We Can't Combat Separation Anxiety In Our Family, So We Neutralize It
I am a working parent and I travel up to 50 percent of my time. It feels like I am always leaving for some trip somewhere, always saying goodbye. Because of that, there is no room for separation anxiety in our family. They never want me to leave, and I don’t want to leave my babies either. And for the first year or so of each of their lives, I didn’t.
I missed meetings and conferences, opted out of trainings, sent other people in my stead. I wore my babies constantly and took them everywhere for as long as I could. Eventually, I knew I would have to resume the travel and my kids would just have to get used to it. And they did. But as our lives change and grow, separation anxiety rears its ugly head from time to time, so we always go right back to the foundation we built when the girls were teeny, and that helps to neutralize it.
My first daughter was 2 when she started nursery school. That was a little younger than I would have liked, but she was ready to be more independent, so we decided it would be beneficial for all of us if we could begin to build her community so that she had a full and supported life (and daddy had some breaks) even when I was away. The preschool we chose had a very gentle process for the littlest kiddos: the day was only two-and-a-half hours long! My spouse and I grumbled that by the time we’d dropped her off and taken a walk around the block, it would be time to pick up again. As if that wasn’t bad enough, like many preschools, the school had an extended phase-in period in which one or both of us had to attend preschool with her until the teacher deemed her ready to be on her own. When she felt the child was engaged and comfortable, she’d whisper to the child that their parent or parents were going to get a cup of coffee and they’d be back in a little while. Because parents always come back, she said. Always.
I studied this teacher, listening carefully to her every reassuring word. She was a master at her work, cultivating a garden of confidence and self-esteem. Still, part of me wondered how many weeks of preschool we’d have to sit through until we were invited to that cup of coffee, dreading being the last parents invited to leave, fretting about how many things I was missing at work, my phone buzzing constantly while I sat scrunched into a tiny chair trying to ignore it while my kid played with blocks and sand and we all pretended I wasn’t there.
Parents always come back, she said. Always.
Part of me thought vaguely about the parents who don’t come back for whatever reason, and whether saying this to every child is really all that smart, but I chose to push that thought away into the deepest recesses of my mind. I would, I resolved, always come back. A week and a half into the school year, I was the third parent to be invited to go get a cup of coffee, my kid so engrossed in her play that she didn’t even look up when I walked out the door, both hesitant and relieved.
I have borrowed many of that teacher’s phrases since that week and a half I went to preschool, but mama always comes back was and is my favorite, because it worked so well on our daughter. She was ready for drop-off playdates long before most of her friends and was begging for sleepovers soon after. To her, the best part of leaving — whether it’s she who is leaving or me — is the reunion. She loves when I pick her up from visits and activities, and she loves getting to pick me up at the airport or train station when I can manage to get in before bedtime. She has never developed anything more than a fleeting fear of separation, because mama always comes back always worked on her.
As she gets older and her life gets bigger, we develop ways of staying close and intentionally connected. I try to stay on top of all her activities while I’m gone so I can ask her specific questions about her day. This makes her feel like her world is important to me no matter where I am. We adhere to a strict schedule of Face Time before the school bus comes in the morning and then again right before bedtime. We often pick a book to read at the same time and discuss it on the phone. We write each other postcards or letters and mail them when there is enough time. We draw pictures. She leaves me notes on my desk to find when I come home. I tell her stories about the invisible string that connects our hearts and our minds that stretches for as many miles as I am away. We carve out mama-daughter time when I’m home that feels special and rare. I wear my “travel necklace” whenever I am away, a simple chain with two pendants, one representing each of my daughters, and I remind her that when I have it on, she’s always with me. But her face still falls when I tell her I’ll be leaving again in a couple days, which brings me right back to my old standby: mama always comes back. Always.
I was thrown for a loop when that did not work so well on my second daughter. She, too, was ready for preschool earlier than I expected, but for a different reason. She was born with a significant disability and from a very young age, she had a revolving door of doctors, therapists, respite care providers, and other adults in her life. As a result, she never experienced stranger danger (and to this day will walk or wheel herself over to anyone who smiles at her and strike up a conversation). She loves other people and trusts them easily. We use this to our advantage as much as possible, playing up what she gets to do when Mama isn’t there, and she usually falls for that.
I have a ready supply of connection protection for this kid, too: Every evening I tell her that if she dreams of fairies kissing her on the nose, that’s really me sending her love in our dreams. Every morning I sit in my hotel room no matter where I am or how early it might be for me, bleary eyed and in need of coffee, FaceTiming while she pretends to feed me. I mime taking a bite, with all the sound effects, and then say “your turn!” over and over until the oatmeal or bagel or whatever is gone.
I always say the same things: Have I told you the story of the invisible string that connects every mama and her little girl? No, you can’t see it, but it’s always there.
It’s when I am home that it’s tougher. Her disability makes her prone to fatigue, and when any child is overtired, there are more meltdowns and more tearful protests against change of any kind. This kid, lover of playdates, sleepovers, after school activities, even most doctors’ appointments, holds it together super well while I am gone, the very definition of out of sight out of mind. The trouble is when I come back. She unravels completely. But she doesn’t do that when you’re not here, my husband says in astonishment. I hold her and I put the travel necklace around her neck. I lie down with her and I stroke her hair. I know I will soon have to tell her that I am leaving again in a few days. When I do, she sobs and begs me not to go, and I pull out all the things: Do you know all the things you get to do when I am away? I tell her about her activities, her playdates, the party she was invited to. Then I always say the same things: Have I told you the story of the invisible string that connects every mama and her little girl? No, you can’t see it, but it’s always there. Just ask your sister! She knows. Now, put your hand on your heart; when you feel it beat, you are also feeling my heart beat, and whenever my heart is beating I am thinking of you. Here, put your hand on my heart now. Can you feel it?
These tools don’t so much combat separation anxiety as they do neutralize it, but that’s enough. My husband is a stay at home parent, so the kids usually have at least one parent with them whenever they are not at school or an activity. Because I am not home as much as I’d like to be, I limit a lot of my social activity, or I make it family-friendly. My husband and I don’t go out a lot without our kids, and when we do, we try to have consistency with child care providers and have activities planned for them, so the kids are excited to see their babysitter and go somewhere or do something special. When I am home, we have some regular family activities the girls always look forward to like Sunday Night Movie Night, where we make popcorn and snuggle under the blankets on the couch and watch whatever movie they choose. Like “sleepovers with mama” for my younger daughter, who thinks occasionally getting to sleep in my bed is the greatest thing in the entire world.
And sometimes, rarely, they get to join me on a work trip to an interesting city or a location where we have family. But the best treat of all is when I have an extended period at home: two, maybe three weeks without a trip. Because then we fall into a routine that feels almost normal, and it’s long enough that when I must announce yet again that I’m going away soon, they really believe that mama always comes back.