A mother whose first-born child had just gone off to college, asked me to write about what she called long-distance parenting. Having raised three children, she thought she had mastered needed parenting skills but since her son is away at school she finds herself at a loss as to how to be an appropriate parent. He apparently was sick and she wasn’t there to take care of him, she can’t make sure he is eating properly and getting enough sleep. Everything she associates with being a mother is no longer operative and she feels at a loss about how to provide the care she is accustomed to providing.
This mother also talked about the impact of her son’s departure on his siblings and on the family as a whole. The second child is also a boy and the third a girl. The two boys were close and the relationship between the next two is not the same. When she returns from work instead of the chatter she was accustomed to walking in on, each child is in a separate room and the silence feels unnatural.
It was interesting to hear all this since more familiar is the anguish of parents of preschoolers who are experiencing separation anxiety when their children start school for the first time. Aside from the children’s protests at times, mothers themselves experience anxiety about whether the children will be alright. There is also a sense of loss when children begin to relate to teachers and suddenly mom and dad are no longer the sole authority in children’s lives.
There is nothing unusual for either mother or child to have such feelings, but the term “separation anxiety” has been made to sound pathological – with the implication that something is wrong. Actually, 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.
We are supposed to be pleased with our children’s increasing independence and their moves away from us towards 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 be feelings of loss when that central place we hold to begin with starts to loosen.
Mothers and babies start out in a motherhood bubble. No one is fully prepared for the total dependence of an infant. One’s life is taken over by caring for the needs of a newborn – the baby becomes the center of our universe. We fall in love with our babies and it is a good thing we do – our attachment is what makes it possible to provide the care needed for the infant’s survival.
But the story of children’s development is the process of growing up and developing the ability to care for oneself. The story of parenthood is that of our children growing up and out. Every stage in that story involves separation from parents as children develop new skills and are able to take on increased responsibility for themselves. There is always some anxiety involved for both children and parents in the course of that process. Children often assert their readiness before parents feel assured that they are ready for the steps they want to take.
The mother in this story is clearly experiencing separation anxiety in the form of concern about her son’s well-being. Undoubtedly, he is able to manage with the resources available at his school. He too, may miss he mother’s care but has developed confidence from the years of that care that he can manage on his own.
Living with all these feelings is part of life. By learning to live with these feelings ourselves, we are better able to help our children do the same.