Maeve is moving to California later this month and I feel like someone’s placed my heart in a large vise that’s slowly clamping shut. I’ve only met Maeve a few times, but she looms large in my imagination. She is one of my son’s best friends, one of his first-ever friends. They met through their nannies in the park in our Brooklyn neighborhood when they were infants — Noah was just 2 months old — and, since then, they have spent most of their afternoons together, along with a small crew of playmates. It’s his very own social circle that is a constant source of fascination and curiosity for my partner and me.
Noah adores Maeve and, at 18 months, he remains blissfully unaware of her impending departure. I suspect that when she finally boards that plane at the end of January, he won’t understand in any concrete way that she’s gone from his life forever. And yet I wonder: Will he notice her absence when he meets up with their posse at the playground the next day? Will he notice a week later?
Researchers have found that children under age two can form and retain memories of earlier experiences (although they don’t typically retain the memories into adulthood). Will Noah experience a sense of loss when his friend leaves town? Will he be sad? Would it be weird if I called Maeve’s parents and tried to talk them out of the move? How can I stop it?
A few days after Noah was born, I wept inconsolably because it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to protect my perfect, precious child from the kinds of pain, sadness, fear, rejection, disappointment, devastation, and even tragedy that are unavoidable pieces of human life.
The idea of him experiencing any emotional or physical pain was almost too much to bear. I desperately devised a plan whereby he would be shielded forever. With hormones raging and all the irrational thoughts that accompany the state of mind of a woman who’d recently been in labor for 36 hours, I told my partner that I would never let Noah out of my sight, ever. We’d homeschool him; we’d buy a two-family house and he could live above us when he grew up; he would never ride a bike or drive a car or get on a roller coaster or take the subway (ptui ptui ptui).
Naturally, these wild thoughts subsided along with the hormones, and I no longer aspire to raise my child as a recluse. That plan has been replaced with a growing acceptance that, no matter how hard I try to protect him, Noah will feel pain and loss at times in his life — and I will feel it too, and it will ache to depths within my soul that I never knew existed.
I realize now that this is just a part of being a parent — my parents surely still feel that way about me, as their parents did for them, and so forth. It’s possible that I read about this phenomenon before I had my own child, and friends with kids might have talked about it over drinks, but their words fell on deaf ears. It’s like going through labor: You can’t feel it until you feel it.
As Maeve and her parents prepare to pack up their apartment and head to the west coast, I’m trying to focus on the flip side of all this. While I know I’ll suffer Noah’s sufferings and experience his pain as my own for the rest of my life, I’ll also feel his happiness with unimaginable joy and celebrate his successes with immense pride and satisfaction.
I try not to lose sight of that when the rabbit hole of worry opens up. And when I do inevitably dip a toe in that hole, I intend to counter my anxiety by remembering that I can guide my son on a path to a life where love, creativity, fulfillment, friendship, and laughter far surpass disappointment, tears, and pain.