Friday, March 11, 2005

Feeding Out Line

The big task of parenthood--bigger even than keeping the child alive and nourished and wearing mittens on a cold day--is letting go. This starts almost immediately--certainly by the time the kid is a year old and walks away from you for the first time.* No, you don't set your one year old on a corner and walk away, proud of her new independence. But childrearing requires a gentle, almost constant, loosening of the ties that bind, with a simultaneous backstopping just in case the child wasn't ready to have the reins loosened quite that much. This is not a license to neglect, or not to do the things you don't want to do; it's a matter of looking at your kid, considering what you know about her, about the neighborhood, and the world, and saying "Yes, you can go to the library by yourself," when half the atoms in your body are standing up screaming "NO NO NO, SHE'S JUST A BABY!"

Which leads me to spring vacation. Younger Girl, to her immense pride and pleasure is flying east to spend five days with her grandparents in Pennsylvania. Since we bought the tickets and made the arrangements (unaccompanied minor passes, extra fees, designated pick up persons at both ends) she has been counting the days. She has been discussing what it's going to be like to get up at 4:30, in order to get to the airport by 5:30, for a 7:30 flight. She has been researching the Liberty Bell and other Philadelphia sights. I had to send my recipe for Easter Bunny Meatloaf (meatloaf frosted with mashed potatoes, nestled in a bed of green beans, with paper ears and pink jelly bean eyes) so that Easter could be properly observed. It's all gonna be swell. What I don't tell YG, of course, is the image I have of myself, left behind and quite forgotten as I watch her walk down the gantry to the airplane, chatting up her flight attendent, happily on to the new adventure. (Never mind that I am a career worrier, and won't believe the whole airplane hasn't been gathered up wholesale into the belly of the Mothership, or come crashing down in the Rockies, until I get a phone call from the other end.)

Mind you, YG has her share of wobbly moments. She seemed relieved when I told her she could take her special cuddling bear, Synonym, in the bag with her books and art supplies, for the plane. She had a few moments of concern that the flight attendents might find her a burden (she plans to bring chocolates to "tip" them with--her idea). And--it's a pretty big adventure for a nine year old, and now that the initial bliss has settled a little, she's getting in touch with some anxiety. Last night she had her father tell her a story about the trip--a preview, as it were, of what the night before the trip would be like, and what it would be like to get up while it was dark, stumble into her clothes, go to the airport, etc. This morning I told a similar story to her, about how much she would be missed around the house, about how her sister would worry when YG had such a good time she forgot to call home to say goodnight, about the squeezes she was going to get on her return. She seemed to find those comforting, too.

Separation anxiety is a term that gets tossed around a lot. My understanding of the term is that, when an infant/toddler discovers that she and the parent are two separate entities with two separate sets of goals, the child has to assert herself, to walk away, as it were. But that's scary, because the child doesn't want to be too separate--she knows she still needs the parent to survive, and is afraid that the parent will resent her temerity in moving away. The best thing a parent can do is feed out the line, but make sure the kid knows that he's on the other end of that line, and proud of the child's independence. It's a delicate dance.

As usual, dancing as fast as I can, with a smile.

*I spent several years ghostwriting for a child psychiatrist who specialized in infant depression, which is, as I used to say, infinitely depressing. I am now about ten years out of date on child development theory, but I think separation anxiety--for both parent and child, remains in the current lexicon. The guy that I worked with had a theory that parents do something he called "previewing"--helping a pre-walking child stand on her feet, for example, so that said child would get a sense of how different the world would be when she could stand on her own. So I guess we've been previewing.


Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

I want a cuddling bear named Synonym.


4:41 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

The name derives from her youthful inability to pronounce the word Cinnamon. Her sister has a bear named Ginger, so when this one arrived it was either Nutmeg, Cloves, or Cinnamon. Or Synonym, as it happened.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Bob Greenberger said...

Some of what you wrote struck home. I remember Deb's reaction to Kate boldly marching forward, so anxious to start kindergarten that Deb had to call her back for a hug goodbye.

We're sending Robbie to Florida in April, his first solo trip. At 16 the dynamic is far different, but until I hear he's safely in my mother's care, I'll likely be as worried as you.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Bob! Tovarisch! Welcome to the zoo.

When SG was tiny, our babysitter was a woman who lived down the hall from us. Every morning I would pack a bag with snacks and lunch, some toys and books she liked, diapers and other important supplies, and then walk her down the hall. At the point when I realized that sometimes she was quite eager to leave me--and reluctant to come home--I had to take myself into a quiet corner and speak sternly to myself, because I knew this was all right, and yet. In the same way, both the girls were so happy to be in preschool that they couldn't wait for us to get out of the classroom. SG would stand pointedly at the door with her hand on the knob, waiting to shut me out!

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Mad; it's Laura Mixon here. This really resonates with my own experience.

What a cool adventure for YG.

(You're a great mom, you know.)


5:26 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I've seen you Momming, Laura. You're pretty swell, too. Thanks. Encouragement is always in short supply, and much appreciated.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

Heh. Last night in bed, as we sleepily talked about Synonym, Janni repeatedly misheard it as Cinnamon.


9:10 AM  

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