The news these past couple of weeks — families making what is surely a harrowing journey to our border only to see their children taken, to have to listen to their children shriek and cry for them, to have to imagine how their children are faring in some unknown place in some unknown city — has me thinking about what I take for granted every day as a parent: the ability to comfort and soothe my children when they need me. Specifically, it has me thinking of my middle child, who has required closeness from me since day one.
He was lifted out of my womb nursing the air, already searching for me, and for the first 36 hours of his life, he refused to let me put him down. He would stop crying only when he was nestled in the crook of my arm or nursing. I called it “nooking it,” because there was a very specific nook in my body in which he was happiest. For the first year of his life, he would not go to sleep unless I was the one to put him down. He would wake several times a night until he was well over a year old. He did not like being held by anyone but me. His first word was “Mama.”
Attachment theory tells us that a responsive caregiver ensures healthy attachment and growing independence in her child. A baby’s cry is his first attempt at communication: I need something. The parent’s response teaches the child what to expect. A parent who consistently responds to feed or soothe the child is teaching the child that he can rely on that caregiver, that his needs will be met, that he is safe. Likewise, an inconsistent or nonexistent response teaches the child that he is not safe, that his needs may be met only sometimes, or not at all.
By giving my middle child what he needs, again and again, he’s become more independent. It wasn’t always easy. He slept poorly the first 15 months of his life, needing me all night long, and I had to learn and relearn the grace of giving in to that need. Even now, his independence is ensured by the fact that the tether connecting us is never very long. I am the primary caregiver for my kids, so we’re together all day, and we stick to a pretty solid routine. When that routine is shaken up a bit — like this past weekend, when my husband took our boys to visit Grandma — he regresses.
This morning, the babysitter I’ve hired for a few hours showed up, and he ran shrieking from her into my arms. I successfully distracted him a bit so I could shower, but by the time I was finished, he was beside himself. Gasp-crying, hollow-eyed, devastated. I held him close and kissed him and told him I love him and I’m not going anywhere, which he knows, but it took a little while for him to calm down. Even now, he’s sitting beside me as I write, on a little stool, not willing to go into the other room and play Legos with his brother and the babysitter, lest he let me out of his sight for a second.
I get it. I was the same way with my mom. I’m also the middle child. I hated sleepovers, hated being away from the comfort of my home, but mostly I hated being away from my mom. I thought she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen; I remember asking my classmates in second grade if they’d ever seen anyone more beautiful when she stopped by the school to drop off a lunch. I had insomnia and would often sleep on the floor by her bedside. I would call her in the middle of the night to come fetch me from my friends’ homes, and I left sleepaway camp early in seventh grade. Even as a teenager, being away from her sent me spinning. My parents took a trip once and left us with family friends, and I cried each night. Hell, I even moved back to my hometown to attend college during my sophomore year, filled with that same relief I’d felt all those years ago, leaving camp in the rearview.
For the most part, my mom gave me what I needed. She was patient with my anxiety, and she always, always came to get me. It’s my belief that this patience — which lasted years and couldn’t have been easy — is what finally allowed me to develop real independence, to feel whole without her. When I was a kid, I thought she did this out of maternal obligation, that she was surely annoyed and fed up with my inability to cope, and I remember feeling so grateful to her each time she showed up. Now, as a mother, I know she gave me what I needed because she loved me more than I could fathom. That the tether between us meant when I suffered, she suffered. That she fed me in every possible way. That when I thrived, she thrived. That we were bonded psychically, emotionally, mentally, and by blood, and that bond needed nurturing for us both to be whole.
My son came into the world searching for me, wailing, only quieting when he was placed on my chest. There have been scientific studies showing that a child’s cries create a physical response inside their mother. Some mothers experience this as nausea, or anxiety, or fear. Giving the child what he’s asking for — food, or snuggles, or simply just appearing when he’s looking for you — calms those feelings in both mother and child and strengthens the very necessary bond, the tether that slowly grants the child his freedom.
What if that tether is severed, suddenly and irrevocably? What if the child cries for his mother or father and they never appear? Attachment theory says that it traumatizes the child. There have been reports that workers in these detention centers aren’t allowed to hold or comfort the children. Loving touch is essential to healthy brain development, and the lack of it can cause all kinds of harm, including the inability to form social attachments later in life. We shouldn’t need science to confirm the trauma this kind of separation can create. It should be as simple as imagining how we would feel, how we would want to be treated. I can’t imagine a world in which I know my child is crying for me, but I can’t hear him, and he can’t hear me saying, “Shh, shh, Mama’s here. Mama will always be here.” I can’t imagine a world in which my inherent right to protect my child is taken away.
My mom was present when I needed her, my entire childhood. It taught me how to be there for my own children when the time came. It taught me empathy, and confidence, and love. It made me want the same for all children and families. Please donate to RAICES and the ACLU, and call your congress members and demand that they permanently end the barbaric practice of separating families at the border and reunite those already torn apart. Then go hug your kids. Cry into their hair. Play Legos.