Letters

SYA readers give their own advice to the mother who can't leave her kids.


Salon Staff
April 21, 2005 12:41AM (UTC)

[Read "I Can't Leave My Kids for Even an Hour!" by Cary Tennis.]

As the editor of the Mothers Movement Online, I've corresponded with hundreds of mothers over the last few years, and I have to say that I side with the reaction of your ad hoc expert: this woman's situation seems unsustainable, and even a little, well, weird. While it's perfectly normal for mothers to feel a strong desire to spend lots of time with their small children and even to feel mildly, even very, anxious when leaving said children in someone else's care, it seems like something else is going on with "Befuddled Breeder."

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First of all, she describes her pre-maternal life as rather glamorous but without a moral center. Now she has shed that old life like a dead skin and immersed herself in mothering, which she has discovered is full of passion and joy. She probably feels a deep sense of fulfillment when she sees her children are happy because she figures it's directly correlated to the fact she has given her entire life over to caring for them. Of course, poor Dad doesn't get a chance to feel any of this pleasure because Mom has nimbly pushed him out of the picture by making sure she is the only one who can soothe her children when they are distraught. Researchers have described this kind of behavior as "gatekeeping," and it's sometimes viewed as a form of passive aggression.

My informed guess is that this is much more about the mother's needs than the needs or temperaments of her children. She used the birth of her children to put a space between her old life and her new one. (There's nothing at all unusual or unhealthy about that -- in one way or another, I think most parents do.) But I'm suspicious that in this case, the mother's worst fear is not that something painful will happen to her children if she's not with them every waking moment, but that something painful will happen to her. Perhaps if she returned her full attention to her own needs and wants instead of those of her children -- even for the short amount of time it takes to use the bathroom by herself -- the full force of everything she misses about the self-centered, superficial, exquisitely stylish lifestyle she gave up when she turned her life over to motherhood might rush down on her like a wave. And if that did happen, she might have to cope with the conflict of wanting to have some semblance of her old life back, or at least a less soulless version of it, and her maternal life would become infinitely more complicated by ambivalence and longing.

It's my experience that many, if not most, women go through a similar identity crisis when they become mothers -- especially if they've been very successful in their pre-motherhood careers. Motherhood throws a spanner into the works of a woman's life, and it takes time to sort it all out. But this mom sounds a little freaky to me, and while I think her kids will probably do just fine, it sounds like her marriage might be heading for serious trouble.

-- Judith Stadtman Tucker

Dependency and obsession are not the same as love. I'm the mother of two daughters, now 14 and 17, and my oldest is going away to college in the fall. That will be a real separation. But I can still remember the first half-hour walk away from my daughter when she was about six weeks old. I felt as though my arm had been cut off. Still, slowly I learned to separate from my babies as they learned to separate from me -- leading to their ultimate maturity as autonomous adults.

My college-bound daughter asked me if I would be OK if she went to school on the other side of the country. Will I be sad? Of course I will -- but I told her not to make her life decisions based on my comfort. My job is to give her wings, and be thrilled when she flies away. Her job is to live her life and IM me regularly asking for money. I would never cripple her emotionally by asking her to stay nearby.

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This mom needs to get some therapy, and quickly. Not to please the world, or her husband, or even to release herself from the bizarre bonds that she has forged -- but for the children. Their reactions to her going to the bathroom alone are a response to her telegraphed need for them to need her. Clearly a woman who wants to excel in what she does (not a bad thing) and who is perhaps fixated with perfection, she now wants to do mothering to the extreme.

Help your kids grow into healthy human beings by giving them the chance for an hour, or even a day, without Mom. Let them know the joy of Dad (who must feel totally marginalized by now), or Grandma, or a friend down the street, or a babysitter. Let them not be afraid of independence and bravery and new experiences.

Love them, and give them a little space. The seduction of baby love is wonderful, but your children are really not just a part of you. They are themselves, and it's time for you to accept that.

-- Patrice Fitzgerald

Befuddled Breeder, you are allowing yourself to be manipulated by your kids. (Yes, by 12 months old, kids are gurus of emotional manipulation.) More importantly, you are putting your kids and your husband in an untenable situation.

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Why don't your children feel comfortable being alone with their own dad? Do you (unintentionally) shut him out? Do you take care of everything -- the baths, the food, the upsets and the bedtimes? I have no doubt that you are a good, loving mom, and that you feel you care for your kids better than anyone can, but you have to give them a chance to develop a relationship with their dad. Send them out to play in the yard together. Have him read them stories at night. Send them to a park. Go away for two hours, then three, then four. At some point, go away for eight and spend the day with friends. Don't call home. Don't check in. Have faith. Believe in your husband.

Will there be rocky moments? Yes -- but he loves them and they will all be OK. They will be better than OK. Your kids will feel much safer knowing they have both a mother and a father that they can depend on. They will also learn that when you leave, you always return to them.

Once you master the mom/dad switch, try a babysitting co-op or swap nights out with some other parents you know. I realize that these may seem like giant steps, but you, your husband and your kids need to take them.

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-- Catherine Van Praag

I, too, had a couple of years in which I took the kid's car seat into the bathroom while I showered, breast-fed my toddlers over a dozen times per day and refused a babysitter for my oldest until she was 18 months old. However, one day I started crying and couldn't stop -- and soon I got the kid to stay in her own bed, started going out on occasion, and decided to nip the codependency crap in the bud.

It is my opinion that the only way to make one's children respect you is to learn to respect yourself first. Little children do not need to be directing the household -- they need to learn how to be healthy individuals from their parents' firm but loving direction. If kids don't feel secure at 3 years old, I can't help but think that this mother is probably perpetuating a codependency. Wouldn't she prefer her children to be confident little humans rather than spoiled dependents who are only happy when basking in her presence?

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-- D. Wells

Cary, the problem with your correspondent and her kids is not that she feels bad when she is separated from them -- it is that they feel bad when they are separated from her. I thought that the idea that they are clingy and worried for a long time after her return even when she is away for an hour was a true red flag -- that means that they have no trust that she will return, because they haven't experienced her going away and returning. They think that every separation is possibly permanent.

She is in for big trouble if she keeps this up. Having children is about training them, and one thing you have to train them to do is live a normal life, which means people, even Mom, come and go. In addition to that -- they don't like to be with Dad, even for an hour? Why not? That's very bad. The whole family system is out of whack and headed for the rocks. She needs to get some counseling soon.

-- Jane Smiley

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I read the letter from "Befuddled Breeder" with some dismay. As a mother who came from a dysfunctional family herself and had her one and only child at 37, I can understand the impulse to hang on to a child -- but not the extreme measures (I'd be tempted to call it inverted selfishness) B.B. manifests. I also want to add that, in the course of my 18-plus years as a high school teacher in a middle-class area with lots of stay-at-home mothers, I've seen more than my share of youngsters who have been crushed by adoring parental attachment. Motherhood is not an excuse to ignore your marriage partner, or to elevate your child into a substitute spouse or best friend, or to make the poor mite your sole vocation. The harm that can be done, socially and emotionally, is incalculable. Cary, your advice -- to get some help -- was right on the money. I only hope that it gets done before it's too late for all parties concerned.

-- A. Wright

I expect that many letter writers will harshly denounce "Befuddled Breeder." As a mother who has dealt with similar feelings, I want to offer some constructive advice.

I urge Befuddled Breeder to attend meetings of local chapters of La Leche League and Attachment Parenting International, and if this is not possible, to connect with parents in those groups via phone support or e-mail lists. She will meet other mothers who have struggled similarly to find balance between being available to their children and having time to themselves.

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My own parenting style might be considered "extreme" by some. I have had many days without a shower, and my son was 2 years old the first time my husband and I left him with a babysitter so that we could have an evening out alone. We never left him with a babysitter during the day until he was 20 months old.

We do not feel that this stunted his development. On the contrary, his secure foundation allows him to enjoy playing with his babysitters. We respected his needs when he was at the age of separation anxiety. Now he cheerfully waves goodbye to us when the babysitter comes over, in stark contrast to many children who cry and whine when their parents leave them with other caregivers.

I would encourage Befuddled Breeder to start by allowing her husband more time to take care of their children, especially the 3-year-old. Her children will benefit from having a stronger bond with their father. Perhaps she can stay home with the nursing child while her husband takes the older child to the park, the zoo or just outside the house to throw a ball around. As she becomes more confident that her husband can handle child care, and that her children will not fall apart, she will be able to leave both children with him for short periods.

When she feels ready to find a babysitter, I would advise her to seek out people who have worked long term for friends she trusts. The first few times the babysitter comes over, she can stay home (paying the sitter for her time, of course) to allow the children to become comfortable with the caregiver. She can gradually spend more time in another room while the sitter is there. Once she can hear that her kids are OK, it should help her feel more comfortable spending time away from her children.

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Counseling, as suggested by Cary Tennis, is also a good idea, but she's probably not going to be able to start counseling right away if she currently can't even leave her kids long enough to have a decent shower.

-- Laura Belin

You're probably going to hear a great deal from people, degreed or otherwise, who want to blast this poor woman out of the water for ruining her children -- but some kids are just plain clingy, especially when they're small, and trying to push them away only makes them worse. On the downside, it means that it's hard to do anything without them for a few years. On the upside, you never lose them in airports or shopping malls.

I didn't feel good about leaving my baby with a sitter until he was about 2 or 3. I nursed him for just over three years, and I slept in the same bed with him past the point most people considered reasonable. At 10, he's quite happy in his own bed, a transition made without trauma, thoroughly enjoys sleepovers and has no stage fright whatsoever. He is also very careful about new things and people, and I'm grateful for this. I have little fear of him falling prey to the Internet's dark side because this is a child who looks before he leaps and questions everything. When he was very small, it took the form of crying inconsolably every time I tried to leave him with someone else or, yes, take a shower or go to the bathroom without him. Now it comes in the form of needing to be quite sure of people and situations before he joins in, a very sensible attitude in this world.

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We think it's wonderful when babies trust easily, and will happily go with everyone and do whatever they're told, but is that really what we want in, say, a 14-year-old girl? Yes, certain personality traits are inconvenient and indecorous in the very small, but they can be real assets in later life. My experience is that the "What happens when ...?" threats rarely materialize. My son is not suffering in the ways predicted for him when he was small and, in the eyes of many, excessively dependent on me.

Attachment parenting isn't child abuse, even if it is a bit outside the mainstream. A subscription to Mothering could go a long way toward easing this woman's fears, if in no other way than by telling her that she is not alone and that her kids are not going to turn out to be monsters because she listened to their distress and her own instincts.

-- Ann Regentin

B.B.'s children are not being adequately socialized. Most 3-year-olds are in play groups or preschool and have friends they visit without their mothers. Her children's overdependence on her is a learned behavior -- one that she has encouraged. If she can't figure this out herself, her husband should intervene. She is hurting her kids by not letting them spend time with people other than herself. And it's creepy! Can't she see how her "devotion" is nothing more than self-aggrandizement by proxy? She might rent "Mommie Dearest" and then take an hour off from the kids two or three times a week to get some therapy.

-- Nancy Magargal

Please tell this mother to enjoy every day she possibly can with her children. Each one is a wonderful gift. That she is as devoted to them as they are to her is a blessing that should not be diluted by her worldly concerns or anyone else's expectations.

I, too, was a model marketing lady. My beloved son is now 20 and still my very best friend, because I realized that nothing I could ever do in my professional life would possibly compare with the fun (yes, FUN) of raising my glorious child.

No one else matters besides her kids. Really.

-- Allena Hansen

I, too, am the mother of two children who are about the same age apart. I will not offer pronouncements on the way life should be and the absolute rules that she should be following, because I really do believe that these are subjective. I will, however, offer this: A parent's job is to work herself out of business. Of course, that doesn't mean she should be pushing the 3-year-old out the door for a paper route or expecting him to start dinner while she breast-feeds his sibling on the sofa. But it does mean that mothers should be preparing their children to become members of society and autonomous beings who have their own lives. To do otherwise, to perpetuate and encourage utter dependency, is irresponsible and harmful to your child.

Of course these children who have never even had to establish their own independent breathing patterns might fuss a bit as their mother begins to make that necessary definition between where her life starts and her child's life begins, but she should keep that in perspective.

You can't prevent childhood disappointment. It's both impossible and dangerous. The world does not, and should not, revolve around us. And it's a parent's job to prepare the child for a world where she is only one of many. That's why they cut the umbilical cord at birth, not later on -- to keep it from being shut in the door of the school bus on the first day of kindergarten.

-- Rebecca

I smell trouble for "Befuddled Breeder" and her children. When a child says he cried because you were in the bathroom, he doesn't realize he's being emotionally manipulative, but that's what's happening. When a mother responds with sympathy and guilt, she's disempowering him and justifying his unfounded panic.

My husband's parents were similarly omnipresent in his early life, never once leaving him with friends or using a sitter. (Well, they tried once when he was 6, but his panicked screams trumped that plan.) Subsequently, he had a terrible time transitioning to college, and our marriage is full of dependency issues: He has anxiety attacks when I go grocery shopping; he despairs if I try to have a girls night out. And his relationship with his parents is still emotionally fraught, with his mother worrying about him frantically and habitually. That's no more fun for us than it is for her.

A little distance from time to time is healthy! It's wonderful for children to have attentive parents, but they need to learn that they'll be fine on their own one day, too.

-- Name withheld

This is a supportive response to the frantic young mother who "can't leave her kids for even an hour!"

A recent book, "A General Theory of Love," explores the psychobiology of childbearing and rearing, and, ultimately, supports her attachment style of parenting. Some might think this young mother's style is extreme, but many neuroscientists and psychologists believe that children need their mother's love and attention just as much as they need oxygen.

The American mentality surrounding infants and young children is, more often than not, to sever emotional and physical ties with a baby as soon as possible to teach the child independence. Today, researchers are uncovering that this style of parenting is not only an anomaly in human civilization but also extremely detrimental to the child's future well-being, creating the sociopaths and depressives with which our society seems to be teeming.

In short, parenting style is a very personal decision. Yet, contemporary science supports parents' decision to be extremely close with their children, and even deems it natural. Therefore, my advice to this young mother is to read up on this subject when her babies have drifted off for a nap and, after careful self-examination, determine if her way is, in fact, healthy attachment parenting.

-- Michelle

We are here to launch our children into the future, to paraphrase Kahlil Gibran. We are here to show them that they're OK without us. And children cry. They do so to develop their lungs, they do so when they're hurt, and they do so because it gets them what they want. It's this last point that the mother needs to realize. It is simply not OK to always give children what they want; it may not be what they need. She is depriving their father of being a partner in child rearing, it sounds like, and she is every day making her kids less independent, less healthy, less happy. Of course, don't abandon them. But they should bond with others -- otherwise, imagine the future.

-- Christina Smerick

Cary, your advice to the woman who can't leave her children was truly terrible. There's nothing wrong with her behavior at present? There's a lot more to this than not being able to go on Boy Scout trips. This woman is courting disaster. Consider the following entirely plausible scenarios:

What if the mom dies or is injured? Moms die all the time. The kids will freak out -- if they can't be alone with their father for five minutes, how are they going to do it for the rest of their lives? This woman is not able to see their long-term best interests. She'll say she's so incredibly careful, nothing would ever happen to her, but sometimes, for example, moms drop dead of aneurysms. It is essential that her children have a backup caregiver with whom they feel comfortable. These things happen.

What if Mom's obligations to others become pressing? Perhaps Grandma has a stroke and needs 911? Will precious minutes be lost because the kids can't stay with their own father? What if Mom is called for jury duty? We have obligations to society as a whole, not just to our own children, and this woman is basically abandoning everyone else.

What if her husband leaves? Why would he stay married to someone who can't consider her children's best interests, won't give him a second alone with them to practice parenting, and doesn't have sex? The poor guy! She is not allowing him to build a one-on-one relationship with his children. Her unwillingness to teach them even a tiny bit of emotional self-reliance may end up costing them their family. Ask any child of divorce -- having married parents is well worth some separation anxiety.

Seriously, Cary, what were you thinking? You don't have to be a woman to figure out the potential problems here. Please, tell her she must teach her kids to cope without her now, before something terrible happens.

-- Mona


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