separation anxiety

We sit. Quiet. Breathing. How loud loud loud my mind. So full of fast thoughts. So full of fast thoughts. So full of fast fast fast fast fast thoughts. So full and busy and I can’t hear anything because so much is going on in my mind.
People sneeze, cough, shift in their seats. What is it like, at meeting for worship?

meeting room
Portland Friends Meeting
Settling in to a comfortable position. Aware of my posture, my legs, my arms and hands. More aware of my body as the chaos of my mind’s voices chatter away in the background. Noticing new aches and pains, behind my left eye, throughout my jaw, my spine, my lower back. How my jaw clenches tightly over to the side. Becoming aware. Gently reposition my lower jaw so my teeth rest not quite touching, but in line. How awkward the rest of my face feels. How I notice my spine more now. I lift my head lightly as if a string comes from my spine up through the top of my head. Lifting.
New people enter the room, finding seats. Some have loud shoes on the wood floor. So much shuffling and adjusting. The room’s sounds flow in waves. More than the clicks and hums of human sounds, my anxiety comes from thinking of people who might be bothered by those sounds. I notice that about myself. I breathe. I return to my body. Someone’s stomach gurgles. Someone may be snoring. As the sounds mingle I notice. I notice I can find quiet even in the middle of the clutter careful accidental necessary noises of these friends. My mind is slowing. As each of my to-do items flashes in I welcome it and say, not now, and say, goodbye. As a new column or blog post begins forming, I enjoy playing with the words for a while, then notice my distraction away from the moment. Each moment of distraction, when I am not mindfully resting and seeking the space and light I know I will find in the silence, I don’t fight. I don’t fight the distractions, I only notice them.
Inside me, like the quiet sounds of the other humans around me, there are waves of noise and quiet. Again, a flowing.
As more space opens in me I notice I’m feeling sleepy. Oh, how tired I am. I begin worrying this will be one of those meetings where the struggle to fight sleep is so miserable, I consider leaving (I did leave once). Instead, I adjust my legs and my arms. I bend my head to one side and then the other. I imagine my blood flowing from my heart through my body, especially along my spine, and back into my heart. I catch myself in a deep and possibly loud exhale. It’s okay. We are all here to find the light. The space. The peace.

Those of you who know me know my older daughter (who will be seven next week!) is very attached. She is brilliant and tender and wise beyond her years. She has empathy at levels most adults can only… well, she’s very, very empathetic. We have struggled over the years with the line between respecting her needs (staying with Mommy has always been her preference) and doing our jobs as parents (making the bigger decisions for her). More than most people, we have eased her in to separations. Sometimes it’s difficult because mainstream wisdom says she’s manipulating us while alternative wisdom says we’re teaching her she’s not capable on her own. Stubbornly, though, we’ve listened to our hearts. We know our daughter. We will make mistakes, of course, but we won’t make choices based on what other people think we should do.

So today when I brought her to horseback riding camp (a place she has visited twice in her life for a few minutes each time) where there were thirteen children (her busiest day at her regular school has 10) she’d never met (she’s known most of her classmates for years) and where the day would be from 9-4:30 (her school day is typically 9:15ish to 3:20ish) you could say I was surprised when she said quickly, “Okay, goodbye!” and literally shoved me toward my car.

I’ll admit I’ve spent the day expecting a call that she’s crying and I should come get her. This happens at school with some regularity, though I don’t go get her (typically) because she calls only moments before the end of the school day. But it’s 3pm, no call. Her sister napped. I got a break. Here are some photos of my big, big girl.
I am proud.

As the train pulled away from the Saco station I saw the shape of her little blond head in the window but I couldn’t see her face. I kept blowing kisses, blowing kisses, blowing kisses, trying so hard to look excited and happy for her and her adventure.
You see, I’m not worried about her. She’s with her Daddy and she’s a strong girl. But, she’s growing up. As it has meant from the day she was born, growing up means growing away. One of the most important parts of my job as a parent is to make myself dispensable.
Notable this afternoon for me was how completely present I was with my feelings. As I lay nursing the baby hoping she’d nap long enough that I could take a proper bubble bath, the tears just started falling. Not entirely sad tears. Very mixed. So happy and proud of all the growing our little six year old has done. Wretchedly sad to have her not with me — there have only been a handful of nights we have ever been apart. Free to release the tension I’ve been carrying but not tending to because I’ve needed to be present for the girls. And moved at how stunning the baby’s smile is when she so fully greets me with love.
It took a couple hours after my older left before I could start enjoying the freedom of having the house almost entirely to myself. Truly, I had forgotten what it was like to be able to do almost anything I wanted without consulting someone else. The baby has to come along for the ride. And, sure, she made a few reasonable demands (nursing, diaper changing, talking — she’s like her sister… sometimes she’ll start getting whiny and whimpery but will cheer right up if I get next to her and start talking). But generally I was free.
As I enjoyed, sort of, the bubble bath (the tub is just too small) I realized that writing has become my getaway. No more numbing with substances or psychological games. I getaway and also find myself in writing. I wonder if that’s what a writer is. Someone who needs to write.
My quality of life and the amount I write are directly related. The more writing, the better my life. Even if the writing is mindless, or pointless (see: Facebook and memes). If I have words coming out of my head through my fingers onto the keyboard, my world stays clearer. Brighter. Better.
Instead of crawling frantically to the sensation of numbness I had a few treats (smoked salmon, chocolate square with caramel), did a lot of writing, cleaned the bathroom (to take that bath), cleaned the kitchen (getting ready for vacation), and pretty much packed up to leave for two weeks starting tomorrow. I listened to Democracy Now without having to explain all the death and destruction in the world to a six year old. It was productive. It was leisurely. It was everything I wanted it to be, and more.

The late-night drive-through attendant passed me two cheeseburgers without judgment. Her emotionless (empathetic?) gaze was better than therapy. Finding myself camped out in the middle of the king-sized bed, computer on my lap, remote in one hand, 3 Musketeers in the other–it took two hours of dazed terror before I realized I’d been there before.
This time, I was in a hotel without my husband or daughter. That time, over ten years ago, I was alone heading toward the worst of my drunk and stoned life. This time, life was mostly full of joy, balance, and serenity. That time, chaos and loneliness led me in endless dark mazes.
I had no idea being away from my daughter overnight for the first time would be so brutal. It kicked my ass for those two hours. When I recognized where I had arrived (desperation, lack of clarity, obscured reality) it was an easy shift into pleasure. Ah ha! Look what’s happened! And, immediately: a bubble bath; guilty-pleasure television with the volume up; doing what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. And, most of all, sleeping harder and deeper than I had in years.
It’s as if life is a continuous set of spirals, lines flowing up and around, higher and higher until the coil is too tight. With each forward movement–it’s always moving forward–the next unspringing is more gentle. Ten years ago every lesson devastated me, as I believed in perfection and an impossible ideal. These days, I usually recognize the signs of an impending challenge or lesson and I just hold on and breathe.
Four and a half years ago our daughter came into our lives through a gash in my abdomen. She wanted to come out feet first. There was no convincing her to turn. On that first night, she lay among my IV tubes of antibiotics for the post-op infection and Pitocin to stop the hemorrhaging. She nursed enthusiastically. She slept with us then and has ever since.
Sleeping in our grand king-sized bed is full of reconnecting, snuggling, giggling, and love. Sure, she’ll sleep in her own room someday but, for now, we all love our arrangement.
So, for all of her sweet little life, any time she’s needed me at night, I’ve been there. I am breathing with her, laying with her, and always within reach.
As we work on less dependence on me and more acceptance of comfort from her Daddy, we realized the best thing for us was me spending a night away. I was desperate for a good night’s sleep (being needed throughout the night had finally caught up to me), and we were both desperate for Josh’s chance to be “the one” she needed. My physical presence, because of the patterns and habits we’ve set over the years, was problematic. Maya didn’t believe she would be okay without me. What a terrible lesson to teach a child: you’ll fall apart if I’m not there. So, it was with some anxiety but mostly excitement and confidence that I packed my bag for this overnight.
A massive burlap sack filled with wet sand smashing me across the room was how I felt when I first left our house. I actually thought I might vomit because I was “leaving Maya.” My perception of my importance, and ultimately Josh’s ability as a father, was skewed. Twisted. Distorted. Reality was again obscured.
Thankfully, it just took that bit of time for me to recognize just how fucked up it all was. As if Maya would fall apart without me. Intellectually, I was sure I didn’t believe that. But those two desperate hours were close cousins to the last few months of my darkest drugging and boozing. This time, I had solutions at my disposal. Easy tools to use to fix this mess. I simply said, “Oh, hey, god? Shit, I’m totally fucked up again. I think I’m way too important and I think I’m a piece of shit. Would you fix all this?” And POP up I sprang from the bed to run the bubble bath.
Clarity. Clearness.
It’s all so simple if I don’t make it complicated. And, holy crap, did I sleep well that night.

The last few weeks have been tough for our family. Emotionally exhausting. Maya made it clear it wasn’t okay for me to leave her with a babysitter, or her grandparents, or even her Daddy. I tried working from my home office, but every few minutes she would want to nurse or talk with me. Trying to get work done at a local coffee shop was out, too. When I started toward the door, she would tremble with tears in her eyes and plead, “Mommy, no! Don’t go now!”
Parenting is a series of choices. Josh and I follow our gut. If we discover later the research backs us up, that’s nifty. But, no matter what the experts suggest, we stay true to our instincts.
When Maya told me not to go, I heard choruses of outsiders in my mind telling me, “she’s testing you, trying to manipulate you; you are the adult and mustn’t let her push you around; she needs your consistency (I said I was going, so I should go for her sake),” and on and on.
Those were loud and pushy and misguided outsiders’ voices.
In my gut, in my heart, my soul, my core, I knew that Maya was testing me. She was saying, “I need you to stay. When I need you and I tell you so, will you hear?”
I passed the test.
I bulldozed through the swamp of voices predicting an overindulged and “spoiled” child and landed safely in the nest of comforting my daughter.
The need for Mommy to stay hasn’t wavered over the past several weeks; so, as I mentioned, it’s been an exhausting time for our family. Josh has taken up a great deal of slack in housekeeping (tasks for which he already pulls at least half the weight), has thickened his skin to the “no Daddy!” times, and has reassured me that he agrees our choices are right for our family. Respecting Maya’s needs is how we care for her, even if it means in the short-term all my emotional resources are being spent on her security.
When would it end? I thought many times. Surely, allowing her to nurse whenever she wants to (needs its own essay) and not leaving her with a sitter – not leaving her, period – surely all of this responsiveness would soon increase her sense of security?
Why, then, did it seem that Maya clung even more desperately to me – saying no to a trip to the market with Daddy (always a favorite jaunt for the pair), even at times not wanting Mommy to leave the room?
The responsibility of attending to her needs has been heavy, but small moments convince me the choices we are making are right for us. When she was falling asleep a few nights ago, Maya rested her hand on my cheek and said, “Stay, Mommy.”
“Yes, yes, I will stay,” I whispered, pressing my mouth against her sweet sweaty head.
I wondered if this was just the typical two-year-old stuff or something bigger. Maya answered my questions this weekend.
“Mommy’s not going to die,” she stated with a question’s tone while in her rocking chair.
“What?” I said, not quite sure I heard her, could she have said…?
“You’re not going to die,” she said, staring intensely at me with the widest big eyes a little girl could ever have.
“No! No, hunny, I am not going to die!”
“Daddy’s not going to die,” she said, almost without inflection.
“No! No, he’s not. He won’t.”
Throughout the weekend she continued on this theme, asking if we were going to die. Talking about her animal parents and friends dying, requesting the stories we tell be about parents or friends dying.
These thoughts are too big for a child. She is too tender for such dark fears!
I remembered, then, a conversation we had when she pointed to a picture of my Aunt Mary. I told Maya then that Mary had been my cousin Ali’s mother, but she had died much too young. The conversation was brief, but, as I look back the deep fears she’s had are making more sense.
In addition to talking about my beloved Aunt Mary, my grandmother has been very seriously ill and we have talked to Maya about the possibility of Gramma Jean dying.
The topic is one I assumed a two-year-old would only take in what she could handle. I chose to be blunt about the truth (everyone/everything dies, death is permanent, etc.) because I was sure she simply wouldn’t get in to the heavy stuff.
“Mommy’s not going to die,” she asked as she sat in her car seat waiting to be brought upstairs after a trip to the market.
“Mommy’s not going to die,” she stated firmly as we lay in bed going to sleep last night.
“No, hunny, I promise I will never leave you.” I said. “If I ever leave you it will only be for a short, short time and I will always, always come back home safe. I will not die.”
I justify the lie by adding in my mind, “in the next ten minutes…” knowing it would be cruel to ask this sweet babe to understand that her Mother could and would one day die.
When she begged me not to leave her with a sitter, what if I had discarded her need for me? What if I had decided the other things were more important than her cries for me to stay? Can you imagine how frightened she might have been? Can you imagine trying to get a handle on death all alone as a 28-month-old child?
When we continue caring for Maya in this way – that her cries for us are real needs, not attempts at control or manipulation – Josh and I both know we are doing the right thing for her. What a world around us, though, when the strongest message to the general public is that people like us are being “controlled” by our child! When Maya looks up at me, caressing my cheek and says, with satisfaction just seconds before drifting off to a milky sleep, “You’re not going to go,” I know we are doing what is best for her.
“That’s right, sweet love,” I say to her, long after she breathes the heavy slow rhythm of sleep, “I’m staying. Mommy is staying with you. Daddy is staying with you. We will never leave you.”
And we never will.