“Where are you going? Why are you leaving? Where is Nana? NANA?! WHERE ARE YOU???” This was Carl’s reaction when my mother walked around a corner. I’m not sure if he thought I’d done away with her, a black hole had gotten her, or that she possibly fled in fear. He had to see her to believe in her presence. Once we rounded the side of the house again he exclaimed, “Nana!” as if seeing her for the very first time.
The fear of abandonment runs deep in our children. When I think about it from their perspective, it makes sense. Children only know what is concrete and in front of them. The nuances of life outside of their experiences are lost on them. What our kids know about abandonment comes from their own personal history.
Their biological parents left them. Their foster parents left them. They changed schools, doctors, therapists, and homes more than once. In their experience adults leave. Some adults don’t come back. This is what they know.
For the most part, our children have started to believe that Luke and I will come back for them. Over the last two years we have amazingly been able to go to work, go to the mailbox, go to the grocery store, and even go to the bathroom while coming back. Every. Single. Time.
And then… the Littles’ therapist went on maternity leave. She left them. Of course, she had a very good reason to do so, and I am able to understand that. (OK, I’ll admit it. That little baby girl has seriously inconvenienced me! I mean, how could she be more important than my children. But, it isn’t polite to argue with a baby…) Carl and Mary, on the other hand, need to process that their therapist will, eventually come back. (Oh, please, please, come back!!)
I’m beginning to think that our children need their therapist more than a fish needs water. They’ve been with her for over a year, give-or-take. Through the last 2 years our kids have been through all kinds of therapy. Group therapy, inpatient therapy, intensive outpatient therapy, in-home intensive therapy and individual trauma therapy.
The most effective thing has been finding the right treatment providers. Therapists who were well versed in the effects of prolonged early-life trauma on kids. Therapists who believed that our kids could attach to us and would attach to us. People who believed in family, our family. I found it in the therapist who I see weekly. We were lucky in to find all that in a trauma therapist for Mary and Carl.
Since their primary therapist has been away on maternity leave, a lot of Mary’s past anxieties about being abandoned have come up. She is melting down into sobbing, gut-wrenching wailing tears daily. She hates for me to go anywhere or pay attention to anything other than her. She is fighting with Carl every day. To his credit, he tries very very hard not to fight back. Mary has had a few tantrums at night, screaming and throwing things, demanding to be tucked in over and over again. Refusing to lie down. Screaming at the top of her lungs that I am just like her bio-mom because I don’t love her and I am leaving her to go to bed. “You’re leaving me!! You’ll never come back!” she screams. Meanwhile, I am left sitting next to her bed wondering where I have gone.
Carl, bless him, has been working hard to control his anger. He is in an intensive group therapy program right now. Every day he tries to show me in little ways, that he loves me. That he loves Mary. That he is sorry he was smashing things and having violent rages a few weeks ago. He is still uncontrollably angry at times, but his fear is what I am seeing the most of. Fear that we will leave him. Fear that we won’t come back.
Every time my husband picks up an extra shift, Carl gets a tension headache. He crawls into my lap moaning and crying and clutching his head. “Why won’t he come back?” Carl sobs. When I ask him what hurts he tells me he has “a head anxiety,” because “Daddy is at work.” Sometimes his headaches make him throw up, if he is crying hard enough. Medicine doesn’t help. For Carl, the only cure that works is family.
After Luke came home the other night, he tucked Carl in twice. A half hour later, Luke and I were snuggled in bed watching “grown-up” TV shows when we heard a whimpering shuffling noise on the stairs. Carl crawled dramatically into our room and flung himself on the bed. His “head anxiety was too much to handle Daddy working,” he claimed. Carl squirmed into the middle of us, face down, in a fetal position. We all squished in tightly, and watched a more PG show. He tgradually relaxed into a normal resting pose. We just rubbed his back. After 20 minutes of snuggle, Carl had “enough of the Mommy and Daddy love” to feel better. While he went back to bed I pondered the fact that our mere presence could have that much of a healing effect. All we had to do was be there and love him.
All of this brings me back to their therapist who has shaped our family in so many ways. She has worked miracles in fighting that horrible early childhood trauma. She has helped our kids see that they are safe enough to attach to us. I realize that while she is home with her new baby, she is doing much of the same work. Her new baby is learning that family means safety and mothers give love. This child will grow up feeling secure in the fact that food, warmth, affection, and love are all things that come with parents. She is providing her baby with all the things I wish someone had provided for Carl and Mary. I find this comforting because, let’s be honest, my kids aren’t the only ones feeling this separation anxiety right now.
In the end it’s all about family, and ours is here to stay. Thank goodness we have a therapist who understands this. Now if she would only come back! Had anyone ever heard of therapists cutting maternity leave short after being offered homemade cookies???? Flowers?? A fruit basket…?
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**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*If you’ve ever considered foster or adoptive care, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure.