This morning I left my 4-year-old sobbing in the arms of her Pre-K teacher. As I turned to leave, the sight of her little face crumbling, trying to be brave but not quite managing, tore right to my core. I walked away feeling like I was wading through treacle, my chest aching and my arms heavy and useless where my child should have been. It felt so very unnatural to leave when she was crying out my name.
Her teacher assured me that within moments of me being out of sight in the mornings she is laughing and playing with her friends, content and not giving me another thought.
The same can’t be said for me. The image of her tearful face sits heavy on my heart hours later, and I can’t shake the guilt, the horrible feeling that I’m not where I should be, that I’ve let her down.
This is separation anxiety: the intangible, invisible, heavy-as-lead thing we moms carry around with us for much of the day.
It is most pronounced with my almost-2-year-old, who goes through phases but seems to choose to have her bouts of separation anxiety when I’m getting dressed up to go out, when I’m craving a shower on my own or when I put my running shoes on.
Between the two of them, there aren’t many hours of the day I’m not feeling guilty or torn.
Also, I worry my 4-year-old should have grown out of it by now. So I deal with this the way I deal with most of my parenting dilemmas: I go to the baby books, and to my mom.
The truth is, accompanied by anxiety or not, separation is an essential part of parenting.
We simply cannot be with our children all the time. We need to work, to exercise, to see friends, to spend time alone with our partners, and to occasionally connect with who we were as people before we were parents.
And our children need to learn who they are without us. They need to be allowed to experience their fears in a safe environment and then overcome them, to learn resilience from adversity.
We’re doing as much for them by handing their care over to someone else for a few hours as we are in the other parts of our parenting day.
But knowing all this doesn’t help relieve my own anxiety about the anxiety. It doesn’t ease the guilt, it doesn’t ease the sense that I’ve made some kind of bad mistake.
And then I remember: as with all things motherhood, it won’t be like this forever.
Some day, in the frighteningly near future, my daughters will skip into school with a kiss and a wave and not look back. A brief moment after that they’ll request that I not walk them to their classroom, and before I know it I’ll be asked to drop them off down the block.
When my toddler empties my shampoo bottle on my shower floor as I wash my hair, or she clings to my leg as I head for the door, I try to remember, it won’t be like this forever.
Because the flipside of the agony of separation anxiety is the ecstasy of the return.
The sound of “Mommy!” when they spot you coming at pick-up, the pounding of little feet on wooden floors when they hear your keys in the front door, or a sleepy voice mumbling, “You’re home” when you go in to kiss her after relieving the babysitter. The little arms tightening around your neck, more like home than anything you’ve ever known.
And it won’t be like this forever either.
One day they won’t need me so much, and I’ll be free. But one day, they won’t need me so much, and I’ll be quite lost.
So for now, I accept the stress that comes with their separation anxiety.
I accept the exhaustion and the trips down the hall in the middle of the night and the co-showering and the forceful extraction of little arms from around my knees.
I accept the guilt and the worry and the heaviness of my empty arms and the lump in my throat as I walk away.
I accept all of these gifts gladly.
I treasure them, and tuck them away for safe keeping, knowing that one day, as I wait with my car idling half a block away, I will take these moments out out of the memory bank, blow the dust off them and hold them up to the light.
Because it won’t be like this forever.