Ritual Confessions

February 14, 2008

Trade off

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:30 am

This morning when I dropped Charlotte off at Montessori, she walked directly to her teacher, who was kneeling with her arms outstretched. The snapshot I held in my mind as I left the building was a happy mutual embrace.

For the first few weeks, she cried every morning when I dropped her off. At first, I tried to stay as long as it would take for her to transition without tears, but that just prolonged the agony and made everything worse. As hard as it was for me, I knew I had to trust the teachers and get out of their way. Eventually I’d just stand on the threshold, hand her over to the nearest staff person, tell her I loved her, and leave. Her cries would follow me down the hall and stay with me all day. Sometimes I sat and cried in the parking lot. Many days, I walked around with a heavy sadness I couldn’t dislodge.

This morning, I was overcome with gladness and relief. And yet, there was a little twinge of loss at the idea that it’s no longer so hard for her to leave me. Then, too, during the rest of the time we spend together, there’s a slight new reserve on her part. It’s as if she’s decided she’d be better off if we weren’t quite so intertwined. I can even imagine her arriving at a toddler’s version of “You betrayed me, and I’m not willing to be quite as close to you as I was before.”

She’s only fourteen and a half months old, and already so many boundaries have been drawn. There was the night she went from sleeping in our room to sleeping in her own; from sharing our bed to staying in her crib; from always being nursed back to sleep to learning to put herself back. There were good reasons for all of this. We arrived at a point where no one slept well when we all shared a room. Once she became mobile, she was in danger of crawling off the bed while we slept. Nursing a baby back to sleep several times a night promotes tooth decay and prevents her from learning to self-soothe. Beyond that, chronic sleep deprivation does no one any good.

And yet it feels as if we’re always drawing another line, insisting on another form of separation. Montessori was a very dramatic departure from the constant togetherness we had before. Weaning — which I keep putting off, but which I’d like to accomplish for the sake of regular ovulation — will be difficult as well. One very hard part of motherhood is that betrayal of some kind is all but inevitable. It’s one kind of betrayal to enforce a new and painful boundary. It’s another kind of betrayal not  to enforce an appropriate boundary.

Of course, this is much as it is in the rest of life.

And of course, I didn’t expect it to be easy.



  1. I really don’t know how anyone endures this kind of thing.

    Sometimes I wonder whether fear of drawing those boundaries is another reason why I have decided not to become a parent. I think I’m worried not that I wouldn’t be able to do it, but that in order to do it, I would emotionally disconnect from the child in a way that would be kind of scary. I do that when I take my cats to the vet … obviously my cat isn’t a child, but I notice that when I want to, I am quite easily able to flip a switch that allows me not to hear the cat crying in the carrier, and which actually makes me feel as though I hardly know her at all while we’re at the vet. Of course I don’t know for sure whether I would do this with a child, but since it’s a completely automatic built-in emotional survival skill for me, I’m pretty sure I would. In fact, I’ve done it with Charlotte on the rare occasions when I’ve been with you and she’s been having a bad day … it doesn’t bother me because I simply stop “hearing” her. Granted, fond though I am of Charlotte, she’s not my child. But it does give me pause, in an unpleasant way,to wonder how I would deal with the kind of heartache you describe in this post.

    The only thing worse than feeling it would be, I fear, not feeling it.

    That old cliche that pain lets you know you’re alive … it’s equally true that grief lets you know you have a heart to be broken.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 14, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  2. David, what a thoughtful and compassionate response — thank you. I think the cat analogy is actually pretty good. (It’s a betrayal to take the cat to the vet — especially to leave it overnight; it’s also a betrayal not to, if the cat needs medical attention.) Animals are pretty intense child substitutes for a lot of people. I even know someone with children, someone who loves his children desperately, who simulataneously claims he doesn’t love them any more than he does his dog.

    I think all I can do is maintain a stance of: I know this is hard; it’s a hard part of life for everybody. But I love you more than anything in the world and I always will, and that will never ever change, even if nothing else can always stay exactly the same. And I have to be willing to let her find new reserves of autonomy and even aloofness sometimes, and endure that as my part of the bargain.

    Comment by Elissa — February 14, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  3. This reminds me two lines in one of my favorite songs (which always makes me cry), “May my love give you roots, and help you find your wings.”, and “I’ll cry when you leave, but I’ll cheer you when you fly.”

    The baby bird may see it as a betrayal, the first time it’s thrown from the nest. But what kind of a live would it have, if the mother kept it under her wing?

    Comment by Shawn W — February 18, 2008 @ 4:49 am

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