There is, perhaps, nothing more gut wrenching for a parent than the tearful, screaming goodbye. One that possibly involved a child latching himself onto your body, requiring another adult human being to disentangle him from you. You know, intellectually, that you are by no means abandoning your child (here’s why). And yet, the pain is visceral. The guilt can be agonizing.
My own boys have had waves of separation anxiety at morning drop-off at daycare or school, or when a babysitter has arrived at the house. When they both started daycare around the three month mark, they were too little to experience it as a painful departure. So we had it easy for a while.
But of course, as they grew into awareness of an impending goodbye, they each had their own bouts of difficulty separating from me and my husband in the mornings.
As parents, we probably all go through this struggle at some point or another. And while we know from our caregivers that our little ones recover in a matter of minutes, the painful goodbye can reverberate through us adults for hours. I’ll speak for myself in saying that it often takes me much longer to get over a child meltdown than it does for my kids. Their own memories of such events seem blissfully (often unbelievably) fleeting.
Transition objects are known to be helpful at times like these. The idea, of course, is for the child to have a comforting object she can keep with her when you leave. One that will help her make the transition to being away from you. And one that will remind her of you when you’re gone. (Daycares and schools don’t always permit these, though.)
Our daycare also had a song they used to soothe the kids: “They always come back. They always come back. Mommies and daddies always come back.” Books can help, too. (Some good examples include Owl Babies, and Llama Llama Misses Mama.)
One of the most useful tools in our own family’s separation anxiety toolkit, though, has been the goodbye ritual. A sequence of events that, when completed, ends the goodbye process, separates us from one another, and signals the next phases of our respective days.
For us, the process looks like this: (1) one “squeezy hug”, (2) one “squeezy kiss”, and (3) one push out the door. Yes, my children are quite literally permitted to push us, on our butts, out the door.
If memory serves, it was my husband who started the “pushing” part of this ritual, when my youngest was having a particularly rough week of goodbyes in his preschool daycare classroom. And it is, I deeply believe, the pushing part that is the brilliance of this ritual.
Why does it work? First, it has the effect of literally separating parent and child. The goodbye hug entangles us in a wonderful embrace, but makes it difficult to let go. The push creates the required space, which creates finality to the process.
Second, it empowers the kids. They are, in no other circumstances, permitted to push their parents. They can take their anger at the goodbye out in one huge push (that one sometimes now has the ability nearly to knock me over!).
And third, they find it hilarious. There is no better way to lighten the mood at drop-off than to create a situation where your kids think they are getting away with something. Or believe that they’ve become strong enough to topple you.
My boys are now 5 ½ and 7 ½, and much to my amazement, we still use this ritual. Many times a day, in fact. Not only will you find my second grader pushing me away on the playground at school drop off, but we also use it religiously at bedtime. One boy wanted me to put him to bed tonight but gets Daddy instead? There’s a hug, kiss, and push for mommy, then it’s off into the bedroom you go!
I admit, the benefits of this routine aren’t just for the kiddos. Earlier this week, I had to go on a business trip on September 11. Not exactly a day I wanted to be taking to the friendly skies. As I left my house that morning, a bit jittery, to catch an Uber to the airport, I, too, was grateful for our ritual. Their big push got me out the door, and prevented my own separation meltdown.
What rituals and routines do you use to help with goodbyes? Please share thoughts and ideas in comments below!
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave