I can't leave my kids for even an hour!

It seems a little crazy, but I just don't want to be separated from them, even to take a shower.

Published April 18, 2005 7:25PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am mother to two toddlers, 20 months apart. I adore them. I was petrified to have children for many years due to a bad childhood, and instead pursued a career in that immorality called "Marketing" with an appropriately self-centered, high-maintenance lifestyle. I was frequently stopped on streets and asked if I was a model or had an agent. I was coifed and waxed; I wore expensive suits and fantastic shoes. I ate at incredible restaurants every weekend with my (then) fiancé who looked like a model too.

Then I gave it all up to stay at home with my babies. I had blissful first and second pregnancies when I didn't work but just prepared for the massive life changes a child would bring. I got educated in birthing, breast-feeding and the rest of it. I went on to have awesome births (again at home) and nurture my children in every way I know how.

So what's the problem? I cannot leave them. My eldest is 3 years old and the longest he has not been with me is one hour -- one hour when I tried for 60 full minutes to be present and relaxed during a massage my husband purchased for me "because you never get a break."

It is true that I don't get "breaks" really. I take those one-minute types of showers one took in gym class. I have the MOM uniform complete with hair in ponytail, no jewelry, thrown-on clothes (but at least my pre-kid clothes fit!), and the re-made-up face.

My anxiety is enormous with just the thought of being away from my kids. This is in part due to their attachment to me, so when I go to the bathroom, for example, they want to know where I am, and they like to come along (no problem by me). Or if we are out dining as a family and I go to the bathroom alone, I come back to hysterical, crying children. Do that once and you won't repeat it . It is heartbreaking for me to see them that upset; I'd rather bring them both with me because they are fun, and that way I'm reassured they are OK. When my 3-year-old tells me days later how he cried because I wasn't there (in the bathroom), it gets to me.

I used to subscribe to the advice that a lot of new parents receive: Take care of your marriage, it's the primary foundation from which your children came. And the corollary: Take time for yourself every day; you will have more to give your children if you are filled up yourself.

But then life happened, tears were too much to bear and now I give almost everything I have to my kids. And frankly, they are happy little creatures with me around. They show no signs of needing Mom to be anything but "Mom" right now. In 20 years, sure, they might be incredulous: "You didn't take regular showers because I'd cry with Dad?!" But for now, they want me nearby.

My husband is frustrated that we have not been alone or on a date in three years. He knows I would love to bring another child into our family and he thinks that means another five years when we won't have a date. His friends are no help, as they routinely leave their infants with grandparents for the weekend or longer, happy to go to a B&B and frolic again. I understand that urge, but I am incapable of leaving an infant like that. I'd rather give my husband more sex to get him to be happy with what we have, so he would stop pressuring me to get away from the kids and leave them with a baby sitter.

We have no family nearby and they are not suitable to care for kids anyway. So we would need to interview and hire help.

I don't expect you to understand breast-feeding, but I will state that I breast-feed my youngest and that's part of the reason it is hard to get away. But he (my youngest) also shows that "No one but Mom will do" kind of crying.

I know that it's conventional advice to say that kids will get over it, keep leaving and "They will get used to it," "They will know you are coming back," etc. But Cary, when my kids are clingy for days after I take an hour for a massage, it doesn't look that way. I do not feel that it is just or kind to them to rock their world like that. It doesn't seem humane to give them that much anxiety.

Maybe if I hadn't thought so much about whether to have kids, I'd be more OK with leaving them -- like our friends do, like I was left, like my husband was left. But I made the conscious choice to bring these kids into the world, and so it seems the least I can do is be present for them in this short window of their lives. I know they won't always need me this much. Everyone and their mother tells me to enjoy every minute, they grow up too soon.

I love my kids with a love I've never known before. I thought I really loved my husband before I became a mother, but my love for my kids is light years ahead of that love for him. I laugh hard every day. I didn't do that before I had kids. I feel deep joy in being alive. I shed years of insecurities, cynicism and doubt in the first month of being a new mom. It's like that stuff that I worked so hard to resolve in therapy for a decade just burned away in giving birth to life. I guess I'm saying that I am very attached to my kids.

But I have an unhappy husband, I don't look like the "model" anymore and sometimes go too long without showering. I look at old photos of myself and wonder who that woman is, she looks incredible! I can't keep up with all the current events so I may not sound as hip as I used to. I don't fit the image of a woman who "has it all together" and sometimes, when I see women like that, I feel inadequate.

Should I go against my heart and leave my kids with a baby sitter for the sake of my husband? Are other parts of me at risk if I violate my emotional reservations like this?

Befuddled Breeder

Dear Befuddled Breeder,

As you probably know, because of circumstances related to my birth, I can never be a mom. I am, alas, a man. So I will never know what it is like to refrain from showering for fear of being separated from young children for even that brief hygienic interlude -- although I have been known to postpone showering for other, rather more trivial, even contemptibly selfish, reasons having to do with someone considerably younger than me although not actually a child, who for reasons not maternal although perhaps a bit sentimental did not wish to be physically separated from me at a particular instant. That is, however, a more intimate matter unrelated to your pressing and urgent plea.

There are other factors as well that call into question my suitability for serious comment on your dilemma. To the list of my limitations in this regard we ought to add my utter ignorance in the realm of medicine, psychology and the higher social sciences. Everything I know about family life I learned from William Faulkner.

So it is with intense puzzlement that I contemplate your dilemma. I therefore asked someone who is a mother what she thought.

"Good lord," she replied. Coming from someone not overly religious, that epithet seemed severe. "Wow," she continued. "I am sort of speechless."

This indicated to me that your avowed inability to leave your children even for short periods of time is, when judged against contemporary community standards, rather extreme. I'm not sure that is necessarily all bad. You might be some kind of a saint or deity. Be that as it may, here is my own unvarnished view: If spending this much time with your kids doesn't cause your husband to divorce you, if your kids don't seem to be unhappy, if you as the mother feel it's the right thing to do, if after the publication of this letter we don't hear from credentialed psychologists telling us that your practice is tantamount to child abuse, then I don't know how I can say there's anything wrong with it at present.

There is, however, not just the present to consider but the future. The task of child-rearing is in fact all about the future, which tends to render the present obsolete. Having once been a child, I do know that pants that once fit are after a time no longer suitable, and that certain innocent decisions of my parents that made perfect sense at the time nevertheless later caused me untold hours of sobbing in a therapist's office to the acutely uncomforting accompaniment of a white-noise generator.

Indeed, the real-life mom quoted above also mentioned the future effects of your present actions. "If she doesn't deal with this problem soon, I think the kids will begin to suffer," she said. "What happens when their friends start having sleepovers or going on Boy Scout trips, and they can't participate because they are too attached to Mom? Is she afraid of letting go of them, too? Does she secretly need them to need her? Does spending so much time with her kids give her a convenient way to put off her husband?"

These all seemed to me to be reasonable questions worth giving serious thought. So I suggest you do so. I also suggest you do so in the company of someone rather more schooled in these matters than I -- a child psychologist, for instance, or someone with a master's in social work hanging on the wall.

Just to be on the safe side.

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