When my firstborn, Nadia, was 9 months old, I quit my job and took on full-time parenting. First on the agenda, with 9-to-5 workdays behind me? Join a gym.
I pictured Nadia perched contentedly on a lap in the middle of the foam-tiled floor at the gym’s drop-in childcare center, listening to The Runaway Bunny while I browsed magazines on the elliptical machine.
At first, she did just that. And so did I. So I upped the ante and joined a Pilates class that met three mornings a week.
But when the novelty of new toys wore off for Nadia, apologetic childcare workers started summoning me from the door of my class: “I’m sorry. She won’t settle down.”
Time after time, I rolled up my mat and eased the door closed behind me, the instructor’s voice (“Scoop those abs!”) fading along with my hopes for some muscle tone.
You, too, may crave the normalcy of a workout routine (and an hour alone). But don’t be surprised if it takes time. As Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution, says, “Rushing your child into an unfamiliar environment can lead to tears, tantrums and a failed plan.”
So before you dig out your gym bag, focus on helping your child adjust to this new situation using the following tips.
Choose a child-friendly gym. Look for a gym that provides a safe, engaging environment in its drop-in center. Is the ratio of staff workers to children appropriate? Are staff members up to date on safety trainings and had background checks? Do kids have a variety of activities and safe toys?
Desi Saylors, an Olympia mother of two, chose a gym where the staff members are veteran providers. “[My gym] has the same shift of older women running the show every morning,” she says. “They are all mothers and know how to work with kids to make them feel secure, happy and content.”
Know the policies. Don’t be pulled from your first, well-deserved workout to address a minor situation. Will staff members change diapers and help with potty training? Is there a strict runny-nose policy? Are there restrictions on snack foods?
Slow and steady. “Look at the first few visits as practice for your child — not a workout session for you,” says Pantley. “Begin with the two of you visiting the drop-off room together to play and explore. That’s it for day one! On the second visit, try leaving your child for just 10 or 15 minutes.” After this, she says, you’re ready for short workouts and a slow buildup to your normal workout length.
Go with a friend. “If you have a friend or acquaintance at the center with a child of a similar age to yours, try to set up a play date or two with them outside the gym, and then coordinate your workout schedules,” says Pantley. “Having a familiar friend in the drop-in center can reduce [your child’s] anxiety of ‘going it alone.’”
Brief separations. When the moment comes to separate, it’s best to keep it brief and confident, says Dr. Brent Collett, attending psychologist at Seattle Children’s. “It’s sometimes tempting to sneak off while the child is distracted,” he says, “but there’s more to be gained from saying goodbye.” He suggests an upbeat statement when it’s time to go: “Mommy is going to go exercise and you will stay here with Ms. Emily. I will be back in a little bit.” A special toy or stuffed animal brought from home can also help ease the intensity of goodbyes.
Positive reunions. Collett says reuniting in a positive way can help build confidence and trust for next time. “Acknowledge that it might have been difficult for your little person: ‘You were pretty sad when I left, but you did a good job of finding things to play with while I was gone.’”
Be flexible. Don’t be locked into a schedule. Does your child seem clingy? Skip your yoga class and go for a brisk walk instead. Does she seem OK on a non-class day? Head to the gym and get in a quick cardio workout. Shower as the moment dictates — at the gym if possible, at home if your little one needs to hover just outside the shower curtain.
Try, try again. “Leaving your child to cry and worry during your entire workout will set you up for a pattern of negativity that rears its head each time you enter the building,” says Pantley. If crying persists, “It might be wise to end your day early and try again with a fresh start.”
Even when you’re in a rhythm, be patient. Workout times may be cut short or sabotaged — over and over again. Continuing to go to the gym, whenever you can, will send your child the message that you value fitness and active play for both of you.
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer and mother of two in Olympia. She blogs about parenting and social issues at Write the Journey.