Separation Anxiety

Reading about the childcare crisis in America has me reliving my own experiences in the early 1970s as a young mother.  The situation is not new.  A lot of research into the effects of separating very young children from their mother is now available.

This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents.

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.

“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

And yet, in many families, whether due to low income, a single parent household or other factors, children as young as infants must be cared for by some person other than their parents, whether the couple is fortunate enough to afford a nanny or commercial childcare is the only choice.  In the luckiest families, there is a grandmother or aunt who is able, willing and loving to step in.

Suggestions for managing anxiety are to allow at least some preparation time before the necessary separation.  One is to listen to your child’s words of fear.  I remember one family style daycare I had placed my daughter within.  She loved it – at first.  Then, she started exhibiting upset around going there.  One morning after dropping her off and going to work, it troubled me so much that I went back to check on her.  Through the door with a window on top, I could see her being bullied by an older child and there were no adults in sight to intervene.  I removed her right then and found a private home, a woman with a child who wanted a companion for her only child.  My daughter was never better cared for than when she was in that situation.

A few other suggestions include sharing with the child where it is you are going.  Better yet, allow them to visit your workplace so they have a realistic idea of the circumstances and the lack of other children in that place.  Build in your child a realistic expectation of when you will return, how long you will be gone and when possible an exact time the child can expect you to re-appear.

Give a hug but be pragmatic about the necessity that you will have to leave for awhile.  Be gentle and calm, but clear and focused.

You’ve Come A Long Way

Until very recently, a woman would not chose to be a single mother.  A lot depends on her financial resources or ability to access available resources which does vary a lot.  I know more than one woman who made the choice to parent without an “official” father (though every baby has a father, somehow, even if that father was a sperm donor).

From the dawn of the adoption business (and it is a business), single mothers were no longer encouraged to parent their child but instead to surrender the child to adoption.  I know this was already happening as early as the 1930s.  Babies ended up adopted because “Unmarried women didn’t raise their children back then.” said by one original mother after reunion.

Unmarried women were treated with contempt for doing what nature intended.  I remember running up against this belief unbelievably in today’s modern times.  My paternal grandfather’s step-granddaughter (he had married her grandmother as a second wife) said my grandmother was a “Scarlet” because she was unwed. In effect, she was judging my grandmother as morally deficient.  I didn’t appreciate the contempt she expressed.

I suspect that my grandmother didn’t know he was married when she first started dating him but I am certain she did know by the time she knew she was pregnant.

The sad fact was – If you were unmarried and pregnant, you weren’t valued.  A “Baby Daddy” was valued even less.  It is interesting I only ran up against that derogatory label for a father recently at a writer’s conference.

Anyway, adoption is changing.  As I explored my dad’s origins with the Salvation Army, they told me they had to shut down their unwed mother’s homes because of Roe v Wade.  I’m certain that has played a role but I suspect an equal or greater role in that demise is that single moms are treated with less derision today.

Stability Matters

In contemplating how myself and both of my sisters lost custody of our children in a variety of ways, I realize that the main factor was instability and a lack of financial resources.

Though our parents were technically “good” parents, there was this attitude that once we were mature and more especially, once we married and had children, even if our marriages collapsed – we were on our own.  Our mother even counseled one of my sisters to give up her daughter rather than face an indefinite period of time when they might have to support the two of them.  The other sister simply accepted adoption as a reasonable solution to an inconvenient conception since both of our parents were adoptees.

Of course, we had no idea at the time of the wounds that separating any child from their natural mother, by whatever means, causes in a child.  I also realize that many single mothers somehow manage to survive parenting without losing their children.  I admire their fierce determination.

Today, is my oldest son’s 18th birthday.  I may have spent the rest of my life accepting that my self and my sisters were somehow defective if I hadn’t met my second husband 30 years ago.

My parents were quick to recognize the stability that living with him brought into my own life and were eager to “give me away” in marriage.  They were relieved to no longer have to worry about me.  My sisters have not been as fortunate.

I have been in my son’s life almost every minute of every day since he snuggled into my womb, then fed at my breast.  I now know it was the lack of stability and not that I was inherently defective that kept me from raising my oldest child, my beautiful daughter.