For the first five and a half years, my daughter, Gabby, was deeply attached to me. Anymore attached, the kid would have been back inside my womb. It was an intense kind of need that made any kind of separation from me more dramatic than a Shakespearian play, and usually left both of us in tears; her from a fear of never seeing me again, and me from a powerful feeling of guilt and helplessness.
I remember one incident, when she was 4, and she had a sleepover with another girl. Because I am a single mother and rents in Manhattan are ridiculous, we live in a one bedroom apartment. I wanted to give the girls their own play space, so I slept in the living room. My daughter woke up in the middle of the night panicked, and asked me how I could just leave her like that. I tried to rationalize that the other kid’s mom was a good 30 minutes away and she seemed to be moving through life OK, so perhaps Gabby’s feelings of abandonment were somewhat misplaced.
I worried that she would have this unnatural attachment to me that would carry through her life. I was concerned that this would impact her ability to grow into a self-confident independent woman. I had visions of myself packing my bags alongside her when it was time to go to college. I was also worried for myself. I had friends and family to help out with her, but all it did little good if she would never want to stay with them. The result was that I had very little alone time for the better part of a half a decade. I was tired and burnt out, and not looking forward to my own next step: going back to college in 13 years.
And then one day it all abruptly changed.
It was as if she went to sleep as one version of herself and woke up a completely different child. Suddenly, sleepovers at other children’s houses were commonplace, separation at school was a breeze and she seemed completely over her mother. We were on the way to school one Monday morning and I told her to have a great day and that I would miss her. She replied that since she spent the last two days with me, she hoped it would be OK if she didn’t miss me back. Ummm…what?????
I tried so hard to rationalize that this was a good thing, a sign that she was growing up, becoming independent, and I no longer have to worry about joining a sorority in my mid-50s. But I couldn’t do it. I felt completely heartbroken and rejected. She was the great love of my life. I was supposed to be hers. I couldn’t imagine what could have prompted this behavior (also known as the ultimate betrayal). I have no other children, I am lucky to be able to take care of her and show up to all her school functions, I interact with her, I care for her, and now this. I was at a loss as to what to do. I even Googled “when your 5-year-old no longer loves you.” Life was all of a sudden completely kicked off kilter.
I spent a long time trying to sort this out in my head and figuring what could have gone wrong. And then I came to realize that, nothing did. I am the problem, not her. My job is not to create a clingy little kid who can’t live without me. My job is to raise a child with a strong sense of individuality. She should go out into the world and do the best she can do on her own. Her independence is not my failure; it is my success.
Of course, I do miss the old times. Although it was completely overwhelming, it did give me this great sense of purpose. I could proudly walk through the streets with my martyr mother badge, on while looking completely disheveled and haggard from never having any time on my own, but feel proud of my central role in her life.
I have since come to appreciate that Sunday brunch with friends is an attainable goal alongside getting dressed and showering on my own. I am also getting used to this new independent little lady.
But just in case life suddenly changes again, I decided to start studying for my SATs.