Wanting Mommy, Wanting Daddy

Nobody in this picture was happy. The toddler wanted his mommy, no ifs ands or buts, and was loud in his protests about the separation. The mom, hating to see her beloved so unhappy, and knowing that her presence would be the ultimate comfort, was terribly torn about going. And for the dad, from whose arms his son was struggling to get free, the nightmare may have been the worst. Wanting nothing more than to be with and love his wonderful little boy, he got to be loudly and absolutely rejected.

The saddest part is that this is not just one isolated incident, but the norm. Toddlers are crying every day for their mothers. Mothers are feeling torn and guilty for leaving (whether for ten minutes or the whole day). And fathers, if they haven't opted out of the childrearing process right from the start, are feeling pushed in that direction regardless of their tremendous desire to be close. In the face of such an intense mother/child relationship, how can they compete?

I think there's hope. Separation used to look to me like children wanting their parent (i.e., mother) plain and simple. Mom leaves, child starts to cry. The conclusion seems obvious. But I began noticing that some of them cry even harder when their moms come back. Others do stop crying immediately and burrow into some comfort zone that they've found with mom. But it often doesn't look as if they're done being sad; they've just figured out how to use her as a pacifier to plug the feelings up.

What if the tears aren't just about mom leaving? What if mom's leaving just breaks the dam to let out all the stored-up feelings about everything that has been hard, all the little frustrations, every time that hasn't been right? If that's the case, then there's room for dad in this picture.

The toddler crying for his mom from his dad's arms, then, is not saying, "You're hurting me by keeping me from the one I love the best." Rather, he's saying, "When she goes, it brings up all my feelings about everything, and I can't use you as a pacifier in the same way." The test of this theory is easy. When mom has left, if a third person suggests the possibility of taking that child from his dad's arms, he'll reach and cry for dad with just as much desperation. It isn't at all that he doesn't want his dad. It's just that the dam has broken and a lot of feelings are pouring out.

When this mom came back, it was practically irresistible for her to take the little boy from his dad, to rescue him, to use the comfort of that special relationship to stop the flow of tears. But it seems like that just reinforces the roles. If the child's relationship with mom is treated as more important, then she will continue to feel that this whole project is ultimately hers (for better or for worse) and to feel guilty about leaving him with dad. Dad, for his part, is getting the message loud and clear that he's peripheral to this project, that his love for his son somehow counts for less.

So I encouraged her to not gather him up in her arms. Rather, I encouraged her to leave him with his daddy, still crying and reaching, and to talk to him about how good it was to be in his daddy's arms. What a good, safe, loving place it was. How sorry she was that things didn't always go right for him, but how well his daddy would listen, and how glad she was to see him there.

The picture started looking very right. The little boy got to cry out his stored-up feelings with his father's undivided love and attention (and was delighted and bouncy afterwards). The dad got to be close and important in his little boy's life. The mom got a little space for herself, and then a chance to play a powerful role in drawing her partner into the heart of this work of parenting. It looked to me as if everyone won.