Becoming a parent is an experience fraught with emotion. It’s common for new parents to be blissfully happy and joyous at the birth of their baby one moment and experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility—and sometimes downright fear to do right by this new life—in the next. Unfortunately, as noble as your intentions undoubtedly are, sometimes this intense desire to protect your child from the world outside can lead to a number of problems for you, your child, and your relationships.
Many first-time parents can’t even entertain the thought of leaving their babies in the care of another person, no matter how much they may need time to themselves—even if it’s only to catch up on some much-needed sleep. The idea of leaving their child for just a short amount of time is enough to fill them with dread and guilt. “Of course I believed that no one else could possibly take care of my daughter better than I could, not for even a minute,” says mom Penney Jordan. “If I found myself fantasizing about how much I would enjoy a long bubble bath I would immediately be filled with intense guilt. How could I even of think of myself when Emma was the most important person in my life?”
Jordan recalls that it took extreme fatigue to get her to realize that she needed time out. “When I finally reached the stage where I was so tired that I couldn’t function properly and literally hadn’t let Emma out of my sight since her birth, I realized I was probably doing my child more harm than good in this state,” she says. “I also realized how desperately I needed a break, not from my child but from being a mother.” Jordan was finally able to ask her own mother to come over and look after Emma while she had some time to take a nap and a bath. At first it was a struggle even for her to be in a different room than Emma, but eventually she was able to leave the house while her mother babysat.
What Penney Jordan experienced was maternal separation anxiety. We typically hear about children experiencing feelings of distress when they’re separated from a parent, but in fact, mothers can become victims of this syndrome, too. “Maternal separation anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state of worry, guilt, and sadness experienced by mothers during a short-term separation from their infant” says Hui-Chin Hsu, Ph.D., in a report “Antecedents and consequences of separation anxiety in first-time mothers: infant, mother, and social-contextual characteristics” for the Department of Child and Family Development at the University of Georgia.
The report states that while feeling anxious about separation from your child may be normal—and even healthy—for parents of young children, excessive separation anxiety may be maladaptive and detrimental to parents’ mental health, which in turn may wield negative impacts on their parenting behaviors and the child’s development. The study also found that mothers express higher levels of separation anxiety when their infants suffer from colic or other health-related vulnerabilities. So what’s a mom to do if she needs a little time for herself but just can’t tear herself away from baby? Try the following tips on dealing with maternal separation anxiety:
Realize that separations are a part of life. It’s important for your mental health and your child’s development that you go about your life. Visit the hairdresser, have lunch with a friend, or go on a “date” with your husband. When you’re leaving your baby for the first time, try a quick outing, like a 20-minute walk in the park or a short trip to the grocery store. Minimize the anxiety by ensuring that your child has consistent, reliable care in your absence.
Introduce new caretakers gradually. It is imperative that your child get to know his caregiver before being left alone with her, whether she’s a hired babysitter, a member of your family, or a friend. There should be an element of consistency in your arrangements—try lining up the same caregiver so that you know, and are happy with, the level of care your child is receiving.
Tracy Chalmers, mother to Michael and Joshua, says that she never left her children with anyone that she didn’t know really well. “When I didn’t have a full-time housekeeper, I only went out when [my husband] was home… We only ever went out as a couple if our parents were able to babysit, or if a close friend with kids of her own would volunteer to babysit and give us time together.” Chalmers says that when she hired her housekeeper, she took a long time assessing the woman’s response to the children—best done generally when the children were on their worst behavior—as well as the children’s response to her. “If I had just one inclination that my kids didn’t like her, then I would never have left them,” she recalls.
Handle leaving matter-of-factly. Say your goodbyes and then leave without looking back. Avoid turning your goodbye into a long, drawn-out emotional time—not only will you upset your child, but you’ll upset yourself, too, and all prospects of an enjoyable time out will rapidly disappear.
Lose the guilt. Whatever you decide to do with your time, do it without guilt and in the knowledge that your child is in the care of someone you know and trust. Remind yourself that you are a person of value who deserves and requires time to “recharge,” and that doing this will make you a better parent to your baby.
Penney Jordan says that when she first decided to ask her mother to look after Emma she only took advantage of this arrangement when it was “necessary” and she needed to keep an appointment outside of the house. “I still didn’t remember about myself, really. It took a while for me to get used to the idea that I could ask my mom to babysit so I could meet a friend for coffee, sans baby, or to go out for dinner with my husband. Or, because I wanted to go for a manicure. Quite recently I made a list of all the things I wanted to do by myself and gradually worked my way through them, and it has made such a difference knowing that I am giving both Emma and myself the care and attention we deserve.”