The Write Prescription: Separation anxiety

Finding the worst when everything is at its best.


A week after having a baby, my daughter had to make plans to attend a close friend’s wedding. The event was five months away, but it was in Los Angeles, so hotel and plane reservations had to be made.

“Do you want to come and help with the baby?” she asked.

I am not a fan of L.A. so I looked at the 7.5-pound baby that spent most of his time sleeping and said, “Why don’t you go and leave the baby here with me?”

And so, on June 9, holding the now 16-pound, very much awake baby, I watched from Frannie’s apartment window as she and her husband drove away. I wiped away my tears before they could fall onto Milo’s head. I remembered the first time I left Frannie when she was a baby, the pit in my stomach that took days to ease, the tears that made me look like I was in mourning. Frannie, I knew, was feeling that same heart wrench when she gave Milo one last kiss goodbye.

But the pit in my stomach was telling me something more. It was reminding me that when order is disrupted, bad things can happen.

Five months is an easy age — before separation anxiety, before solid food, before crawling and worries about fingers in electrical outlets or in the dog’s food bowl. My instructions were simple: Milo wakes up, eats, plays, and two hours later goes down for a nap. That was the pattern for the day, each nap getting shorter than the one before, until bath, bottle, and bedtime between 6 and 6:30. He would wake only once during the night, Frannie said, eat, and then go right back to sleep.

And that is exactly how it happened. Milo downed his bottles of defrosted breast milk followed by healthy burps. We went to the park and sat on the stoop to watch people coming home from work. Milo banged his head with his rattle, kicked his legs, sucked his toes, blew spit bubbles and vocalized, pulled my hair, took off my glasses, greeted me after each sleep with his still toothless smile. He did tummy-time until frustration got the better of him. I smooched his neck and cheeks. He slobbered on my face. He went for his naps with minimal whining, and when he did cry, I could soothe him.

But this was not what was happening in my head. In my head, his crying never stopped. I tripped carrying him down the stairs to get outside. I didn’t hear him wake up. He refused to drink from the bottle or go back to sleep at night. He felt hot. He clenched with colic. He stopped breathing in his sleep because I didn’t snap his sleep sack properly.

Still, there was something even deeper causing my ache, something in the pit generating these obsessive thoughts. For four days I looked at Milo as if he were an orphan. What if his parents never came home? This was my own childhood fear. I was always waiting for the bad thing to happen, and what could be worse than your parents never coming home? I don’t know when this fear began. Maybe when I was a toddler and my mother went away to have a nose job and returned bandaged and looking different. Or maybe it is rooted in her years-long mental disappearance, the depression that preceded her physical departure to a psychiatric hospital. When I went away to college I witnessed the unraveling of my parents’ marriage, and home became a foreign territory. And when I was 30, what I had dreaded most actually happened, when my mother died of breast cancer. But, most likely, it is just who I am. Always worried about loss.

I had these fears only occasionally with my own children, mostly when I was sick or warding off depression, when I felt I was on a different side of a window from them. I was bereft not just for me but for them.

The difference with Milo was that he wasn’t my child. I was trusted to keep him happy and safe for another person. And that person was my daughter, who called and texted to say how much she missed him. There was something about Milo not knowing this that broke my heart.

Which brings me to the one part of the abyss I avoided peering into. Last year, another of Frannie’s closest friends, a young woman who should have also been going to the wedding, died in a plane crash. She had left her little boy with her parents so she and her husband could have a first vacation together. Her son became an orphan. Did I believe this would be Milo’s fate? Not intellectually. Intellectually, I felt as if I were encroaching on the grief of another family. That I was being melodramatic. But the death of this young woman still felt so raw, so immediate, so unfathomable. We are all so terribly vulnerable.

Milo was sleeping when Frannie came home. She was tired but impatient for Milo to wake up for his middle-of-the-night feed. My head cleared. The ache moved from my gut to my muscles and joints taxed from carrying Milo and the stroller up and down two flights of stairs, from doing silly dances to keep him entertained, from rolling with him on the floor, from keeping my body in a defensive posture for four days. 

Earlier in the day I had reverted more to my role as mother rather than grandmother. I wanted to remove all stress for Frannie when she returned. The apartment was clean, all the bottles were washed, I put new sheets on the bed. The laundry was done. Except on top of the pile of folded baby clothes was a lone sock. I had lost its mate. I knew something would go wrong.