In a recent New York magazine article on the widespread use of anti-anxiety pills, author Lisa Miller cites a conversation with a neighbor, a mother, who said that she had begun to carry pills around with her after her first child entered kindergarten for relief from the uncontrollable separation anxiety she felt each time she left for work. Miller quotes this woman as saying, “It was just so obvious that time was passing and I could never get it back.”
The current prevalence of pill taking for anxiety, unhappiness, and other unpleasant feelings is an important subject in itself, but what is most striking in this example is the mom’s acknowledgement of her own feelings of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is most often raised in connection with children starting school, or in reaction to parents leaving them to go out. Often a mother is herself blamed for somehow conveying to her child her own reluctance to separate.
Although hopefully the anxiety or sadness experienced at separation from one’s child will not be so acute as to require medication, there is nothing surprising or unusual for either mother or child to have such feelings. Unfortunately, the term “separation anxiety” has been made to sound pathological – with the implication that something is wrong. In fact, unless such feelings interfere with one’s ability to function, they are part of the wide range of human emotions. To feel some sense of loss at separation is the other side of attachment.
But mothers are not always supported if they express such feelings. We are supposed to be pleased with our children’s increasing independence and their moves away from us toward friends and a larger world. And we are. But that doesn’t mean there is no room for other feelings as well. Children are central in our lives, no matter what else we do, and we in turn loom large in their eyes. As well as pleasure and pride, there may also be feelings of loss when that central place we hold to begin with starts to loosen. That is especially true when children start school, and the teacher may be quoted as a greater authority than mom or dad.
Actually, mothers and babies start out in a motherhood bubble. No one is fully prepared for the total dependency of an infant. One’s life is taken over by caring for the needs of the newborn and by the lack of sleep for mom and dad that go with it. The baby becomes the center of our universe.
Fortunately, we fall in love with our babies, and it’s a good thing we do. It is this love affair that makes possible the going without sleep, the constant feeding and changing, the coping with having one’s life turned upside down that leaves little room for our own needs. The baby’s need to be cared for in order to survive is met by our attachment to our baby – that necessary love affair – so both mother and baby live in a motherhood bubble.
Eventually, this love affair begins to interfere with other priorities. Many working women on maternity leave, for example, find that they are not yet ready either physically or emotionally to go back to work at the designated time. But that doesn’t mean that they never want to go back to work. It just means they don’t feel ready to leave the baby yet. At this point the wish to stay with the baby is stronger than other needs women have. But these needs – including economic necessity – are there, and they will begin to reassert themselves.
In fact, there is a built-in conflict between the needs of children and mothers. This is true because the human child needs care and supervision for many years, while the need and wish to mother is only part of who a woman is. Fortunately, children grow and mature, becoming increasingly self-sufficient and independent, so the kind of care they need also changes. Once the school years begin, more and more of the care and supervision of children takes place outside of the home and away from parents’ supervision.
During this process, a major source of conflict for many women today is the lack of affordable, quality child care. Even for full time, at-home mothers, supplementary care for young, pre-school children is both necessary and desirable. For women working outside the home, good child care is an ongoing concern. The emotional conflict mothers experience about leaving their children is made more intense by added worry about the quality of care children are getting in their absence.
The mother quoted in the article referred to earlier expressed her sense of loss at the fleeting nature of those early childhood years. The story of parenthood is that of our children growing up and out. The story is one of pleasure and pain – in other words, the story of life.
Living with conflicted feelings is a necessary part of life. By learning to live with these feelings ourselves, we are better able to help our children do the same.