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Separation Anxiety: When Attached Parents Need to Distance Themselves

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This week I’m flying down to Florida for four days. Without Coraline. Last year I made the same trip with her in tow, an endeavor that, while ultimately successful, required a lot of extra planning (have Grandma, will travel). It just seemed easier for me to go it alone this time, though leaving her is by no means easy. Months ago when I planned the trip — which is for work — I imagined in my mind that at exactly two-and-a-half years old, Coraline (and I) would be ready for a lengthier separation. When my best friend had the opportunity to go on a rock climbing retreat in California for five days, I wholeheartedly encouraged her as she struggled with the decision, since she’d be leaving her then 18-month-old son at home. You deserve it, I told her. He’ll be fine, he knows you love him. And she went, and he was fine. But while I could say those things (and believe them) to a friend, it feels like I am about to exact some irreparable damage on my daughter by leaving her for four days. What’s that about?

When I was interviewing therapist and writer Judith Acosta for our January People to Watch issue (read her profile here), I made a joke about new mothers being classic narcissists. “You have to blog about that!” Acosta exclaimed. Well, my pre-trip anxiety is a Grade-A example. In the article heard ’round the mothering world, Erica Jong flamed attachment parenting for imprisoning mothers by making them feel like they are the sole purveyors of their childrens’ health, safety, and happiness. Which is true. We largely do. The current maternal subtext is heavy: If you can’t do it all, you’re failing. Asking for help is an admission of inadequacy or weakness. It’s not just mother knows best, it’s mother is best, so any shortcuts or substitutions are shortchanging your child’s emotional development. Not sure I’d call it imprisonment, but it is a lot of pressure. And so, the new mother by default becomes a temporary narcissist, where she, however subconsciously, sees herself as the center of her baby’s universe, for better or for worse. So what happens when she takes herself out of orbit for whatever reason, like a work trip? It can’t be good, right?

The truth is, it’s not great, but it’s not cataclysmic. Babies and toddlers who are forced to endure long separations from their primary caregiver (commonly Mom) will likely experience some distress, especially if they’re still nursing and/or aren’t used to being in anyone else’s care. Little ones like routine, consistency. And unfettered access to their primary caregiver is critical for emotional security, especially in the first couple years. But every kid is different, so some will fare better than others. I know a family where Mom travels for work constantly. Their daughter is happy and healthy. I know lots of families where mom works full time. The kids are happy and healthy. Coraline and I have had two-and-a-half years of closeness. She knows her mama loves her and will never leave her. While I’m gone, she’ll have a blast with her Daddy, and Grandma has a special trip to the city planned to visit the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. She’ll play, she’ll sleep, she’ll eat some food. And we’ll video chat every day. She will survive. And I will, too. Though my ego, upon return, may not.

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