Separation Anxiety, Part I

7.30.07: Learning to let go


Six weeks ago:

"I don't want to go, Mama!" Julia is bawling. Flailing. Fighting me as I struggle to buckle her into her car seat. Every time I get an arm under a strap, she yanks it back out again before I can click the buckle into place.

Her chest is heaving. Her cheeks are glazed in snot.

I try to put on a brave face: "Julia, it'll be fun, you'll see! You'll get to splash in the pool, and paint, and play in the sandbox, and be with all the other kids..."

I'm taking Julia to summer camp, and so far, it's not going well. As I force her into her car seat, rattling off all the reasons why I think she'll like camp, I'm simultaneously ticking off my own mental checklist, reminding myself why we're doing this: A.) because we want Julia to have a "fun" transition into preschool; B.) because we don't want her to be stuck in the house all summer while I'm working; C.) because we want her to play with more kids her age..."

"But I just want to stay home with you, Mama!" Julia sobs, interrupting my internal pep talk.

I buckle her in and walk around to the driver's side of the car, fighting back my own tears. I watch in the rear-view mirror as sobs rack Julia's body. Her suffering seems somehow personal...private. Not for my benefit. Not meant to convince me. It's such pure, unadulterated grief that I have to look away.

"It's OK to be a little bit scared," I say to the mirror, trying to compose myself. "Everyone's a little nervous the first time they try something new. But once you try it, you might really like it. Remember how you used to be afraid to wash your hair, but then you learned just the right way to tilt your head back, and now you love to wash your hair?! It's kind of like that."

I think I see Julia perk up a tiny bit. "That was a convincing argument," I tell myself, all the while wondering which one of us I'm really trying to convince?

Charlie's Turn

In the midst of Julia leaving us for the first time, Charlie is having separation anxiety.

I first noticed it a few weeks ago: Will and Charlie and I were sitting in our TV room when Will got up to get a drink from the kitchen. Charlie looked up from the block he'd been gnawing on, said "Bye-Bye," and promptly returned his attention to his block.

Fast-forward three weeks, and Charlie will sometimes break into spontaneous, heart-wrenching sobs when one of us leaves the room. It's as if it's suddenly occurred to him that we're gone—no longer vaporized into nonexistence the minute we step out of eyesight, but gone. Now, we get up to grab a bag of chips, and Charlie thinks we've left him to be raised by wolves. You can watch the realization dawn on him like some time-elapsed photo, where his face first registers happiness, then mild curiosity, then gut-wrenching heartache, all in the space of three seconds. And as soon as the absentee parent reappears, you can see the transition happen in reverse, as a tentative smile crosses his tear-streaked cheeks, then relief floods his face, and then—incomprehensible joy.

I can't even tell you what this does for the ego. And I can only imagine what's going through Charlie's brain while this is taking place: "Hey...there's my Dad...Wow, he's as tall as a skyscraper when he stands up...There he goes, over to the doorway...Wonder what he's up to?"... and...(wait for it)...Poof!... "Holy, crap! He's gone?! Mother of God! How will I live? I'm doomed!"... and then...Poof!... "Oh, thank you God, thank you, God, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..Hey...are you gonna give me one of those chips, or what?"

The apple does not fall far from the tree

Maybe I'm a little oversensitive when it comes to these things. I was one of those kids who had serious separation anxiety issues. I have very clear memories of my father peeling me off of his leg at kindergarten drop-offs. And I remember the (very rare) occasions when my parents would go out on a date, when I would sit by the window waiting for them to come home while my siblings were popping popcorn and watching movies with the babysitter. Every time a pair of headlights would turn down our dark street, I'd perk up'…and then sink back down into my chair as pair after pair of headlights passed by our house. I would sit there for hours, leaving my perch only to go to the bathroom, or to go upstairs and smell my mother's sweaters.

So, I'm trying really hard to help Charlie and Julia get through their own fears. I'm putting on a brave face, and hoping they're too little to see through it. Because the truth of the matter is that I'm scared, too. I'm afraid to let my babies out into the world...out of my sight...out of my care, or Will's care, or Wendy's care. For me, it's a matter of losing a little control, and gaining a whole lot of trust. I know that everything will be fine, and that we'll all be better for these new experiences. But, that doesn't make it any easier.

My moment of truth

When I pulled into the parking lot of Julia's camp and walked around the car to get her out, she was still crying. I'd get one arm out of her car seat strap, and she'd slip it back in, clutching it to her chest and begging: "Mama, can we please go home? Will you please drive the car home?"

I heaved her up and out of the car, as she clung to me like a sobbing, damp, crab. I pulled Charlie out with the other arm, snagged Julia's backpack and lunch box with two free fingers, and marched up the stairs of the preschool, where Julia was peeled off of me by a camp counselor and I was promptly ushered out the door.

Hours later, on a tip from another mom, I crouched in a "spying place" around the corner from the school and peered through a chain-link fence, looking for Julia. The playground was dotted with dozens of happy faces, splashing in the wading pool, climbing on the jungle gym, digging in the sand box. But, I couldn't find Julia anywhere in the tangle of mingling midgets.

And, then—I spotted her—off on the edge of the playground, sitting alone on a swing, staring down at the ground.

It was only then, crouching alone in the corner, that I finally let the tears spring up into my eyes.

Next Week: Dana loses control...

Join's Managing Editor Dana Rousmaniere each week as she chronicles life with a new baby.

Read the next entry: 8.6.07: Separation Anxiety, Part II