Being Attached in a Detatched World Revisited

Eight years ago I wrote a post on this here blog in it’s pre-system-crashed-everything-deleted version about being invited to stand up in a close friend’s wedding halfway across the country. At the time, Alina was eight months-old and she was exclusively breastfed. Moreover, despite ultimately being the longest-standing and most committed nursling of my three children, she also was the most challenging baby with whom to establish a comfortable nursing relationship, and she was never willing or able to take breast milk that had been expressed. Never. Not once. Not even a little bit. Of course, this meant that if I was going to be flying over a thousand miles and standing up for my friend of thirty-plus years, Alina was going to be joining me.

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which being financial, Rich and Eva were staying home and I was heading out on this journey alone with my little babe. The reception was adults only, so this also meant that I would need to hire some unknown babysitter to stay in the hotel room with Alina while I shuttled back and forth between the room and the reception downstairs throughout the night (half of you are aghast at this notion, and would have told the bride, “baby or nothing!”). It probably goes without saying that this sweet baby who refused to take a bottle also had limited experience with babysitters, and by that I mean that she had none (half of you are aghast at this notion and are cursing me for coddling my child and not making adult time a priority). I was a stay-at-home mama and she was a stay-at-home baby, so we’d pretty much been a matched set up to that point.

It didn’t go well. Alina cried and cried the entire time that I was away from the room. She refused to sleep and was generally miserable. When I finally returned to the room for the night, hours ahead of the other guests, the babysitter handed her off to me sheepishly and in her broken English informed me, “She is not good baby” before making her exit. I wrestled with that declaration for a while. It really rubbed me the wrong way because she absolutely was a good baby. She was smiley and friendly, with bright shining eyes and a clear ability to communicate her needs and desires. When she was upset, she let you know why, and when you met those needs, she was mollified and content. She wanted to be with her mama. She was attached to me and it was deeply unsettling to her to be in a strange place with a strange person and without her touchstone. She was a good baby, but the idea of an eight month-old baby being so firmly attached to her mother that she could not be left home for a weekend of travel or with a babysitter for a night of adult-only celebration seemed to be generally frowned-upon and viewed as dysfunctional.

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Now, I’ve mentioned here a bunch of times that I am actively trying to make self-care a higher priority in my life, basically because I am really horrible at it. Like many parents I am always so focused on my kids’ seemingly more immediate and important needs, and day after day runs out of hours before I dig out from under all of the kid stuff and remember that there is another person here with needs of her own. My cancer diagnosis four years ago was the Universe grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me with a very stern lecture about putting on my own oxygen mask first. It was my wake-up call that I can’t habitually neglect myself in the name of good parenting because that isn’t being a good parent (or a good human) and I may never get to that “someday” list that I always put my own needs on. I keep saying that I will join a gym again or start attending yoga classes at the cancer wellness center again, or make time to spend with friends, but somehow months go by and it just doesn’t happen. So, I decided that until I get better at the routine self-care I will go for the occasional grand gesture; a carpe diem experience every now and again to give myself a shot in the arm.

In celebration of my recent birthday, I planned a grand gesture. I had seen a highly esteemed herbalist offering a small-group, four-day class on essential oil making and learning about medicinal plants of the Southwest. It would include herbal walks, wildcrafting, and hands-on workshops and demonstrations in and around a secluded hot springs campground. The class was to be held in Arizona and I would be joined by a good friend of mine who is crunchy-oriented as well. It would be an experience unlike any that I had ever had; the first “girl” trip with a friend that I have taken since college. I was amazed and excited as it started to come together as a reality.

As my reality began to come together, my children began to voice their upset about me leaving. The kids are used to Rich being out of town for work (they don’t like it, but they are used to it). The idea of me not being home is a whole different matter altogether. It just doesn’t fit with their experience of of the world, and they were really struggling.

Alina was once again shaken and insecure to know that I would not be here. We talked about the trip a lot. Rich would be taking time off of work to be home during the school days to shuttle kids to and from school and appointments, to make dinner, to tuck them into bed. My parents, with whom we currently live, would be home to help as needed. I would be leaving on a Friday morning and retuning on Tuesday afternoon, so technically there would only be three days when we would not see each other. She wasn’t moved by my efforts to comfort her. She alternated between desperate, angry, and just plain sad in the days working up to the trip. The morning I was set to go, I tiptoed into the girls’ room at 6:15 am to kiss Alina and Eva goodbye before jumping in the cab. I found Alina lying in her bed looking forlorn with tears streaming down her cheeks. She wanted to be with her mama, or at least know that her mama would be home whenever she checked in throughout her days of school and playing.

As I rode in the cab to the airport my heart was heavy having left such a sad girl behind. Alina is still a happy girl with bright, shining eyes. She is smiley and friendly, thoughtful and very kind and nurturing to others. She is generally easygoing and the first to go without so that someone else’s needs can be met, but she craves her security and at the core of it all, that is me. I must admit that although my heart ached for my tearful babe, I was aware of feelings of irritation as well. Why must it be so hard? After all, she is not eight months old any more, she’s eight years old. Why is it that the rest of the free world can seemingly go to work, or on a date, or on a trip and their children seem to take it in stride, yet mine protest for days and leave puddles of tears in their wake? I need to put on my own oxygen mask sometimes. I need to be able to get away and nurture myself once in a while. Why must it be so hard?

I kept thinking back to Ainsworth’s Attachment Styles (all of those years of psychology school keep those ideas very close in my mind). Securely attached, isn’t that what I’m wanting here? Shouldn’t we have reached the point by now in which she is secure in the the idea of knowing that her mother is a safe base in a theoretical sense? Can’t this allow for more extended explorations out into the world by now, for her and for me?

I sat and pondered and ruminated a bit. I fiddled with my phone as the cab driver brought me farther from home and closer to adventure. Then I saw it, a message from my former graduate school. The director of one of my PhD. programs was retiring. He had been my dissertation advisor, and had instructed me in several of my classes. I liked him a great deal, and he had taught me a lot. He had an easygoing nature that was comforting in the context of the stress of graduate school, and he had provided positive feedback and words of encouragement when they were very much needed. He had mentored me and helped me find direction when I was struggling with decisions about my educational and career future. He watched with baited breath along with the rest of my committee as I presented the defense of my dissertation. I was nine months pregnant with Alina at the time, and ready to burst. He had been the first to shake my hand and call me “Doctor” when it was successfully completed. His was among the first emails that I had sent in the days that followed to explain that I was a bit delayed in making the suggested edits to my dissertation because I had gone into labor that night after completing the defense. He hooded me at the commencement ceremony several months later, and I pointed out my two girls in the stadium crowd to him before ducking out to nurse my baby girl while donning my full regalia. He was leaving.

Mind you it had been many years since I had seen or spoken with my advisor, but as I read that message in the cab, it didn’t matter. There had been a security in knowing that he was there, always where I expected him to be just in case I needed him. The reality is that I still might need him. It has been highly unusual for me to have taken this career break. I suspect that it is not the traditional path to complete one’s PhD. and then opt to be a stay-at-home parent for years before entering the workforce, but that’s the road that I have traveled. When it comes time for me to revisit my career, I will need letters of recommendation from those who can speak to the quality of my work, my mind, my training, and they’re all going away. Retirement, health challenges, moving elsewhere and losing touch….my advisor was the last of the core group of faculty who really knew me and my work.

Here I was, a forty year-old woman in the back of a cab having heart palpitations because my advisor was going away and I might really miss him. I might need him and he wouldn’t be there. The irony of my situation was not lost on me. Perhaps eight years is not too old to be rattled when your security walks out the door. Maybe forty isn’t either.

I continue to struggle with finding my place and finding a place for my family in a society that seems to emphasize independence for young children and career advancement for adults as much as ours does. I am not sure that I understand how to reconcile those goals with the needs of my kids. I’m not sure which side of the independence/attachment coin to favor; when to gently push for one, and when to patiently nurture the other. I took my trip and had an amazing time. She missed me a lot. The days passed and I came home. Now I am going to write a letter expressing my gratitude to my advisor and wish him well in his retirement. I may add a request for a letter of recommendation in there too, just in case I need it someday.

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