This woman looked far too rested and put-together to have that kind of workload at home. When I complimented her on her amazing ability to pull this off, she responded with a very modern explanation. "I love my children," she assured me. "But I could never be with them all day. I have plenty of help, and I trust professionals to help me raise my kids."

Her career success has enabled her to create the ultimate feminist dream: motherhood without too much inconvenience. And she's not alone. For the first time in history, there are more women in the American workforce than men -- thanks to the recession that caused more male layoffs than female. And within that giant workforce of women are millions of mothers who depend on a range of childcare professionals to keep their delicate balancing act alive.

But could there be dangers to all this outsourcing? Do children need a biological mother on-site in order to thrive? The answers to these questions are, "Yes, sometimes," and "Not always." For thousands of years, a village of female relatives worked in concert to get kids from womb to adulthood; today's league of nannies and daycare centers are -- in some ways -- a modern version of the same thing. But when is too much separation from mommy emotionally dangerous for a baby or child?

The answer is a complicated one that has been the focus of attachment researchers for decades. Psychologists know that some children are born with a biological predisposition to attachment injuries that can lead to major personality disorders, while others seem to grow up relatively unscathed by separation from attachment figures. Children usually display separation anxiety early on, so parents should pay attention to it.

It's important to remember that children perceive time in a different way than adults. Eight hours to an adult might feel like a week to a newborn. Remember how long it took for your birthday to roll around when you were a kid? Compare that to your adult birthdays -- which seem to come way too fast.

While there are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to avoiding attachment injuries, here's Dr. Walsh's best advice on how to have your little one grow up healthy and secure, with an ability to attach as a spouse later in life:

1. Use as many infant-attachment parenting techniques (breastfeeding, baby wearing, skin-to-skin contact, co-sleeping) as possible to establish a strong bond early on.

2. Choose a consistent caregiver and do whatever it takes to keep him/her -- for years.

3. If a child is under 5, do your best to not be away longer than a total of eight hours a day.

4. Make sure your child has multiple primary attachments -- father, grandmother, aunties, etc. -- who can provide security if you are forced to be away.

5. Make up for separation by providing dedicated re-bonding time each day. Spend at least 20 minutes alone with and focused on each child, allowing him or her to lead the activity.

6. Even with older children, family beds can be a great way to stay connected during the night hours.

8 comments so far | Post a comment now
Black Iris February 23, 2010, 9:14 AM

These seem like good tips. Your child will survive if someone outside the family takes care of them. On the other hand, at some point it’s too much time away from family. And the someone else has to be a person who stays around. That’s hard to do and impossible to guarantee.

michelle February 23, 2010, 10:35 AM

These are good common sense tips (and I emphasize common sense — all of us working mothers are already doing all of these). But really Wendy, I am so grossed out by some of the ridiculous, ignorant, insulting stuff you spout in every single one of your posts. The “ultimate feminist dream” is “motherhood without too much inconvenience”?? Really??

michelle February 23, 2010, 10:36 AM

And the other insulting thing. Childcare is not “outsourcing motherhood.” It is paid childcare. The mother is still the mother and still raises the children, regardless of employment status.

melinda February 23, 2010, 2:20 PM

Calling it “outsourcing motherhood” is a major insult to all working mothers. I am my child’s mother. The ultimate feminist dream is being able to live the life you want and make the right choices for yourself and your family, without judgement.

My child gets the best of both worlds - a wonderful, caring nanny who is 100% dedicated to him between 8 and 5:30 and a loving mommy who is 100% dedicated to him every other waking hour of the day. And because I work, I make the most of every single minute I have with him. It may not be a large quantity, but it’s certainly quality.

lisa February 23, 2010, 3:52 PM

What job do you know that only lets people work 8 hours a day in this economy? Come on let’s get some more realistic tips.

tennmom February 24, 2010, 7:48 AM

I can not fathom saying that I couldn’t stand being with my children all day. Why bother having them if that is the case? What a selfish attitude.
I love my daughters far more than my career, which is why I still don’t work outside the home although my daughters are 10 and 12. I LOVE taking them to school, picking them up, being able to volunteer at their schools, being able to run to school at a moments notice if they need me.
I’ll work outside of the home when my older daughter is able to drive herself and her sister to school.
Sure, we could afford to put in a pool if I were working now but my children come first. I would never consider having someone else caring for my children, spending more “awake hours” with them during the week than I.

AJ April 8, 2010, 4:27 AM

The consistent caregiver is a MUST!! Thankfully, a girlfriend of mine who enrolls her daughter in an Emilia Reggio preschool academy happened to bond with her daughter’s teacher - a bright young girl getting her B.A. in Elementary Education and Chemistry! We’ve been using her as a weekend sitter when she has the time for about 2 years now. If she isnt available I’m too hesitant to ask some 12-year-old neighbor to do it. But I noticed if you do choose other caregivers, be it daycares, nannies, part-time caregivers - a revolving door of staff is terrible on young children. True, it may not come cheap ($20/hr for ours — but in just a month, our 11-month old was starting to recognize animals in books and could identify and sign over 40 of them! Before she could even walk or get a haircut!), but you truly do get what you pay for.

I really don’t care if it’s considered “safe” or not, what’s not safe in my opinion is a woman who cannot leave the house because she wrapped her entire identity in her children in some sort of warped reverse separation-anxiety disorder.

Nic April 17, 2010, 10:45 PM

Tennmom is lucky she only had to do without a pool in order to stay at home with her kids. Some would have to do without a lot more “basic” stuff than that…not all mothers who work are slick, well-heeled execs, some are blue collar workers who couldn’t pay rent without their employment. At the other end of the scale are some women who would not be mentally emotionally ok staying at home full time with kids, since we are not all perfectly well- adjusted and feel like being a stay at home mum is the pinnacle of life’s experience… So there’s no justification for feeling you’ve made a superior choice either way- only the choice that’s best for your situation.
Some of the author’s advice for supporting a child through separation is very sensible.

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