I feel guilty because my child always cries when I leave for work.  What should I do?

I remember one Monday morning when my daughter was about five years old. We had just finished a wonderful weekend and just like any family, we all had the Monday blues. I had a business trip planned and was finishing packing while trying to get everyone ready for the day. Emily was tired, she wasn’t in the mood for school, and the idea of me heading out on another work trip just added to the negative vibe we had going at home.

Being in a hurry, I made a series of bad decisions. I could see she was a little down, and I too was a bit low-spirited knowing that I was on my way out of town and away from my family for a few days. So, I made the classic mistake so many guilt-ridden working mothers do: I cut a deal with my five year-old daughter. I told her that if she would get dressed faster, I would take her through the McDonald’s drive-thru and get her whatever she liked. Bad mommy moment.

Mistakes I Made

Really, there were two mistakes made: I broke away from our usual routine, and I over-dramatized my departure. My daughter sensed all of this – my haste, the break from our predictability, and my guilt. What happened? As you could probably predict, it didn’t end well. We pulled into McDonald’s and my daughter sensing the change became upset. As we paid at the drive-thru window, she yelled out that she did not want to go to school, and that she wanted me to be a “stay-at-home mommy”. Even though I am at peace with my decision to be a working mother, hearing this from my kids still stings.

School Refusal

Once we arrived at school, my poor choices continued to flow. I spent way too much time getting her settled in, setting up her breakfast, and reminding her that I would “be gone for only a few days”. I even read her a story. As you might imagine my extra efforts only made the situation worse. My daughter started pulling on my skirt, begging me not to leave her, and in full theatrical display, threw her breakfast on the floor for all to see. I kept trying to make her feel better and calm down, but eventually had to head out, leaving her in hysterics.


I should have driven to work but instead sat in my car feeling sorry for myself. After a few minutes, I decided I would make a drastic change. I would resign from my job.  A position that gave me great pleasure and purpose, and a job I had worked very hard to earn. I wiped my smeared makeup, adjusted my tear-stained jacket and re-entered the school. My daughter couldn’t see me, but to my incredible surprise, she was happily drawing with some of her friends. I walked back into the classroom and gave her a smile. She looked up, and immediately ran over to hug me and show me her creation. I admired her picture, and said hello to her friends. Amazingly, when we said goodbye this time, she hugged me and almost with indifference headed back to her friends to finish her work.

Did my daughter realize how sad she was making me feel that day? She absolutely did. This is when I realized the problem resided with me.

To determine the route cause of your families issues with separation, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this new behavior?
  • Does your child cry when you leave him in other situations, such as with your husband or even with a friend?
  • When your little one cries…do you often come back and prolong the departure?
  • Since he/she has begun to cry, do you often bring home gifts?
  • Once you have left, does your child seem peaceful and content? (You can ask your sitter or daycare this question)
  • Do you notice any other problems besides crying when you leave?

Children cry when their mommies leave them with a sitter or day care for a variety of reasons.  Some children have more trouble with separation than others; some are at different stages of development, and some cry because crying gets mom to delay leaving or sometimes even provide guilt gifts and attention.  RARELY is the crying an indicator of something more serious.  Remember that as long as your child care is good, your working will not have any direct negative impact on your child; hence there is no reason to feel guilty.

Separations are hard.

Even after thirteen years as a working mother, it is still hard when I have to drop my oldest off at school, or say goodbye to my kids for a few days. Although I try to do everything right, sometimes I still make mistakes. But I also know that part of my responsibility as a working mother, is to teach my children that it is alright if I am not always there. My kids have all learned to be comfortable without me, to understand that I will always return, and to see that their mother has a life outside of our family. In my opinion, these are all good lessons.

It is important for both you and your child that you go about your life. Go to work, visit the hairdresser, go on a business trip, or get delayed at an airport. Whatever you decide to do with your time, do it without guilt and with confidence that your child is in the care of someone you know and trust.

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