I don’t know of any parent who hasn’t struggled with the issue of separation. What do we do when our babies start distinguishing us clearly from other caregivers--and don’t want us to leave?

There are lots of scenarios. I remember how differently two little one-year-olds handled separation at a little neighborhood babies group. One girl, who had gone into day care at six months, didn’t cry at all when her father left the play area for ten minutes with another parent--even though tears would have been warmly accepted. She quickly found something else to occupy her attention, busily occupied it the whole time he was gone, then didn’t particularly want to see him when he came back. Another child had been home full time, with his father as primary care-giver and mother in a home-based business. He cried lustily every time his mom or dad left, even for a minute, usually continued to cry hard until he was back in a parent’s arms, and often cried in his father’s arms about his mother leaving as well.

It seemed as if it should have been the other way around. Why didn’t the child who had his parents so much have enough slack to have them go for such a little bit of time? Why wasn’t the child who had to say good-bye so many times for whole days much more deeply grieved over yet another separation?

As I thought about it, however, I could see what might be going on for them. The little boy who stayed at home assumed that he had a right to be with his mom or dad all the time. They were the best and the safest in his eye, and the idea of being without either of them was an outrageous affront that he was not about to take lying down. The little girl in day care had already had too many painful good-byes. Why set herself up for another one if she could avoid it? By not fully allowing herself to take in the fact that her dad was leaving, and by immediately looking for an activity t hat could absorb all her attention, she could blunt the impact of the separation.

With such different care-giving situations, these two children faced very different challenges. The first one, outraged at the prospect of separation, had yet to experience the pleasure of the company of other adults. The second one, in protection against the pain of separation, could get backed into protecting herself from noticing the ones she loved. (I remember a longtime nursery-school worker friend commenting on how mad some children get at their parents at the end-of-the-day pick-up time--yet another manifestation of this whole phenomenon.)

Clearly, there is no one way to handle our children’s feelings around separation, since they take so many forms. But maybe there are some common themes. We can notice how our children are reacting, and accept their feelings, however they come up--without blaming either them or ourselves. We can encourage them to notice that we love them, even as we’re leaving or coming back, even if the noticing is painful. We can reassure them that we will always leave them with people who will keep them safe, that we will always love them, and that we will always come back.