One night when my son was a baby, my mom was on caretaking duty while my husband and I went to dinner and a movie.
Before leaving, I went over the precise order and timing of the bedtime routine with her: bath, PJs in the bedroom, books on the couch with a bottle, fan on low, “Twinkle Twinkle,” then crib. We reviewed the exact protocol in case of crying or nighttime wake ups, double-checked that all numbers were programmed in our phones, and said goodbye.
While still in the driveway, I called her: “But if he really cries, Mom, just go in right away, don’t wait:” My husband and mom both groaned. At dinner, my phone sat next to my plate. In the movie, I checked it like a compulsive tick.
I was anxious about leaving my little guy, whom I had spent months nurturing around the clock. He felt like such a delicate creature at the time; how could anyone else know how to take care of him and fix things like I did?
We know separation anxiety is a natural part of development for babies and kids, but they aren’t the only ones who feel uncomfortable when mom or dad leaves; most parents feel some anxiety about saying goodbye, too. It can be especially intense in the first year, when we worry so much about safety, feeding, sleeping and so on, and sometimes even more so for a stay-at-home parent (for whom breaks are the exception). But it’s also a fixture in some form or another for most parents, even as the years go on.
If you find yourself struggling with separation, here are some tips you might want to consider:
- Allow yourself to feel anxious. Separation anxiety is the other side of the attachment coin; a healthy bond with your child means a certain degree of discomfort when she’s not there. The goal isn’t to get rid of worry or doubt – in fact, nerves are part of our parenting instinct and they help us make good decisions.
- Know that other caregivers do things differently. You’ve spent months or years getting to know your little one and fine-tuning your approach. One of the tough parts about leaving your child is the fear that no one else knows the secrets. And that’s true, but kids are surprisingly adaptive. Even as tiny babies, they know the game is different when someone else is in charge. Dad, grandma, or a babysitter – those people will find their own way and might surprise you with the tricks they invent.
- Separation is an important part of attachment. It’s healthy for your baby to be taken care of by multiple caregivers. As humans evolved, we parented in communities, passing our kids around and sharing the responsibilities. Allowing kids to trust and be cared for by other people only boosts their feeling of community and sense that the world is a safe place.
- Taking time for yourself isn’t just for fun, it’s for your health. In the early months, if leaving your baby makes you miserable, don’t force it. But as she grows, it’s natural and healthy to start putting pieces of your own life back in the equation. That means lunch with a friend, exercise class, date night – these aren’t just frills. Taking care of yourself is important to you and your child too.
- Look behind the guilt. Guilt is a common go-to emotion for parents, but it’s not a very useful one. In fact, feeling guilt over being away from your child can be a way of not dealing with other things, like your own independence, working on your partner relationship, engaging in career or important hobbies, and so on. Acknowledge your guilt but don’t let it become your emotional hideout.
When you have a baby, one of the reasons separation causes anxiety is that it’s new, but that unfamiliarity will dissipate over time. Just know that attachment doesn’t mean always physically being there (that’s why research shows kids in quality daycare are just as securely attached). You’ll feel more confident the more times you leave and come back to find that things went just fine. And your child’s bond to you will grow in part through the consistent message that you always come back.