My kids were born with terrible cases of separation anxiety. All they wanted to do as babies was hang onto Anthony or me 24-7 like little monkeys. What’s up with that? I read everywhere that my babies would sleep through the night for 14 hours by the time they were three months old, and also they’d enjoy hanging out by themselves in bassinets and face down on carpets, staring blankly at bright red-and-black plastic toys that make analog noises. Obviously, my children have some significant disorder that caused their reality to veer hard from the life of ease that’s allegedly available to all other parents and babies. Or I have a parenting disorder.
Jesse used to have terrible, terrible separation issues when she was a really wee one, and of course eventually we learned that she does have a disorder in the form of general anxiety. So it’s a good thing we ignored all the books and refused to make her scream her way alone through the nights. Even Grand Sleep Master Ferber acknowledged that a child with anxiety and separation issues shouldn’t be subjected to cry-it-out sleep-training, but he never offered a lick of advice on how a parent goes about determining if a 6-month-old infant has such issues. I found Ferber’s omission outrageous and irresponsible. What was I supposed to do — ask the baby? “Hi sweet pea, woo-joo-boo-jooooo. Do you feel abnormal anxiety about things, my little peanut? Tell me about your deepest fears and nightmares. Woo-joo-boo-jooo.”
Jesse used to cling to me desperately when I dropped her off at school. Sometimes she still does. The only time she consistently didn’t turn back to reach for me was during the 7 months she spent in a Montessori prison, at the tender age of 5. She would get out of the car and never look back as she walked away, her body set, her step resigned as she prepared to face 3.5 hours of emotional abuse from the nasty piece of work who called herself a teacher and pretended to care about Jesse. I still look back on all that with shame, and I’m grateful the memories finally seem to be fading from Jesse’s mind. Why did it take me so long to see that Jesse’s behavior was an indictment of my failure to protect her from something terrible? I suppose I could look back on it with pride. At least I didn’t mistake her depressed walk-away as something positive, hey-look-at-how-independent-she-is-now!
Hm. Nah. Better to feel guilty about it.
Anyway, on the rare occasions when Jesse still needs to cling to me at the schoolhouse doors, I let her cling. I’d rather fill her cup than put another crack in it. Plus it leaves me less grumpy.
Nick also has a lot of separation anxiety, but the last couple months it’s gotten all wacky. He can be sitting in a room with me, not five feet away, wrapped up in some form of play or staring into his iPad. Suddenly he’ll cry out in terror. “MOMMY?? WHERE ARE YOU???”
Every time he screams out like this, I feel goosed. He does it when I’m on the can. He does it when I walk out of the room to get a kleenex. He does it when I go downstairs to do some laundry. Frequently when I head out with a bag of garbage, he’ll race out the kitchen door after me. “MOMMY?? WHERE ARE YOU GOING???” Sometimes he’ll let me walk the dog down the street by myself while he stays in the house. I have to promise to stay without eye-shot of the driveway. Even so, at least half the time he’ll come out to the street in his bare feet to hunt me down. Announcing where I’m going and what I’m about to do makes no difference, because he apparently has the short-term memory of a small-brained dog.
One day he did it while I was playing the piano loudly and badly. Nick was sitting on the floor just a few feet away while I generated some serious decibels. A Chopin ballade, I think. “MOMMY??? WHERE ARE YOU????” I was irate, and I chewed him out. “WHY ARE YOU SCREAMING?? I’M RIGHT HERE! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU???”
He was visibly relieved as he answered sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders. “Oh. I forgot.”
My kids follow me around the house like little comet trails. Last week we were snuggling in bed in the morning, and then I decided to get up. I made the mistake of announcing my intent. Suddenly Nick and Jesse were on top of me. I struggled for a full five minutes, in a quiet and desperate battle to get them off me without hurting them or myself. It was like having two tiny zombies after me. They were relentless and unbelievably strong. They wanted a piece of me. I suppose one could argue it was sweet and loving and all that, and I confess it was… but on a demented level. I was exhausted when I finally broke free, and thankful to make a break for the bathroom. I need some space from my kids’ separation issues.
* * * * *
Today we did something new. Jesse is nine now. Notwithstanding social norms that appear to require that I not leave my kids alone until they’re 19 or 20, I feel that she’s old enough and responsible enough to be home alone for short periods of time, like if I have to run out for 15 minutes. With the doors locked and a phone and the dog by her side, she’s fine until I return. I’ve proposed this to her on many occasions to no avail. Her separation anxiety kicks in, and she always follows me out the door. But today she was home sick (again), and I needed to pick Nick up from school, and she was tired out from running errands with me. She decided to stay home for the 15 minutes it took me to retrieve Nick.
I wasn’t sure how it would go. I showed her again how to call my cell phone. We practiced. She said she was fine. I headed out the door. Sure enough, her anxiety acted right up. I was still in the garage when the first telephone call came through.
Oh wait, that was me calling her. I just wanted to make sure she was okay and wasn’t going to run out behind the car as I backed out so that I could run her over.
Jesse was fine. So I drove off. My stomach was feeling kind of funny so I thought I might need to run back home to go to the bathroom and check in on Jesse, but I decided to wait it out. The second call came as I pulled into the school parking lot. Now I was really worried I would have to run back home to grab Jesse.
Wait. I actually think I made that call too.
After I got Nick, we hustled back to the car. He was in a real hurry to get back to Jesse, I tell you, probably because he wanted to make sure she wasn’t losing her mind to fear. In fact, he almost fell over from rushing back to the car so fast, so it was a good thing I had him by the shoulder of his coat to help drag him in the right direction.
Okay okay, I’ll just go ahead and admit that I placed the third call too, as Nick and I drove back home. By then, Jesse was completely exasperated with me. I was obviously interrupting something.
I started to worry on a whole different level. Would the house still be standing when I got home? Would Jesse still be inside? Was she planning to take the dog on a walk without me? What if she got lost?
Meanwhile, my stomach kept churning. It was probably from all the pickles I ate at lunch. Also I was feeling a little short of breath. Sometimes that happens when the days are really, really cold like today.
When Nick and I got home, Jesse was running around the living room taking photos of Madeline with her iPad. There was a kitchen chair next to the fridge. Huh. Jesse explained that she had gotten some treats for Madeline. I think she might have also snuck some treats for herself. Jesse was relaxed and cheerful, completely at ease, and a little disappointed we got back so quickly.
I was so happy for her. It’s a good thing I don’t have separation anxiety. I’m obviously helping Jesse get over her own anxiety by being a great role model.