Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leavetaking

This morning, something went wrong when I dropped the baby off at his daycare, which is in an apartment in the high-rise around the corner. Usually, there is no fuss at all. I unbuckle the stroller, and he jumps down and runs off to consult with his little friends (or rather underlings - he's the oldest one there, and he runs the show) or eat some Cheerios or sprawl comfortably on the floor to watch The Backyardigans on Noggin. He often does not even look at me when I tell him goodbye. This morning, however, something went tragically wrong. We (his babysitters and I) cannot quite reconstruct what happened, but we think his finger got a bad pinch in some stroller part. In any case, he was holding onto his stroller, and as I lifted him for a hug, I felt some resistance as though something might be caught, and then he suddenly began crying violently as though in pain - the red-faced variety of scream-sob with long, open-mouthed silences in between each effusion. He turned away angrily from all gentle ministrations on the babysitters' part, clutching at me and burying his head in my shoulders. After a long time, he accepted a cracker and his bottle, and it seemed as though things were wrapping up, but when I tried to put him down, he clung to me like a monkey, spouted a new torrent of tears, and began pulling at my shirt, which is his not-particularly-sophisticated signal for breastmilk. I did not, however, want to nurse him. At that point, I had already been at the daycare for ten minutes or so, and nursing would mean at the very least ten to fifteen minutes more. Plus, I had just nursed him before leaving the house, so I knew he was not in desperate physical need. Plus, and I am ashamed to say that this might have been the most important reason in my mind at the moment, I was not wearing a nursing-friendly shirt, so I would have had to more or less strip from the waist up in order to nurse. In any case, it did not seem like the right time to get on that particular train, so I kissed him and hugged him a few more times and gently handed him over to the babysitter. He threw his head back and screamed; I heard him sobbing all the way down the hall as I made my way to the elevator.

When I tell people about moments like this, they often say things along the lines of, "Well, you had to do it," or "It's good for him" (meaning the baby), or "It's good for both of you" (meaning me and the baby). For example, I have an acquaintance who has been a daycare worker for many years, and when I told her about the play and the toppings, thinking only that it was a funny story about the changeablility of childhood desires, she said, "You shouldn't have gone back to him. You have to just go sometimes. Just let him cry, and it's better in the long run for both of you."

Now, basically, I agree. I agree that, regardless of the tears it may cause, one has to leave one's baby from time to time, whether to go to work or go grocery shopping or do yoga or take a walk or see a movie or do nothing at all. I also agree that it is a good idea to get a baby used to being cared for by a few people who are not Mama. I also agree that dithering in the doorway while your child cries for you to come back can be pointless, painful, and annoying, and that coming back after leaving can make it even worse. But, as Clara Littledale put it and Jill Lepore reiterated, there's danger in overplaying the role. A die-hard you-have-to-do-it-and-it's-good-for-him stance turns a blind eye to the complexity of the situation at hand, and, more specifically, the fundamental cruelty of the moment of leavetaking.

This morning, my baby's finger hurt and he wanted to cuddle and nurse more than anything else, and I left him for reasons that were unimportant - I didn't feel like staying at the daycare for any longer, and I didn't feel like lifting up my shirt. Whether or not this was "okay" is beside the point - okay or not in the big picture, it was, fundamentally, a mean action taken against someone with no defenses. To ignore this essential truth about such moments is to ignore your child's basic humanity, as well as the fact that your relationship with your child is like any other human relationship, not one-way and black-and-white, but reciprocal and full of vagaries and subtleties that do not always respond well to hard-and-fast principles. In the case of the play and the toppings, for instance, my gut instinct was that something had gone horribly wrong, and that I had to go back and fix it, regardless of what I generally think about extended leavetakings. This instinct turned out to be more or less correct: there was a far better way to handle the situation - a way that would not result in short-lived but complete heartbreak on everyone's part - and my going back allowed us to find it.

It is not my contention that any one of these moments is a "big deal" on its own, or that any single decision of this sort will have a lasting impact on your relationship with your child. Indeed, while I am happy that I went back that one time, I know that things would have been just fine if I hadn't. But the aggregate of such decisions doesn't just affect the relationship - it is the relationship. To routinely refuse to acknowledge - even if only in your thoughts - the validity of your feelings and your child's at these moments, and to continuously harden your heart to the very notion that such moments might be legitimately painful, is to work purposefully towards emptying your relationship of emotional responsiveness. I am perfectly aware that this statement has a rather hysterical ring to it, but I think that, in the end, it is nothing more than plain logic.

All of this thinking, though, all of this rhapsodizing about emotional responsiveness et ceterblah, does not find me in a different place from most other days. I dropped off my kid this morning - left him howling at daycare - and came home by myself to do what I want to do. Or rather, what I don't want to do. My DONA training and certification binder is hulking on the counter next to me; today, after twelve births and as many months of procrastination, I intend to finally get to work on certification.

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