On a recent trip back east to see my family, my two-year-old and I were making our way through the Philadelphia airport. I was on edge after a sleepless overnight flight and a series of bad moves on my part, like taking a massive car seat on wheels and agreeing to a six-hour layover. I was sweating, juggling four bags, and grumbling at my husband (who wasn’t there).
My son clutched his blankie – a tattered rag that was rapidly disintegrating, with fabric particles evaporating into thin air around it. I had given him blankie when he was about five months old and sleeping in his own crib – since then he had cuddled it every night without fail and often cradled it in his arms like a baby. It always stayed in the safety of our home, except on long trips like this one.
I dragged him back and forth between gates trying to lull him to sleep. Instead, he was wide awake and excitedly pointing out every plane on the tarmac as if he had spotted a wild elephant in the Serengeti. I switched him to the front pack, snapped his head flap over him, reconfigured the bags, and set off in a huff.
And then – the unthinkable. I turned back to pick up blankie and it wasn’t there. I made a quick, spastic circle, scanning the immediate surroundings. Panic and sinking heart. There was no sign of it. I spotted an information booth and reached out in desperation. “What did it look like?” I described the sad, saliva-covered cloth. The woman behind the desk shrugged.
As I checked every garbage can within 50 feet, my son was quickly catching on. “Where’d blankie doh, mama?” I said something evasive like, “Hmm, it doesn’t look like blankie is here, honeybun” and offered him a fruit roll-up, hoping to distract him and mask my inner panic. I felt like calling my mom and bursting into tears, but I couldn’t. I had to hold it together, because I was the mom now.
One last hopeless look up and down the hallway and I resigned myself to the fact that blankie was gone. And it was entirely and wholly my fault.
As reality sank in, I had two main concerns. The first was that this might be like a mini-psychological trauma for my son. As a therapist, I was trained to think of the blankie – a.k.a. the “transitional object,” as the famous 1950s pediatrician Donald Winnicott described it – as a child’s first “not-me possession.” By owning and loving an object, so the theory goes, the child can grasp that he is a separate being, and internalize a sense of security.
So there was a small part of me, however irrational, that worried I had just delivered a blow to my child’s tiny emerging sense of self.
More practically, I was about to leave him with my parents for three days while I made a trip to New York City and his source of comfort and soothing – not to mention his failsafe soporific aid – was now most likely stuffed at the bottom of a janitor’s cart. Lots of people had told me to buy two identical lovies for just this reason. Why hadn’t I listened?
What really got me, though, was the “it’s my fault” part. I was pretty good at comforting my son when the world served him an injustice, like a playmate pushed him or took his toy. But I hadn’t really thought about what to do when I was the culprit. I felt so guilty; I was such a bad parent, how could I do this to him?
I knew I had to pull it together – after all, the guilt was definitely not helpful to my son. So I decided to tell it to him straight, with as little drama and desperation as possible. “We had blankie just a minute ago, but he fell off the bags and then we couldn’t find him! We looked everywhere, but we’re not sure where he is!”
My son studied me, the wheels turning. “We can’t find him anywhere!” He repeated back. I stuck to this tactic – stating the facts and joining with him about the predicament we were in. My son didn’t need me to freak out and feel like a bad parent (after all, that’s about me, not him). It’s easy to assume we know how our kids will react, but sometimes I think it clouds our parent vision. He just needed me to notice what he was feeling – and truthfully, he didn’t seem that upset.
Later that day, we told the story to my parents: “We were in the airport and blankie was resting on the bags. When we moved the bag, he fell off and we couldn’t find him anywhere!” When I put my son to bed that night, he gave me the play-by-play again (as he hugged a stand-in stuffed animal). I listened and joined in, asking him for this thoughts and feelings on the matter. And a month later, out of the blue, he told my husband the story of the blankie that fell off the luggage and lived at the airport now.
In the end, my son seemed less phased by the whole thing than I was. I agree with Winnocott that a blankie helps a child self-sooth, but it isn’t magical – ultimately, it’s the child who does the comforting. If blankie is gone, he’ll find something (or someone) else to help him with that.
My son wasn’t picky, he really just wanted something to hold, chew, and rub on his face while he fell asleep. So when we got home from our trip, I pulled out my fabric basket and made him a new soft and fuzzy source of comfort – two of them.