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Motherhood

Separation Anxiety: Coming to Terms With Being Out of View From My Children

When you are preparing to bring a child into this world for the first time, there is no shortage of advice doled out to new parents.

“Don’t hold the baby too much, or she’ll get spoiled!”
“Baby won’t sleep? Let her cry it out through the night. Crying never killed no baby.”
“Put the baby on her back to sleep. That’s how you prevent SIDS.”
“Put the baby on her stomach to sleep. It’ll help her feel full and sleep longer so you can get work done.”
“What do you mean you don’t put baby powder on her bottom? She’s gonna get a RASH! Gimme that baby and go get the Johnson’s!” (laughs in lawsuits)

I didn’t stop getting (unsolicited) advice about how to care for and raise my kids until I brought the fourth one home. Certainly by now I had some idea about what I was doing. Only then did The Annoying Auntie Brigade leave me to my own devices, for which I was glad. But time and tide change all things. I find myself in new waters; not necessarily treacherous, but certainly not friendly. As irksome as their unrequested for commentary was back then, I’d welcome some of it at this stage in my mothering journey. Instead, I’m left with frosty silence and only the echos of their confident counsel. I suppose these women have not yet discovered a tried and true technique – let alone advice – on how to let one’s kids go off into the world. The Aunties may be annoying, but hypocrites they are not.

The girls have decided to finish up high school abroad. This was no surprise for Nadjah. She had been planning to go abroad since 10th grade but then the pandemic hit and delayed both her plans and my heartache. Now that the world has applied a thick veneer of normalcy, most of the plans we hatched are in play. She will turn 18 in December so of course it made sense that she would venture off into the world. It was Aya’s declaration that she also intended to depart that I did not anticipate…and therefore broke me. I crawled under the covers and stayed there for a full day. I tried to imagine life without both of my eldest girls and couldn’t see a predictable future. I think this is what most mothers/parents who mourn the leaving of their children struggle with. I asked other parents who have been here before.

“I remember the night after my son left. For the first time in my life I had to figure out what I wanted to eat for dinner. I had to really sit and think about what I liked without considering what someone else would enjoy. That truly shocked me.”

That was Michelle. She’s the girls’ hairdresser in South Africa. Her son left home 4 years ago to work and study abroad and comes home twice a year. When can afford it, she travels to visit him. She tells me that rediscovering and redefining herself in this new phase of motherhood has been one of the toughest challenges she’s had to face and that she’s sure I can face it too. I am comforted, but only briefly. For comfort, I call my dad.

“Daddy, when I left Ghana for America were you ok? How did you feel?”
My dad answered with a soft snort, something he does when he’s recalling a memory that he finds ironic or difficult. “Well, after I dropped you off at the airport I went to the closest bar and got drunk. Piss drunk. And then I went home and went to sleep.”

How sweet! (For context, my dad only drinks that hard to numb pain or in an attempt at delaying experiencing it).

Of all the folks I’ve asked this question – how did they cope with the departure of their kids – not one has responded with rejoicing. When your babies are little you can’t wait for them to move on to the next milestone. First word. First step. First day of school. First time driving. All these in anticipation of when they “finally get outcho house.” But for the parents I spoke to, that moment doesn’t arrive with the song and dance of unfettered glee depicted on so many TV Land shows. Mostly, it’s quiet and contemplative…and lonely. The fact is, the only people who swear that I will “be alright” and assured me that this is a “great opportunity” are the people who either a) don’t have children or b) don’t have children yet old enough to leave home.

I like my girls, and I daresay they like me. I consider them my friends – two of my best friends, in fact. We talk about anything. I enjoy their company. Few things in this life make me happier than the sound of Aya’s tittering laugh or Nadjah’s unrelenting requests for hugs. And they are theee best traveling buddies. I have learned as much from them in these 17 years as they have learned from me. We are each other’s teachers. I suppose now is the time to graduate.

When the girls where very little, I used to take them to Zoo Atlanta once a week. Sometimes I’d let them walk a few paces ahead of me just to give them a sense of independence. If they rounded a bend and couldn’t see me (though I could see them) they would come scuttling back, ensuring I was where they left me before rounding the bend again. The parenting resource sites I once devoured daily defined this as “separation anxiety”, when children fear being parted from parents or carers. Stanfordchildrens.org says:
“Part of a baby’s normal development is learning that separations from parents are not long-term (permanent). Young babies don’t understand time, so they think a parent who walks out of the room is gone forever. They have not yet developed the idea that a hidden object is still there (object permanence). Babies can become anxious and fearful when a parent leaves their sight. Separation anxiety is usually at its peak between 10 and 18 months. It typically ends by the time a child is 3 years old.”

I too feel like my girls have walked out of the room and will be gone forever. Admittedly, a part of that belief is due to my own leaving experience. I left my parent’s house at 18 and did not return for almost 10 years (couldn’t afford it) and have only been home sporadically since. I don’t think I could bear this reality. And while such a fear might be irrational, it is a fear that there is no panacea for. I too have separation anxiety. And like a red-faced, squalling baby I have to wait in hopes that the centers of my world will return.

Have you been at these crossroads and have any advice for how the needy? Your comments are welcome. Keep scrolling. You’ll find the box eventually.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Nellie Umutesi Vigneron

    No advice. Just sending you lots of love and hugs your way… also I will probably do the same as your dad when my son goes off to uni next year!

    • Malaka

      I sweeeaaarrrr…!!! Because the way I plan to drink myself into a coma on the plane ride back eh? Solidarity and hugs in advance to you!

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