To Solve My Baby's Separation Anxiety, *I* Went To Therapy
My phone buzzes. It’s a message with photos from my baby’s new daycare. I scroll through, furiously searching for my baby, for her mop of dark hair and the polka-dot leggings and stripy hoodie I put on her earlier that morning. When she doesn’t appear, I push my chair back and cry loudly into my hands. My cries turn into wails; I am hysterical, like I’m having a panic attack. I put my head towards my knees and breathe slowly through the sobs. We have been going through my 10-month-old baby’s adjustment to daycare for the last month. My back is killing, the tension across my shoulders is at an all-time high, I am exhausted. I haven’t worn make-up or done anything with my hair for nearly two months. I am a nervous wreck.
This wasn't the plan. After a gentle adaptation, my baby was going to stay happily at nursery while I used the month before returning to work to do some of my own writing. I was supposed to come with her a few times and then start leaving her on her own for an hour, and build that up to a full day over the space of 10 days.
I know they only send photos that make mums and dads smile. She hasn’t appeared yet because she’s not happy.
We started off well, with me sitting nice and relaxed at the side of the room while she happily went off to explore and play. But when it came to me leaving, she would become hysterical and inconsolable, so much so that each time I left, they rang me to come back. Once, I left them in the park and stood around the corner, listening to her wails get more and more desperate, wondering when they were going to call me, and hiding out of sight as my baby’s key worker walked around showing her the leaves on the trees. Forty-five minutes later, she messaged. I appeared within a minute, like magic.
We decided that I would stay with her at the nursery, leaving every now and then for a few minutes, to build up my daughter's trust and sense that I would always return. She was perfectly happy as long as I was there, but as soon as I moved away she became extremely upset. This continued, with no sign of improvement; if anything, she got more clingy, more tearful, and less at ease even when I was there.
I was so worn out that I asked my husband to take a day off work to take our daughter. He did, and this marked a change. From that day he took her to nursery instead of me, and she stayed for an hour. This improvement was double-edged. While it was progress for our child, it seemed like a step back for me. For the time she was there, I anxiously checked my phone every few minutes, waiting for the vibration, and then when it came, I would search the photos, flicking through with annoyance every time I saw another child, trying to spot my own. As for my little one, while she no longer screamed hysterically, her key worker said that she still wasn’t happy or relaxed, refused to interact with anyone, including other babies, and would sit in the baby carrier the entire time, watching everyone with a look of distrust.
So, here I am, three days into this new regime, sitting at the dining table at home, looking for her stripy bottom in a photo. I know they only send photos that make mums and dads smile. She hasn’t appeared yet because she’s not happy. The turmoil of being without her is so wrenching, my guts are twisted. I am desperate to be with her, to see her smile, to see her happy. For her to be safe and happy in her mummy’s arms, where she has been, uninterrupted, for the last 10 months. Then my thoughts wander to my own mother, and I realize, quite suddenly, that I want to be in her arms, I want the safety of her lap. I want to be the baby being showered with kisses and love and adoration. I want a three-way hug with my baby and my mother. My mother, from whom I have been estranged for several years.
My mother, from whom I have had an on-off relationship with for years, much like an unhealthy relationship with an ex who you always go back to, and who scares you and thrills you at the same time. My mother, who I love deeply, and miss deeply, and have missed pretty much all my life. I missed her when I got married, I missed her when I gave birth, I missed her when I was being edged out of my job. I missed her on bad days and good days, when someone would use a turn of phrase she’d use, or when I’d see a woman who would remind me of her, or just for no particular reason at all. I just miss her. Her absence in my life is her presence.
I wipe my eyes and the mascara from my cheeks, and when I have stopped sobbing, I book a session with a therapist.
I explain why I’m there: that my baby is struggling to settle into nursery and that I’ve realized I might have something to do with it. We’re not long into the hour-long session when I describe how I feel at leaving my baby, at being separated from her, how I imagine her at nursery without me. My refusal to let my baby go, the steel-like umbilical cord I feel ripping every second she is away from me, together with my distrust of the nursery, and an innate need for perfection quickly becomes clear when I reveal that I’ve already started looking into other childcare options and alternatives.
‘Something better, something perfect,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say, nodding. As I nod, I realize that this is no unfamiliar scenario. I often find myself looking at other options, looking for something better, for something perfect. I can’t decide where to live, whether to buy a flat, whether to get a dog, whether to buy that pair of shoes, whether to cut my hair. My life-long quest for perfection, for making the absolutely 100-percent-correct decision.
If your mother is your first home, where you spend the first 10 months of life, I have been trying to go home my entire life.
We venture further into my baby being without me at nursery.
‘What’s your biggest fear?’ she asks.
I imagine it, and start to cry. "It’s her looking around the room, not knowing who to go to, feeling lost and looking for me."
''Like you," she says. "Lost and alone, looking for your mother."
Finally, I understand. I have felt lost and alone, and have been looking for my mother, looking for her comfort, her arms, her safety, her approval, all my life. If your mother is your first home, where you spend the first 10 months of life, I have been trying to go home my entire life. Looking for acceptance, for the door to be open. In turn, when I became a mother myself, I have striven to give my baby what I have so desperately sought: love, comfort, warmth, protection — and over 10 months we haven’t been separated more than three hours, and then only a couple of times. I remember how one day, when I went to pick her up from nursery, I hugged her close to me and said, "There we are, together again."
I have been unable to let go of my own baby, and therefore she has been unable to let go of me. She, too, has felt this magnetic pull for us to stay together. She has picked up from my energy, from my behavior, that we should be together and that, every minute we’re not, she should not have fun or trust who she is with, but should wait for us to be reunited, just like I had been doing.
Wrapping up the session, the therapist takes a deep breath and encourages me to do the same. I breathe in deep and let out the air.
"Say yes to the nursery," she says.
I breathe in and out, slowly. "Yes," I say.
"Say yes to letting in her key workers."
I focus on my breathing and say "yes," opening my arms as I say it.
"Say yes to accepting them, with their faults. They’re human, they’re not perfect. But they’re good, they’re what you’ve got and they’re close to your flat."
"Yes," I say, exhaling the weight from my shoulders.
She tells me to let them in, to trust them. That their bonds with my baby daughter will be wonderful bonds for her to have, and will never compete with the bond she has with her mother.
So I go home saying yes as I walk. When I breastfeed my baby at midnight, I say yes, inhaling and exhaling deep. When I wake up the next morning, I say yes.
I tell her our plan. "We are saying yes to your nursery," I say. "We are trusting Maria and Elena and letting them into our lives. We are accepting them. You will be safe and happy and can feel safe and happy, you can play and have fun."
I feed her before she goes, rubbing her hair and breathing calmly, feeling inner peace for the first time in several weeks. "Bye, darling!" I call from the door as she goes away in her daddy's arms, "Have a lovely, lovely day."
She smiles back at me over his shoulder.
That afternoon I have a shower and get dressed. I do my hair and put lipstick and blusher on. I feel renewed, energized. I go to pick my baby up. One of the ladies looks at me and says, "You put lipstick on!"
I laugh. Then, she says, "What did you do?" When I look at her, confused, she explains that my daughter had a sudden turning point that day, crawling off one of the lady's laps and going to play for the first time, happy and relaxed.
I smile at her. "We said yes," I reply.
Now, some weeks later, my phone buzzes and I take a look at the photos. There, smiling gleefully, is my baby.
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