In the time before I became a mother myself, I met a lot of clingy kids. As a babysitter and then a nanny for over a decade, it wasn't unusual for me to spend my time with a child sobbing over their absent parents — seemingly convinced that their moms and dads must be gone for good. This was always heartbreaking to watch, particularly when the kids were pre-verbal and thus unable to understand the idea of temporary parting. For all the children I met who suffered from severe separation anxiety, however, I never came across a mother struggling with separation anxiety herself (or at least, one who would admit it). It wasn't until I had my own daughters, and spoke to fellow parents about my fears of leaving them (even if only for an hour while I went to the store for some diapers), that I realized just how common those fears actually are.
According to The Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, nearly 85 percent of women experience mood disturbances in the postpartum period. For 10 to 15 percent of women, those disturbances can manifest as anxiety and depression. When I was expecting my first child, my midwife asked me whether I'd ever struggled with depression or anxiety before. "Anxiety. A lot of anxiety," I told her, only to learn that this predisposed me to postpartum anxiety, too.
I discovered that I was expecting a second child when my first was only 10 months old. Although clinical definitions of the postpartum period vary, to me it feels like I have been in its depths since my eldest came home with us 22 months ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my mental health history, I have been in the depths of postpartum anxiety all this time, too.
There's nothing I worry about quite as much as leaving them.
If I'm not worried about a rash on my baby's arm, it might be the fact that our toddler hasn't eaten a good meal all day that's alarming me. Often it's their future that fills me with dread. The fact that I have girls feels terrifying in and of itself. I think of all that could go wrong — of all the injustices and abuse they could face. I worry that I'm not doing enough to nurture their young minds, or that introducing YouTube videos into their lives, no matter how educational they may seem, was a bad move. To be honest, though, there's nothing I worry about quite as much as leaving them.
Throughout my life as an anxious person, I've been given a lot of advice. When it comes to facing something that I'm nervous about, many have told me to "just do it." Do it, and realize that nothing bad will happen. Do it, and come to the conclusion that the world will not end. Do it, and feel better for having gotten through it.
The same advice has come when I've expressed my anxiety over leaving my kids. I know there's no logic to it. I know they'll be well taken care of by their dad, grandparents, or my trusted babysitter should ever I go. I know that even if they might miss me for a few minutes, they can be easily distracted into forgetting. It's not that I believe anyone else is incapable of taking as good care of them as I do, because I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by people I trust, who I know adore my children.
Something told me that I would never be as good a mother as I hoped to be unless I made time for myself; unless I looked after myself.
Still, as a work from home mother, I never really had to push myself to leave my daughters' presence. Someone almost always comes to the house to help me look after them, and it's been a comfort to know they are only a room or two away. Instead, I have had to push myself to go to the store, or to a doctor's appointment, or to visit a friend, or eventually to go on a night out, without my children. I have had to push myself to face the mundanities of day-to-day life sans their little faces in the back seat of my car. I have had to push myself to learn to be alone with my partner again; and to be alone with myself — and to do these things, ideally, without spending every moment wishing I could just be with my babies.
Having children can be funny like that. So much of the time that you're with them, especially if it's been a hard day, can be spent wishing you could just have a break. When Luna, our first baby, was born, I so missed going out with my friends in a spontaneous fashion. I so missed being able to walk out my front door with my wallet, phone, and keys and nothing more.
Whenever I would try to leave without her, though, I couldn't. I'd begin to feel like part of me was missing — and like I couldn't function without that missing piece.
I knew that I had to do it, though. Something told me that I would never be as good a mother as I hoped to be unless I made time for myself; unless I looked after myself, and allowed myself to experience moments that might nurture other facets of my identity apart from the maternal one. And so, I "just did it."
The first time I left Luna was to go to the movies with my husband. For the first hour or two that I was gone, I held back my tears. I couldn't focus on the things my partner was saying. I couldn't focus on the trailers for upcoming films. I worried that I hadn't pumped enough breast milk to leave her behind. I worried that she'd miss me. Honestly, I probably missed her more.
My first night out was much the same. I hated almost every moment of it, wishing I could be cuddling with my baby. I resented the ease with which my child-free friends seemed to move through the world, focused solely on themselves. I berated myself for partying, when I could be reading my kid The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the hundredth time.
My first afternoon out after Elia, our second, came along was much the same. My husband and I went out for an early dinner and I had so much anxiety that I thought I might be sick on the table. I wasn't worried for her. I knew she was in the capable hands of her grandparents. Nonetheless, I wanted to be close to her. I wanted to see her splotchy face. I even missed the sound of her cry.
I kept doing it, though. I kept trying to get out, to make time for myself, to see friends, to go shopping, or to take a walk alone. I kept trying to do smaller things, too, like having a baby-free bath, or reading a chapter of a book, before going to bed. I kept trying to connect to things outside my role as a mother. To things that fulfilled me before I had my girls, and that could still fulfill me now.
I kept doing it because, as crappy as those moments out were, I had done something for myself by leaving the house. By giving myself those opportunities to miss my children, I could feel myself becoming more present when they were back in my arms. I felt less inclined to check my phone, and more inclined to play with them. I felt less inclined to think about all the things I was missing out on, and more inclined to be wholly grateful for another day in the park with my daughters.
By separating from them, no matter how brief the moments may sometimes have been, I could feel myself becoming a better mother. "Just doing it" wasn't foolproof advice, in that for a long time I didn't feel good or happy or fulfilled by going out. My separation anxiety didn't ease up just because I pushed myself to leave the kids' side.
It has eased up the more I have realized that these little moments away contribute to my mood when I am home. Even if much of my time away is spent missing my babies, unable to focus on anything except how great it will be to see them again, it has become essential precisely because it is so great when I see them again. When you pull yourself away from the frustrating, exhausting, enraging minutia of raising children, it turns out that you're more likely to remember the beautiful, funny, wildly bizarre magic of it. There really is nothing else like it. Sometimes we just need to allow ourselves to miss it, so that we can be reminded once again.
If you or someone you know is experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.