“But mummy…I’m going to be so sad when you leave me.”
A casual knife through the heart for a Monday morning
I still feel sick now.
A couple of hours have passed since the door shut at the pre-school, with me on one side and my son on the other. As a metaphor that’s the most unnatural situation I can think of right now.
I have a child who suffers separation anxiety. In his words, he likes it when we’re “all together”. Now he has such an extensive vocabulary and chooses to verbalise – in pain-inducing detail – how me leaving him makes him feel sad and how much he misses me, my guilt at leaving him to work is greater than ever.
The most recent question, always posed at the very moment I’m biting my lip and braced for it as I’m about to leave, has become: “But mummy…do you love me?”
The thought that at three, my son could contemplate that I leave him because I don’t love him enough to stay is too much for me to bear. Fleetingly, I consider jacking everything in to be with him full-time until he goes to school.
It would be selfish of me to say what I actually want to say to him (or, rather, scream in his gorgeous little face), that “EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE THING I DO IN EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY IS BECAUSE OF HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU!” But instead I swallow my tears and the lump that’s making it so hard to breathe right now and I suggest I could stay for a few minutes to paint a picture of a tree. (A luxury I’m aware is only afforded to me because I work for myself and don’t answer to an employer; something that occurs to me every time I’m able to make that decision to stay for those precious few minutes of reassurance.)
Separation anxiety is natural. As a species we’re not built to be away from our babies. We’ve evolved, according to the British attachment theorist, John Bowlby to stay close to our primary caregiver to improve our chances of survival. We build a strong relationship of trust and security with and for our children, so it stands to reason that they’re going to be less than happy about us moving the goalposts and expecting them to accept that for an amount of time they have no reasonable way to quantify, we’re going to be on opposite sides of the door.
It hadn’t occurred to me until long after Xav had been born that our culture is so at odds with nature.
I’d never expected that still, when he’s been with consistent, loving and brilliant childcare providers (first a childminder and then the preschool) since he was eight months old, we would have to endure these mornings of heartbreak and that pit-of-the-stomach feeling.
Developing better emotional resilience is crucial if we are to recover quickly and respond positively to situations like this one, which have the potential to steer our days down a dark path.
Here’s what I do to reframe the guilt I feel and recover from knocks to my confidence, like this morning.
I reassure myself that we’ve chosen a fantastic preschool environment for him, and that he has literally flourished in his time there. I remind myself of the value of the company of his peers and that I am giving him the opportunity to learn how to build relationships, to play and to learn about the world.
I think of the strength of the bond we have and use that to show myself that his sadness at our separation is a positive sign that I’m on the right track with our relationship. I know that I make the time when I’m not working and we’re together count. I reassure myself that because I work I am a better mother, partner and woman and that I’m grafting to effect serious change among mums which is worthwhile and fulfilling – not to mention becoming a healthy role model for my son.
Getting a grip on the guilt is one thing, but it’s not possible to reason our way out of an emotional situation.
And no amount of reason can change that I want to bawl my eyes out.
But, as is the case for us all, I have a LOT that needs to be done.
As mothers (and fathers – this isn’t just about us) we deal with these fallouts in their various guises a hundred times a day. Which is why it’s simply not possible for us to leave our personal lives at the door when we step into the working environment.
If I’m honest, that list I’m staring at will not only offer very welcome distraction but opportunity, excitement, fun and reward. I want to get stuck into that list. I choose to see it that the list is going to save me today.
What do you do to manage how you feel about your child’s separation anxiety? I’d love to hear how you re-frame the guilt and empower yourself in situations like these. X