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Rounding the Points on the Mother-Caregiver-Child Triangle
One of the most consistently recurring themes in great literature is the love triangle—Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan and Isolde and King Mark, and countless others. No one has, as yet, produced an immortal story about it, but a love triangle plays itself out day after day in the lives of parents, young children, and caregivers. Although we rarely conceptualize it in this way, mothers and caregivers subtly compete for the love of the child. And the child, in the innocent way of all children, wants to love them both, wants both to love him—and wants to control both of them!

There is a great deal of overlap in the functions performed by mothers and caregivers. In recognition of this overlap, a mother either consciously or unconsciously tends to look for a center or an individual with qualities similar to her own, one that will reflect her own values and beliefs. For instance, a mother who feels that young children need a great deal of love and affection will look for a program where caregivers are allowed to be warm and nurturant and freely express their feelings. Conversely, a mother who feels that her child needs firm discipline and control will look for a program with personnel who set clear limits and require the children to respect those limits. Mothers who want their children to acquire early academic skills will look for a program that features formal teaching, whereas those who feel that children learn best by having the freedom to explore their own interests will look for a program offering unlimited opportunities for free play.

Even when they find a setting that reflects their own values, mothers sometimes feel hostile toward a center or a family child-care home in which their child is enrolled (or toward certain personnel in the program). This can happen even when the arrangement would be considered of high quality by anyone's standards. Likewise, caregivers can develop negative feelings toward mothers that are sometimes so intense, their ability to provide sensitive care for the children is compromised. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Mother: 'Why does she let Jenny paint in her good clothes? I have repeatedly asked her not to.' Caregiver: 'Why does she insist on sending Jenny to school in such fancy clothes that she can't participate comfortably in art activities and is reluctant to be active on the playground?'
  • Mother: 'I am tired of walking into that room and finding my child just playing with trucks while the other children are being read to.' Caregiver:" That mother doesn't know anything about child development. She gets upset if we give Keith any free time.'

I could give many such examples, but these are illustrative of the kinds of conflict that develop between mothers and caregivers as they play out their roles in this love triangle.

Sources of Conflict

Such conflicts are perhaps inevitable whenever two people are involved with one another regularly. But there are probably specific reasons on each side of the potential conflict situation that may aggravate matters. Let's look at some of these reasons from both sides.

The Mother's Side
  • Guilt. Many mothers still feel guilty about enrolling their children in care—and if they don't feel guilty, somebody will try to make them! A natural accompaniment of guilt is the conviction that nobody else can take care of our children as well as we can.
  • Pressure from home. If the mother frequently has to field a question such as, 'Does she have to come home that filthy every night?' she is likely to become critical of art and playground activities.
  • Anxiety. Sensational stories of sexual and physical abuse continue to get extensive media coverage, all of which have produced a wariness and a tendency to criticize caregivers.
  • Pressure. Breathes there a working mother who is not under a great deal of pressure? And this pressure tends to be at a peak at precisely the times interaction is likely to occur (early in the morning and during the afternoon rush hour). At those times, the last thing they want to hear is a complaint about their children or themselves.
  • Jealousy. Let's face it: sometimes it's hard to accept the fact that our children can thoroughly enjoy someone else's company, or that they will do something for someone else they won't do for us.

The Caregiver's Side
  • Defensiveness. Caregivers legitimately need to see themselves as professionals and to have their training and skills acknowledged by parents. Sometimes they need to demonstrate their knowledge and, in the process, inadvertently belittle the parents.
  • Definition of the service. Early literature about day care invariably described it as a service for parents. However, most professionals in the field see themselves as working for and with the children. Ideally there should be no conflict here, but most caregivers who perceive one of their children as neglected or badly handled will generally 'take the side' of the child.

The Goal: Attachment to Both

Regardless of which combination of these sources of resentment and hostility might operate in a given situation, it is important for mothers and caregivers to sit down and discuss the situation and work through the impasse. In order for this to happen, conditions have to be created that allow the child to be attached to both the mother and the caregiver. And this can happen. One thing that should make it easier for mothers to accept is the fact it is the children who are securely attached to their mothers who are more likely to develop a secure attachment to the caregiver. Young children whose mothers are insensitive to their needs and inconsistent in their handling have difficulty learning to trust adults. If that lack of trust begins with their mothers, they easily generalize it to their relationships with other adults. This fact in itself should reduce any jealousy a mother might feel toward a caregiver her child loves and trusts.

On the other side, if a caregiver senses resentment on the part of the mother, she needs to examine her own behavior to make certain she has not in any way belittled the mother ('Oh, dear, Jerry, your mother's late again'; 'Don't tell me you wore your best suit to school again today'). Likewise, she needs to cherish the parent who truly cares about her child and is concerned with protecting her relationship with that child. That is the sort of mother who will be helpful and supportive of the educational program.

So both sides have to work at rounding off the corners of the mother-child-caregiver triangle. When this is done, the child is sure to benefit.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education