My kids don’t need me.
The Messenger, 2, started a new day care part-time two weeks ago. It was his first time in a group setting other than church. The first day was a gradual entry day, designed to help kids and their parents with the separation anxiety that can often accompany new surroundings.
I asked his babysitter to meet me at the school that first day about 15 minutes before the class started (it’s an afternoon program.) He and I sat and shared a banana, and then entered the room at the scheduled time. We got his name tag and introduced ourselves to the teachers and other children. Then came time to play for about 45 minutes.
The Messenger, after seeing all the toys and the outside area, quickly moved away from me into the room. He played in the water and the sand, climbed on the play structure, painted a picture. All without looking back at me once.
In order to reduce the anxiety, the teachers had told us that when we needed to leave to clearly tell our child where we were going and when we would return. I needed to use the restroom, so I knelt down at his level and told The Messenger that I was going to the bathroom and I would be right back. Without any eye contact, as he was busy playing with trains, he said, “Okay.”
I left the room. On my way to the bathroom, I ran into my former neighbors who were about to have twins any day. I talked to them and their family for about 15 minutes, forgetting all about my statement that I would be “right back.” Finally I remembered, rushed to the bathroom, and hurried back to the classroom.
The Messenger hadn’t missed me at all. He’d moved on to another activity and was talking with a teacher while driving an imaginary car. Deep in conversation (as deep as one can get with a two-year-old) the teacher and the Messenger barely acknowledged my return.
Over the last two weeks, the Messenger has been dropped off by his babysitter at the new school, and I pick him up in the afternoon. Parents typically arrive around story time, giving us the opportunity to share in the last few moments of school and creating the sense of family that I have always admired about this school. Most of the children, when they see their parent enter the room, run over to jump in their parent’s lap and snuggle up for a few songs and a book.
But not The Messenger. He generally will acknowledge my presence, with a smile and a meeting of the eyes, but he doesn’t run over to me. Often he will continue in his place at the carpet, sitting alone, or will climb into the lap of a teacher. Other times he’ll walk around the room, necessitating a teacher or myself to bring him back into the fold, sitting on the carpet with everyone else. Not once in the last two weeks has he actually sat in my lap.
And I’m okay with that.
I see some of the other parents give me a sort of pitying smile, wordlessly saying, “Oh, that must feel awful that your baby doesn’t want to sit with you.” Some will even say, “Oh, he must just be having so much fun…” as a way to make me feel better about his nonchalance regarding my presence. But I don’t feel bad. I feel relieved. He doesn’t need me.
At home, my children are all over me. We have two couches, but right on top of Mommy is exactly where they want to be. From the moment they see me, I feel as if I have three additional appendages, with one kid on my arm, another on my leg and a third holding my hand. We snuggle so much but as they’ve gotten older and bigger I’ve now started to create a little more physical distance between us, gently saying, “Mommy needs a little space right now. I’d like you not to touch my body.” (Okay, usually not that gentle and loving. Usually it’s just, “Back up off me!”)
But out in the world, my kids are among the most independent kids I know. My older two spend two months every summer with their grandparents, and last summer, I only got about one call once a month. (My daughter calls me more now as she’s gotten older, but I think it’s more about using a phone by herself than actually needing to talk to me.) They don’t need me. In fact, I get letters like this:
The Messenger is the most egregious in his personal space violations at home…
but out in the world, he’s comfortable with distance. He doesn’t need me.
Now, of course, they actually do need me. I provide them clothes and food and shelter. Yes. And of course, I provide them love. But they love I provide is a secure love, not a stifling love. A love that says, I’m here and available, but you’re all right by yourself too. A love that encourages closeness, but also encourages freedom. A love they can trust.
While I often get down on myself about my parenting because I’m concerned that there is something I could be doing better, I am so proud of myself for raising little people who are able to exist in the world on their own. They are like bungee cords – they take steps towards independence little by little, each time bouncing back to me, but each time not as close. But they are still tied, because they are still little. They still need me to provide the sustenance that allows for the freedom to move in and out, back and forth.
Some parents want to be what their kids need all the time. I see it with some of the parents of the two-year-olds at the day care — they are still sitting in class with their child two weeks in, even though it is obvious to me that their kid doesn’t need them there. What is clear that the parent needs to believe the kid needs them. When your kids seem to be moving away, some parents want to hold on. Maybe that’s all they see themselves as — this kid’s parent.
I’m more than my kids’ parent. And because I relish being more, I’m okay with my kids moving away and coming back, a little less each time. I can’t do what I do if I always have three kids hanging on me, or if I feel guilty that they want to hang but they can’t.
So I am thankful that my kids don’t need me every second of every day. Not even every minute. Nor every afternoon. Not even every month.
This whole operation could not work any other way.