Separation Anxiety

>> Wednesday, June 6, 2007


I hate crying in the parking lot in the morning; especially before work and especially before a meeting -- not to mention it’s hell on my makeup (well, what little I wear, anyway). But as a working mother, that’s how it goes sometimes.

Elizabeth and I have parted hundreds of times when I take her to daycare. On good days, she runs to the window and I run to the other side, trampling grass and flowers. I breathe hot fog onto the window and write the letters she silently mouths; usually an “E” (for Elizabeth) and an “S” (for Samantha). I add a heart and she smiles. Then we laugh and wave goodbye. It’s a good start to the day.

Most days we part with a bearable ache that slowly dissipates with our daily distractions. Generally we leave one another smiling, except when she was very small and just starting daycare. I expected it to be tough at the beginning and toughened myself as much as I could against her tears, and mine.

But last Thursday was dreadful -- mostly because I was not prepared. I’d been coasting along on a routine of fond-farewells, so her pained cries took me completely off-guard and shook me to the core.

The morning started off well. She wrapped her thin legs tightly around my waist and latched her arms onto my neck as we walked into school. Her face nuzzled my cheek; warm hugs and lots of kisses; all good.

I tried to put her down when we walked into the classroom so I could sign her in. (Each child must “punch in”, so to speak, with the time of their arrival and the signature of a parent or other guardian.) Instead, she held more tightly. I held her with one arm and signed with the other. As I returned the pen, she squeezed me again. I knelt down, set her on the floor, and held her, hoping to “fix her” with a long embrace.

After what I thought was a sufficient amount of holding, I shifted to stand. She held tightly again. After all this time, she has learned the subtle gestures of leaving; replacing the pen, the long hug, the shifting of my body towards the door. She was ready for each signpost and held fast as she saw each one approach. Finally, I asked her what was wrong. Her answer was simple. “I want you,” she said.

Ouch.

The only acceptable response to such a statement is, “I want you, too, sweet baby! Let’s go to the Zoo and stop for some ice cream on the way. How does that sound?” Then the two of us run to the car giggling, hand-in-hand as her teachers look after us with confusion on their faces.

But that’s La-La Land. Instead, we live in the Land of 9-to-5 and Institutionalized Childcare. Or, as I like to call it, the “Rip My Body in Two” Land.

As a working mother, I have a list of possible responses:

“I have to work, sweetie.”

“I wish I could stay, but I can’t.”

“I’ll miss you sweetie, but we’ll play tonight when we get home.”

Meanwhile, I hear a familiar tune... “Cat’s in the cradle with the silver spoon...”

None of the usual excuses comforted her, and I began to feel the ripping. Her teachers floated by asking if I needed help. Yes. No. Help? What could they do? They tried to distract her, but Elizabeth turned away from them and buried her head into my thighs. I felt clammy and lightheaded.

For a moment, I couldn’t do anything. Two equal and opposing internal forces prohibited decision-making. I wanted to hold her and stay with her and kiss her. I also wanted to be on time for work. I wanted to play games with her. I needed to make photocopies for a meeting in an hour. I wanted to share a muffin with her while she ate her breakfast snack. I wanted to answer my e-mail and take some notes.

I felt a tightness in my abdomen. It was hard to breathe. Finally, one of her teachers came over and hugged Elizabeth from behind in an effort to gently restrain her. I told Elizabeth I loved her, gave her a final hug and then pulled away. I pulled away.

How can I express what it felt like to leave her there; this small girl-child who runs across her classroom to see me each day because I’m the light of her life?

The ripping was nearly physical. It’s simply unhealthy to pull away from someone you would die for. The body knows it’s wrong. It conflicts with every strand of DNA. Evolution bred mothers to encase their children like plump little sausages. I felt 200,000 years of evolution pulling at my heart.

Elizabeth was crying and reaching for me and her teacher was holding her back. In that moment I wanted to kidnap her and run away to some farm in Iowa; sell our house and live on love. To hell with over-priced San Diego. Fuck our outlandish mortgage. Who cares about my need for independence; my need to “express myself” through work?

Mostly, to hell with me.

Because the truth is, I choose to work. Yes, I’ve chosen this path. The expensive cost of living, the high mortgage -- those are convenient lies I perpetuate when I don’t want to admit the truth to myself or someone else. It’s expensive to live here, but we could move or make the necessary sacrifices if I wanted to. But I don’t want to.

I am not 100% mother-animal. I never fully surrendered to my mammalian instincts. Life for me would be much easier if I did. I imagine there is peace in single-mindedness of purpose. To get up each day and have a precise goal, instead of several conflicting ones, would be euphoria. But for reasons I don’t quite understand, I still crave some autonomy, a version of myself that is separate from my family.

Yet, I am not 100% independent-worker-animal, either. I chose to be a mother, too. I love being a mother. I have never had more fun in my life. I laugh more. I play more. I burp more. I like walking into work some mornings to find a sticker on my arm, or a snot stain on my shirt. I enjoy taking temperatures and singing to my girls at night. My family is the light of my life.

So each morning I awake with multiple and conflicting desires; each separate and pulling. Ripping.

One day, Elizabeth will be the one who pulls away. Of course I will hold onto her using any means necessary, as she has done to me. Perhaps it will be a subtle form of manipulation. “I’ll miss you so much if you leave,” I’ll say. Or perhaps I’ll try financial manipulation. “I will only help to pay for a local university.” Or perhaps I’ll be more direct and just throw myself onto the hood of her car. Some day, Future Melissa will hate me a thousand times over for not kidnapping our family and moving to Iowa.

Knowing all of this, I walked away.

I blew Elizabeth a kiss and I walked out the door. I trampled over grass and flowers to stand by the window that she stood opposite, sobbing. Our hands touched through the glass. We kissed. I blew fog onto the window in short breaths and drew an “E” into it; and a heart.

Then I turned, walked away, and cried in my car in the parking lot; sobbing into my DNA.




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