The New Girl: Separation Anxiety
My daughter, now almost 10 months old, goes to bed every night at 6 p.m. She has her dinner, her bath, and her book and then she (usually) quietly goes to sleep. My husband and I can then go on about our business: we have dinner and maybe watch a movie from Netflix or something. We know we're unbelievably lucky with this pattern, but almost every night before we go to bed—sometime around 10 p.m.—one of us will say what we've both been thinking: we miss the baby. We want to play with her. We look forward to when she gets up in the morning and starts banging her little blocks together, babbling, and dragging herself around the floor in her funny little wounded-soldier crawl. Sometimes we even get out the photo albums—the two very full photo albums—and review her short life in saccharine, cooing detail.
It is, we half-realize, a bit ridiculous. We just saw her! We'll see her again in the morning! Her toys are all over the living room! Missing her is silly, especially when we know plenty of other parents who would give their left hands to put a baby down at 6 p.m. every night and then not hear from her again for a full twelve hours. But Nora's sweetness and how much fun she is to play with have increased exponentially in the past few months, and now we can hardly bear to be away from her for even a few hours.
Of course, during the day, when things are busy and I have a deadline to meet for an article or the like, I sometimes have the feeling that I wish I could put her down or have someone else look after her for a few hours. She's at the separation anxiety age, where often she'll scream for me, and nobody but Mama will do. That clinginess can be frustrating when there are errands to run or things to do, but most of the time I'm pretty thrilled to be spending time with her. She's been such an easy, charming baby that I feel like I keep waiting for this to get as hard as I expected, much as I did for the first, oh, six or eight hours of labor. Perhaps Nora's toddlerhood will be like transition, the oh-my-god-I-see-what-people-mean moment that smacks me from my happy cocoon of bonding.
The thing is, right now I can't imagine a day without Nora. I can hardly imagine four or five hours without her. I'm still nursing her four to six times a day, so even if I go out for a while I'm usually home for that (she has become profoundly uninterested in the bottle, and I have become profoundly uninterested in spending my time pumping). She's not in day care, because my husband's job and my work are both accommodating of child-care tradeoffs. So I'm with her all the time, and I'm getting perilously accustomed to constant access to her babbling, her sweet expressions, the huge grin that lights up her face when she sees Mama.
When I imagine her living somewhere else, I feel all teary. I know that it's a huge leap between now and her being all finished with college, out on her own and living in New York or London or somewhere equally glamorous (funny, I never picture her moving to, say, Iowa) and working and going on about her life. Still, I think about it sometimes and wonder how people can stand it. College, I can handle the idea of: she's supposed to be gone, she'll still come home, as I did, on vacations. But to live every day and not see my daughter? The person I love the most in the world? I can't imagine. How do parents whose grown children live across the country stand it? I'm still in that giddy phase, like in a junior-high crush where you spend all your time thinking about the object, like oh my god I might die if I don't see him at school today.
My mother says—not very flatteringly to me—that that's what the teenage years are for. The nice way to interpret that is that watching your child grow up gives you the time to reconcile your complete love of your child with the need to let him or her go; unfortunately, I am fairly sure that the correct interpretation is that I was such a giant pain in the ass as a teenager that nobody was all that sorry to see me go far away to school. I certainly couldn't wait to get the hell out of my hometown and away from everyone I knew, my mother especially (sorry, Mom; I was young and dumb), but once I was safely at college and over the culture shock of going to an establishment East Coast university from my Central Valley public high school, I found that I was desperately homesick. In my first semester, I ran up enormous phone bills that largely represented hours of crying on the phone to the mother I had arrogantly assumed I would be so glad to leave behind.
I hope Nora and I don't have to go through as wrenching and angry a transition from togetherness to separation and back to an adult relationship as my mother and I did. It's hard to imagine now, of course, as she babbles "mamamamama" at top volume or gently, generously tries to put her bath toys in my mouth. Someday, however, she will grow up and live her own life, and I will miss her even though I know full well that my job in raising her is not only to prepare her to go out on her own but to let her do so and to separate from her—and let her separate from me.
She's in the early stages of doing just that now, so quickly and so charmingly it makes my head spin. Suddenly she's intent on feeding herself chunks of avocado from her tray, waving off the spoon we try to put in her mouth. She rolls away mischievously if I try to change her diaper on the floor, eager to go exploring again—pants or no pants. She knows how to play peek-a-boo, snatching a pillow from in front of my face to reveal me, and she whips her head around at the sound of her name. But for every exploration and tiny baby adventure there is a corresponding little reversion to utter infancy: her relaxed, snuggled sprawl on a lap during story time at the end of the day; pudgy arms clutching around my neck with near-desperation when I lift her from her crib; her greedy latch-on and suckling when she settles down enough to nurse. We both have years, no doubt some rocky teenage ones among them, to learn to separate from each other. Right now, it's enough to enjoy how tightly we are still bound—and, when I start to miss her a few hours after her bedtime, to know that I'll see her again first thing in the morning.
Kate Washington has written about food, travel, books, and more for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. She holds a PhD in English from Stanford University. She and her husband run Roan Press, a small literary publisher. She lives in Sacramento with her family.
Read more of Kate's The New Girl column.
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