Separation Toddler-style

“Letting go” has been a recent refrain for me. Preparing for the surrender of giving birth. Letting my older daughter go farther from my arms, challenging both of us to trust our connection, even without physical closeness. Trying to believe that these tests will make us stronger!

My daughter, who is now almost 3, started preschool last week. She was in daycare part-time before, with the same caregiver she has trusted since she was a baby. At the new school, which has two teachers and 12 children, she’s going half-days, three days in a row.

We have been talking about school for a couple of months now; she was very excited about school, friends, and playing. But every time school came up she would say, “with mommy? mommy stays with Pepa?” Her little chin would crinkle up and tears would form. This made me feel lost and lonely myself, until I wasn’t sure which of us was more anxious.

The first day of school came. We rode the bus, as we had twice before to visit. We walked the few blocks past colorful Mission murals of parades, skeletons, and an angry-looking phoenix. As we approached the block, we looked for the yellow door. She was talkative and building in excitement. We went in and saw a cozy Waldorf-styled room with children playing. A few looking tearful but most were catching fish in a fish pond made of blue fabric, pale tulle, and bright felt fish.

She turned to me and said, “mommy stay,” hugging me, with that little chin crinkle again. My brain couldn’t form a distinctive thought or decision. I felt it hovering, empty, above me. Other parents had just said good-bye and left. We stood together on the sidelines, watching. I stayed and participated from afar, chopping in the kitchen while the children ate snack. Pepa let one of the teachers help her use the potty and wash her hands with all the others. She sat at the table and ate apples with the others, not crying, but with that distant and fearful big-eyed look. When they came back to where I was, she rushed at me, hugging me and starting to cry again. I was the only parent left by now. I had a sinking panicky feeling — what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t walk out on that little fearful face. Of all the worries a parent could have, the one thing I most wish to spare her is that feeling of fear and loneliness. I wish I could always be there to hold her and comfort her.

I told her I would stay for the next activity, help her put her coat and shoes back on and go out to the garden to play. I would give her a big hug and kiss now, and when she was having fun I would say good-bye. (Was I really as clear and confident as that sounds? I don’t think so.) Outside, we stood watching the others for awhile. Soon, one of the teachers invited her to play, digging in the soil. After one last, “with mommy!” she disappeared behind a plant and started digging. I said good-bye to the other teacher and left. I had been there almost an hour and a half.

I walked out the door, into the sunlight. What was I doing? Where was I going? I felt so disoriented. I felt my own chin crinkle and tears come. I walked to a nearby cafe and had breakfast, with my fingers on my phone in case they called to say, she’s crying come get her. But they didn’t.

At 12:45pm I headed back and opened the door. The children were hearing a story in the other room, and when the door opened out she came, dragged along by brother and sister twins each holding one of her hands! She looked a bit bewildered but quickly saw me and came running with a smile and a hug. The teachers told me she was tearful for a brief moment when she realized I was gone, but these two immediately befriended her and she was happy and playing the rest of the day! Phew!

The next two days were easier. In the morning she said, “I don’t want to go to school,” but as soon as we got there and she saw all her new friends she ran after them. She jumped right in. And so passed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The next four days of no school took a different turn. Saturday and Sunday she was sick, a cold worse than usual, so we didn’t spend much time out of the house. She was like a different child. The past few months have been like a honeymoon with an older girl, playing happily by herself for hours on end, sleeping soundly from evening til morning, trying new foods, using the potty, all on her own.

Overnight, she became tearful, weepy, building to a tantrum at the slightest thing, all day long. You know those moments, when you are trying and trying to get her to put down this stick she’s banging everything with and finally it bounces back and hits her in the face, just as you knew it would! She was demanding everything in sight . . . I want this, I want to do that, get that for me . . . things that she couldn’t or shouldn’t have. Over and over asking for things and we had to say no. She would say, “mommy hold me” but when I got close she would pinch a beauty mark I have or bang on my chest, asking to nurse but with anger. Faced with certain “Nos” she would work herself into a tantrum until she was choking and gagging, vomiting even. One night, every two hours she would start to cry “mommy, mommy,” but when I held her, she kept crying as if I wasn’t there. As if she couldn’t see me or wasn’t actually awake. Night terrors.

And how did I handle all of this? Not well! I engaged with her struggles, arguing and bickering back at her. I felt myself getting frustrated and angry. It was like I saw this choice open in front of me and it felt so much easier to get angry back than to take another path! It felt like bickering with my sisters as a child. Just so irrisistably tempting, although you know it will just make things worse! When she grabbed me or hit me I had to work hard to keep from totally losing it!

Two, then three, days of this. I felt like I was sleepwalking, too, not really in control of my actions or my speech. Outside of my own body. Finally on Monday night I broke down crying to my husband, feeling like I was failing my daughter completely. Meanwhile feeling miserable myself. A lose-lose situation.

Luckily I had just been reading The Happiest Toddler on the Block and, I’m telling you, Dr. Karp came to the rescue once again! His simple language rang in my mind like a mantra, reaching me even in this foggy state.

His main point being: toddlers operate using their primitive brains, governed by impulses and emotions they don’t understand. They need our empathy, understanding, and love. Period. They don’t understand lectures or arguments or explanations. They need to know we understand them and love them. Only then can they learn to do what we want them to. And familiar and predictable routines of home bring reassurance in a big way.

Yes, that was it. I wanted so badly to feel empathy and love for my daughter’s struggles, for these feelings of fear, loneliness and separation from mama. But I just felt burnt, frustrated, and overwhelmed. But then I thought again of my little girl, eyes tearing up in her delicate way, of all the times I’d held her as a baby, all the love and closeness she had given me when I was a sad and bluesy new mom. I had to do better, to pull myself together. Did it really require THAT much effort on my part? To put aside the frustration and to see the scared little girl who needed me. Needed me to understand the emotions overwhelming her, feelings that she herself couldn’t understand or articulate fully.

So, Tuesday morning I started over. The blessing of toddler parenting, a new day is a clean slate. I tried to follow Dr. Karp’s advice. I let her win the smaller battles — a little more juice and screen-time than usual, as many stuffed animals as she wanted jammed in her backpack, the slowest snail-walk of my life getting us to the car. When she started to fuss and cry, I matched her tone and stated her feelings back to her simply, showing I understood. When she hit or pinched me I used a serious tone telling her that was not OK, and after the second time I left the room for a minute or so. She cried but she touched me more gently the next time. I gave her hugs on demand and told her I loved her so many times. That day restored more of the predictable rhythms: an outing with other families, the usual meals, playtimes, and rest times.

At bath time, as we played, we made up a story. The little froggy went out of his house alone to find new friends. He found many of Pepa’s usual toys/friends. And each time as he went further from home, he would suddenly miss his mama and papa. He’d run back home and there they’d be, doing the same things they always do. Washing and cooking and waiting for their little froggy. This storytelling was advice from Dr. Karp but also from the teachers at our new school.

The result? Less misery on my part, for sure. No more night terrors. Still tantrums but mostly at dinner time and later, when she is understandably exhausted and done for the day. Followed by her usual post-midnight climb into our bed, with all-night sound-asleep closeness and delicious snuggles in the morning. A huge huge improvement.

Now, here we are, day two of week two, and she’s back at school. Today and yesterday mornings she insisted “no school,” and the good-bye was not exactly easy. But after I left, there seem to have been no more tears. And when I arrive she has been talkative and playful, telling me about her new friends. I see the confident Pepa, the one who she doesn’t show to strangers, only to loved-ones. I think her new teachers and new friends are quickly joining those ranks.

And what about the other children? Those who seemed to take it so easy on the first day? They all have had ups and downs. It’s not a smooth, upward trajectory. Hard days and easy days come and go. The pain and fear of the separation can surface at unexpected times — days or weeks after that first day. The children need our empathy, understanding, and love through it all.

This goes for the children, but also for ourselves. Those moments when you have to be The Mom or Dad, the tough one and the strong one. The protective one or the decisive one. Those are some of the hardest moments. I look at myself and think, “I’m the mom?!?!” Who is going to look after me? I’m really the one in charge here? It’s hard to feel compassion for myself, for my own mistakes, when I’m not being the mother I want to be. It’s hard to know where to look for that empathy and reassurance that I still need, too.

After weathering the storm together, we emerge here on Valentine’s Day, surfacing to feelings of love and appreciation for each other. My husband, my daughter, and me, and our little baby in my belly. Even as we clash against each other, and as we separate from each other in new ways, our closeness is as strong as ever. Our bond is still there.

I think this will help me so much with our new baby. When my daughter was a newborn, just having her across the room from me felt like a violation, like I was missing a limb. I have a blossoming confidence that our connection stays strong even as these separations get bigger and longer. A sense of relief, a buzzing worry that is quieted. That we can let go a bit more and still feel close.

And ultimately, I don’t have to worry so much about baby brother. He will have beautiful Pepa to look after him and to teach him how to be. And she is undoubtably a strong, capable, loving and wonderful person.


4 thoughts on “Separation Toddler-style

  1. Wow Ab, thats a beautiful story of hate and love with love winning in the end. Its the “Terrible Twos'” right on schedule. They used to teach us, that that’s how kids forms a self- by fighting for control–and you make her secure by showing you will control her and she cant destroy you wit hher willfulness. A beautiful stiory with a beautiful ending. Your such a gerat, articulate mom, I wish I was nearby to help MY little girl, who is now a big mommy. But you know you can call me any time day or night.if you ever want to talk. Im your dad, afterall. And id love to listen, anytime.

    Love Bob/Dad

  2. Hi Abby,

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m the dad of one of the other kids, and it’s so good to hear about your family’s experiences. Our son had a pretty easy first week, but now is having more trouble with the second week. It’s so interesting to see how different kids face the milestones of life each in his or her own way. But I couldn’t agree more that we all need empathy, understanding and love through it all. Here’s wishing for a peaceful pickup, in about 10 minutes!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. I love how connected you are with your daughter and her needs. Just remember to offer yourself the same loving and patient understanding you offer her. 🙂

  4. Pingback: I Feel You, Bebe (Finding Empathy) | Abby Jaramillo

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